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July 2016
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Janni Younge Productions Reimagines Stravinsky’s “Firebird” by Blending Puppetry and Dance


Janni Young Productions combines dance and puppetry in a new version of Stravinsky’s “The Firebird”

Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird changed the history of dance when it premiered in Paris during the summer of 1910. It was the first ballet produced by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes with a completely original score, the first of several that Stravinsky would compose for the company, and the first work that brought Stravinsky significant notoriety. Later, he would go on to compose other works for the Ballets Russes including Petrushka, Pulcinella, Les Noces, and most famously, The Rite of Spring.

The Firebird is inspired by a mythological tale about a Prince who destroys an evil villain, Kastchei the Immortal, with the help of a magic bird. And while The Firebird has been staged and restaged by every major choreographer, a new version of Stravinsky’s classic ballet by Janni Younge Productions has something few other versions do: puppets!

While on a busy tour that makes a stop at Ravinia, just outside of Chicago, on Tuesday, July 26, 2016, Janni Younge spoke about her company’s unique production.

What first attracted you to The Firebird?

First, I think it was the fact that The Firebird has this mythological content behind the story. I have always been very strongly attracted to Russian mythology and fairytales because I believe they have an enormous resonance with us as human beings and so that has a big appeal to me.

I also was attracted to the music itself; the depth, the richness, the incredible variation inside of each piece and inside of the piece as a whole, which holds an enormous amount of content.

What was your approach to developing this unique production?

My first approach to making any piece is to try and find where I relate to the theme or whatever it is that I have chosen to work on. So I am really asking myself: what does The Firebird story mean to me, who are the characters for me, and who would they be in my world?

First I thought of the character of the Prince Ivan, who is a young person who’s kind of on a quest or rite of passage where he ventures into this dangerous place, this unknown world of Kastchei and encounters this incredible force of the Firebird.


Janni Younge creating a puppet for her production of “The Firebird”

That initial set up was very provocative to me and it felt very relevant to the journey of an artist, and particularly as a South African artist, which invovles going into a space of uncertainty and discovering something. It also reminds me of the space of our country as we are moving beyond this idealized world of the new democracy and beginning to look deeper into who we are as a nation. So I tried drawing parallels between the psychology of an individual going on a journey of self-discovery, social discovery, and societal discovery at the same time; that was the entry point into the work.

How did you begin to workshop your ideas?

Initially when we were working, we developed these metaphorical figures for the different key element in the production. We have this figure that we call a seeker, which is the equivalent of Prince Ivan who’s on a journey of discovery. Then there are all the forces and factors that the Seeker, who is a woman in our case, encounters. She encounters the Firebird, the figure of passion and inspiration, and then she also encounters self-doubt, societal doubt, anxiety, and the destructive and critical energy. We had those very clearly polarized.

Over a year ago, in May 2015, we held our first creative workshop. At that time we all began to explore and dig deeper into who these figures are and what they represent. It became very obvious to me and to my cause that the line between good and evil is not that clear; it’s not that all things creative are good and all things doubtful are bad, but actually there is a necessity both within ourselves and in our society to arrange those things into a relationship.


There is a growing tension between the forces of Kastchei,  the forces of doubt and destruction, and the forces of creation and the good. But then you start to see that turn around and as they confront each other, more and more they blend into one. The bird becomes abrasive and the beast becomes something that is almost protecting the figure of the Seeker as she seeks to defend her independence. It sort of twists and turns around itself until finally she is able to reach some kind of balance, and that is the figure we’ve created, a dragon that’s really a combination of the bird and the beast.

What is your philosophy to creating or working with puppets?

I think that puppet performance is an extension of the performer. A puppet is an inanimate object given life by a performance. Puppets have a reasonable level of complexity, particularly when there are a number of performers being completely devoted to a single puppet and to giving it life. It usually sets up a very interesting parallel and situation where we are supporting, generating, and giving life to energies that exist within us. For me that is a very interesting point about puppetry; there is an illusion going on, but it’s a transparent illusion. You can see that the puppet is not really alive but somehow, there is an illusion that it is. So that combination is a very exciting thing for me conceptually and I really enjoy working with that inside of the work that I do.


How do you think inanimate objects like puppets can move us in performance?

There is a moving quality in it because it is so fragile; you know that it can fall apart at any time. When you believe in it as an audience member, you’re giving so much to it; you’re giving so much to the performance when you chose to believe in it. I think it really has an evocative quality because of that. It wraps you up and involves you.

What artists do you admire?

Of course, William Kentridge, whose work I completely adore. I worked with him a bit over the past couple of years and he is just a wonderful human being as well as profoundly sensitive and amazingly moving artist. He goes forth communicating what is his real reflection of the world; he doesn’t add stuff just for the sake of adding things. I feel like his work has a real connection to his honest experience.

He has an extraordinary company. They create very dense illusions with puppet theater so that you are wrapped up in a world that is mysterious and surreal. He really opens the door to an unconscious world; it’s so seamless.


How do you think making work in South Africa fuels your creativity?

There is enormous drive inside of our creativity. There is a real wealth of culture and a drive towards perfection that we have as a nation. Inside the complexity of all of our culture there is an enormous amount of commitment to perfection and doing good work. There’s also this struggle to make something happen and then when you make it happen, it just has to come with a huge level of commitment. There are definitely huge challenges to overcome when creating artwork in South Africa.

Are there any South African artists whose work you admire?

Well I love the work of Lara Foot, she is the director of the Baxter Theater but her own directorial work is very extraordinary. She works up an amazing combination of storytelling, which is very emotionally delicate, and also includes a touch of magical realism. So she takes things that have a very ‘everyday’ quality and context and she shifts them sideways and brings elements that are very provocative. There is a fabulous artist named Andrew Jackson who works with the body, movement, body in relation to other bodies, but also storytelling at the same time. He is someone who extraordinary things with his own physical body and telling stories.

To learn more about Younge’s production of The Firebird and information about upcoming performances, visit the company’s website.

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