"The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of" ... Bogart, Shakespeare, The Maltese Falcon, Those Great Movies

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Return of the Firebird -- Blazing with Beauty

Movie musicals come in many forms -- Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music, the great fun of the Golddigger musicals of the 1930's, the famed MGM musicals of the 1940's and 50's -- but there are other musical movies as well.  I would like to share one with three definite stories performed in ballet. Return of the Firebird presents, as separate movies, Igor Stravinsky's The Firebird, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, and Stravinsky's Petrouchka.  In a review I wrote in May, 2010, I discussed the issue of watching movies about ballet vs. watching ballet itself. Some may believe ballet is something to be avoided or endured rather than a form of great entertainment.  However, Return of the Firebird, filmed at Russia's Mosfilm Studios, starring and directed by famed Mariinsky ballet star Andris Liepa, may just change your mind if you have never thought you would enjoy this art form. Liepa was determined to present the three ballets as movies, similar to silent movies in which the story is told in music, movement and gesture.  He did not want typical straight-view stage performances. As a result, the ballets are filled with beautiful special effects, camera work that focuses clearly and perfectly on the dancing, close-ups and designs, and even as a ballet lover, I have never seen anything close to this type of presentation, barring only the ballet sequence from The Red Shoes.

Return of the Firebird includes these three famous ballets in a tour-de-force movie production, all as re-creations of original Russian Ballet Russes seasons during the early years of the 20th century.  Costumes, scenery, choreography by Michael Fokine, are meticulously restored just as they were presented originally by the famous impresario Diaghilev and his Ballet Russe. These were the golden years of composers Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, famed dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, the incredible talent of choreographer Fokine, and the unmatched designs of Leon Bakst, Alexandre Benois and Alexander Golovin. These few years were to Russian Ballet as our year of 1939 is considered the Golden Year of Hollywood.

With all of those elements of incredible talent working at the same time, the three ballets of the Les Saisons Russes are lush with great music, eye-popping set designs, marvelous camera work, and costumes re-created in all of their glorious and bejeweled Russian splendor. Director and ballet star Andris Liepa performs in the three pieces. His wife Ekaterina Liepa and his sister Ilze Liepa complete the famous family of dancers in this production. In addition, the incredible talents of Nina Ananiashvili as the Firebird and Victor Yeremenko as the Golden Slave in Scheherazade raise the level of these performances to the Mount Everest of ballet

Petrushka is the story of a clown puppet who loves a beautiful girl puppet but is rejected. Stravinsky’s music is, as always, uniquely moving and the ballet is a popular part of any company's repertoire. It is beautifully presented, and well worth the watch. Liepa invited deaf and dumb actors from the Mimicry & Gesture Theatre and dancers from the Cossack Circle folk ensemble to bring their special talents to this unique rendering of Petrushka.

Scheherazade is one of my favorite pieces of music, heartbreakingly beautiful and dramatic. The storyline is set in a Sultan’s harem, full of sex, betrayal, adultery, rage and slaughter. What more could you ask for? Ilze Liepa, who plays the Sultan’s courtesan, is a marvel of sensuality and prima ballerina perfection. Victor Yeremenko as her forbidden love, the Golden Slave, is one of the best male dancers I have seen. Besides the obvious leaps and twirls expected of them, one mark of a great male dancer is his ability to come out of those incredible moves and be able to stop on a dime, no wobbling, completely still. Yeremenko is one of the best at all of these aspects.

The Firebird is to me Stravinsky’s greatest music, eerie, passionate, and thrilling. The story as presented here is mysterious, romantic, includes a hideous monster and his hellish minions, a ghastly-looking castle, kidnapped princesses, the handsome hunter, men turned to stone – just my kind of story. This is without doubt the best presentation of this ballet you will ever see. Nina Ananiashvili is just luminescent as the Firebird. Her costume and makeup are gorgeous, and her dancing transcendent. I have rarely seen a prima ballerina who can stand on toe, without support, as long as this lady can. It is really hard to find words to describe her performance that are not flamboyant or cliché, but I can’t help that – it’s all true.

I was lucky enough to find the entire Firebird ballet from this DVD on Youtube. I am posting it here in its 5 parts. Those who are interested will be able to watch the ballet in full. If you don’t have time, or don’t think you’d like it, I would urge you to at least watch Nos. 2 and 3 to get the idea of something very special.  You will see the Firebird, the maidens and the monster!  The whole ballet is only about 38 minutes, about the same amount of time as an old Seinfeld episode -- take a chance!

In summary, the story of The Firebird begins with a young hunter in the woods who stumbles across a dark and frightening castle, surrounded by men turned to stone.  A golden apple tree nearby shakes in the wind, and a fiery bird is seen approaching the tree.  The hunter tries to shoot her, then capture her.  She fights to be free, then offers the hunter a blazing feather for her freedom.  She then joyfully flies free.  The hunter sees a group of maidens come out of the castle and play around the tree.  He falls in love with the princess, but she must return to the castle after a certain time.  They are prisoners of the monster Kashchey (an ugly monster if ever there was one).  The hunter decides to try to free them, he is captured by Kashchey and his minions, and is about to be turned to stone.  He pulls the Firebird's blazing feather from his shirt, and she appears instantly.  The monster and his demons are powerless against her.  While the Firebird keeps everyone at bay, the hunter finds a luminous egg which contains Kashchey's soul and power.  He destroys the egg, the monster and friends go up in a puff of smoke, and the evil spell is broken.  The unfortunate men are returned to life, the maidens are reunited with them, the hunter and princess are together, and the story ends in fire and light and the most incredible climax of music Stravinsky ever wrote.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I.


  1. Becky,
    I found this post very interesting. Admittedly I've only seen one ballet and prefer a good play or opera. It was nice that you provided a link to Firebird. This post was also very colorful and visually appealing. HaHa
    I'm also glad you're feeling well enough to get back to blogging.

  2. Becky, you have created a visually stunning portrait of the beauty of ballet as captured on film. I have noticed, as I grow older, that my interest in art, books, music and poetry has changed and evolved over the years, discovering new passions, dismissing old favorites, but I have never lost my first love of ballet and classical music. I suspect it began when I saw THE RED SHOES for the first time, after reading the Andersen story, followed by Baryshnikov in both THE NUTCRACKER (PBS was glorious when I was a kid) and THE TURNING POINT (I suspect he provided the introduction for most young people in the 1970s and 1980s). Your background information reminds me of an exhibit at a local fine arts museum, which consisted of photographs taken from THE AFTERNOON OF THE FAUN and featuring Nijinksy. Leon Baskt’s contribution defined BALLET RUSSE as much as Michel Folkine’s choreography and Igor Stravinsky’s music (THE RITE OF SPRING appears in COCO AND IGOR, a contemporary film about the composer and the designer). However, I recently watched PARIS: THE LUMINOUS YEARS, a PBS production, which claimed that the BALLET RUSSE was formed in Paris by Russian expatriate artists but the troupe never performed in Russia. I had always assumed the troupe originated in Russia, but apparently Paris brought these artists together. Thanks again for introducing me to these films, THE FIREBIRD is truly stunning.

  3. Thank you for posting this, Becky. I'm going to break up the watching over several nights as I find the time. I love SCHEHEREZADE, too. I took my daughter to see opera and for several years we celebrated the holiday by going to see THE NUTCRACKER ballet. She loved it and has great memories of it. she will soon begin taking her own daughter. Maybe, who knows, there might be other ballets in my Julianna's future. :)

  4. Becky, I am not a huge ballet fan, but this sounds most intriguing. The color in the clips you posted is stunning!

  5. This post could not have come at a better time. Watching The FireBird once again has been truly enjoyable. The final score of "the firebird" always makes my insides tingle.

    I too also love Liepa's Scheherazade on this DVD. Victor Yeremenko delivers a stunning performance as the Golden Slave.

    Great review! I wish I could've been a dancer as a career. Unfortunately, my feet and circumstances have put me in a cubicle. lol

  6. Thanks, Page. As you say, the pictures and video are a treat for the eyes!

    Gypsy, I too began my love for ballet with The Red Shoes. My Father took me to a re-release of it when I was 14, and I fell in love. My passion is for these ballets particularly, partly because the music is my favorite. I did know that the Ballet Russe was not formed in Russia, and based in Paris, but I didn't know they had never performed in Russia!

    Yvette, if Julianna likes ballet, I hope you can show this to her. If the Firebird doesn't fire her up (groan, bad pun!), nothing will!

    Rick, I know ballet is not everyone's cup of tea, but the colors are absolutely stunning, aren't they? Also, you might consider taking a look-see -- the Firebird and the Princess are extremely HOT!

    Pat, you and I both love this DVD -- I so wish Scheherazde was on Youtube -- if possible, it is even more visually incredible! And like you, I feel the climax of the Firebird music right in the pit of my stomach!

  7. wonderful post...you are stepping into my "wheelhouse"...classical music...well done..I have seen parts of all three on CLASSIC ARTS SHOWCASE (on PBS and some cable networks)...totally familiar with the ballet suites...the full works would be a treasure indeed...especially LE SACRE DU PRINTEMP!!!

  8. Doc, Classic Arts Showcase has always been a real favorite of mine. You get to see so many special performances of the past. I would LOVE to see how this ensemble would do The Rite of Spring as Nijinsky did it. Very unusual!

  9. In the season of "The Black Swan" this is a very timely Oscar post. The passion and beauty of "The Firebird" is evident in your writing. I intend to watch every clip.

  10. Becky, What a beautiful article. I love the ballet and can not wait to see, THE FIREBIRD. THE NUTCRACKER, is one of my favorte ballets. I also have the film Red Shoes, in my DVD collection, which I treasure.

  11. Flickchick, I am definitely passionate about the music and ballets in this DVD. It's strange, I saw The Black Swan, but I've been wanting to write about these performances for a while. I didn't even think about Black Swan!

    Dawn, The Red Shoes has been dear to me since I was a kid. It's become a running joke in my family--I get kidded about it a lot. So much, in fact, that I have told all my family that a condition of my will is that they must watch at least The Ballet of the Red Shoes or they don't get anything! (I haven't told them they will only get about $1.78 each!)

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  13. REALLY??? I do not think THE RITE OF SPRING will ever see the light of day as a ballet...would loved to have been in the CHAMPS at the premiere..thanx again for the post, beuatiful pix and video!!