Classical tale turns modern allegory through puppetry

The Sun Valley Summer Symphony will open its Orchestra Festival on Monday, Aug. 1, with an innovative and daring retelling of Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” by South African director and puppeteer Janni Younge and choreographer Jay Pather.

An award-winning puppet creator and theater artist with the renowned Handspring Puppet Company, Younge’s vision transforms the Russian folktale, used by Igor Stravinsky and choreographer Mikhail Fokine for their lavish classical ballet, into a stripped-down, modern allegory for South Africa’s post-apartheid struggles for equality and stability.

The production will fill the Sun Valley Pavilion’s stage with dancers, puppeteers, larger-than-life puppets, video projections and a full orchestra for one night only.

“This is a real first for us,” says SV Symphony artistic director Alasdair Neale. “There’s been nothing remotely like this anywhere, I think. The concept, not just the puppets dancing, (but with) video and orchestra, that makes this an especially exciting project to be a part of.”

The puppets range from child-size to a larger-than-life dragon that weighs more than 400 pounds. Some are literal extensions of the dancers’ bodies. Pather’s choreography blends classical African and South African dance with ballet and contemporary styles to bring the movement of the puppets and humans together seamlessly.

Handspring came to international attention in 2007 when it collaborated with England’s National Theatre on “War Horse,” in which their puppets beautifully articulate the movement and character of horses.

Along with Sun Valley, a consortium of orchestras in the U.S. commissioned Younge’s “Firebird” piece: Philadelphia’s Mann Center, Washington, D.C.’s Wolf Trap, Chicago’s Ravinia, Los Angeles’ Hollywood Bowl and New York’s Saratoga Performing Arts Center.

Sun Valley is the one place you can see it for free. The Summer Symphony is the largest privately funded free orchestra festival in America. It draws musicians and vocalists from around the country to the mountains of Idaho for three weeks of chamber performances, educational programs, and pops and classical concerts. All the performances are free.

Younge deconstructs the original story of “The Firebird,” in which a virtuous prince tries to free 12 princesses who are enchanted by a malevolent sorcerer. The prince is aided by a mythical Firebird that he captures and then releases after she gives him a feather he can use to call for help if he is in danger.

In Younge’s telling, the characters become metaphors for ideas of rebirth and regeneration, Younge says in her director’s notes. The prince becomes The Seeker, a female character who is on a path toward wholeness and knowing her place in the world, as is her South African nation. The Firebird becomes The Creative, a male character that takes many forms, including a rising phoenix to represent reconciliation.

The score makes this type of adaptation possible, Neale says, because “... the ideas of good and evil, reconciliation, strife and redemption are all mirrored in Stravinsky’s music.”

The musical theme is one of the most easily recognized in the classical cannon. This production uses the entire original 50-minute score that the composer later whittled down.

Note: The performance uses the Pavilion’s new stage extension and is at 8:30 p.m. so you can see the lighting effects. It will be projected on a large screen on the lawn by multiple cameras.

‘The Firebird’

Sun Valley Summer Symphony presents “The Firebird,” 8:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 1, Sun Valley Pavilion, 300 Dollar Road. Free.

Other highlights

▪  The free “In Focus” chamber series runs 6 p.m. Sunday, July 24, Tuesday, July 26, and Thursday, July 28, with performances of Bach’s Brandenberg concertos with Associate Concertmaster Juliana Athayde, “Free Style” by pianist Orli Shaham, and a world premiere by Time For Three.

▪  There still are $75 lawn seats available for Kristen Chenoweth’s performance, Sunday, Aug. 7.

▪  The Orchestra Festival, under the direction of Alasdair Neale, runs through Thursday, Aug. 18, and includes performances of the Dvorak Violin Concerto by Augustin Hadelich on Wednesday, Aug 10, “Blockbuster Film Scores” with guest conductor Michael Krajewski, on Saturday, Aug. 13, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 on Thursday, Aug. 18. Concerts are at 6:30 p.m.

Find a full schedule at