A danced tale by choreographer Michel Fokine with music by Igor Stravinsky, The Firebird premiered at the Paris Opera on June 25, 1910 performed by Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. “Ivan Tsarevich one day sees a marvellous bird, all gold and flames; he pursues it without being able to catch it, and only succeeds in plucking one of its glittering feathers, thus begins the libretto taken from traditional Russian tales”. But it is not the portrait of this bird that we are going to draw, nor is it the one George Balanchine made in 1949 based on this theme about the 1945 orchestral suite for the New York City Ballet. Stravinsky who took three suites from his ballet in 1910, 1919 and 1945, said, “I prefer Balanchine's choreography for the 1945 version of The Firebird suite to Fokine's ballet ensemble and for the music as well – the music for the complete ballet is too long and the quality is inconsistent”.
Like Balanchine, we use the 1945 concert suite, Maurice Béjart, whose version I danced in 1979 at the Ballet du Rhin, having danced the shorter version from 1919 at the Paris Opera in 1970. A bird of hope, or a revolutionary icon guiding partisans wearing battledress, Béjart explained in his foreword, “Stravinsky, a Russian musician, Stravinsky, a revolutionary musician. […] The Firebird is the phoenix rising from its ashes. The poet, like the revolutionary, is a firebird”. For our part, we should remember that birds symbolise the connection between heaven and earth, even that the phoenix decaying to be reborn personifies the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of Christ in Christianity. For the rest, in his commentary on the score, the composer Reynaldo Hahn wrote in 1910, “a very pure, very strong breeze, coming from high above”. Hence the temptation to make The Firebird a courier of light bringing consolation and hope to the hearts of men, like Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of nature who conversed with his brothers the birds, whether they were beautiful, radiant with great splendour, or mere sparrows.
The rite of spring
The relationship between man and nature fascinates and worries Martin Harriague. Which he already evoked in his recent choreographic creations (Sirènes, Fossile, Serre) – the rebirth of the living, its power, the struggle for its survival – Stravinsky's iconoclastic and brilliant work for the Ballets Russes contains everything, and more. In many ways, The Rite of Spring was revolutionary progress, both in its choreography by Nijinksy and the score. Harriague decided to use the myth while respecting the composer's original intention illustrated by a pagan rite, “it is an obscure and immense sensation when nature renews its shapes, and it is the vague and profound disorder of a universal impulse,” Stravinsky explained in an article that Martin Harriague uses as a reference (CND, Montjoie magazine, May 29, 1913). Jacques Rivière, the NRF's insightful director, spoke at the time of a “biological ballet”, “spring in its effort, in its spasm… one would believe we were attending a drama under a microscope”. The complex rhythmic hammering that gives the work its wild and threatening force suits Martin Harriague's explosive and earthy body language. This time he renounces all physical lyricism because the music makes him do so; he concentrates on the expressive power of primitive movement and fractal figures through which the group coils, unfolds, contracts as the living reappears, and makes its way everywhere before exploding. To Nijinsky, who had dared to make this transgressive break with classical language, Harriague borrows the trampling of the spring Augurs who “mark the pulse of Spring with their footsteps”. The quotes from the original ballet stop there, but the entire piece shows a willingness to draw on the music's expressiveness, which was particularly brilliant under the baton of Teodor Currentzis, to bring Stravinsky's vision to life. One physically feels the wild energy and timeless fear that inhabits this group confronted with the violence of the living, purified by the rite. We perceive the savagery and the necessity of the final offering of the chosen one, a feminine principle embodying the energy of spring, the sap, pure and healthy, which rises, an allegory of the living that rises towards the light.