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‘Firebird’ retelling offers mix of confusion, powerful emotions

'The Firebird' director Janni Younge

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South African director Janni Younge’s touring puppet-rich production of “The Firebird,” performed with the Sun Valley Summer Symphony, packed the Sun Valley Pavilion on Monday, Aug. 1, with more than 3,000 people between the seating and the lawn.

The Sun Valley Summer Symphony is part of a consortium of U.S. orchestras that commissioned Younge’s “The Firebird.” It was performed at Philadelphia’s Mann Center, Washington, D.C.’s Wolf Trap, Chicago’s Ravinia, before coming to Idaho. It will be at the Hollywood Bowl on Thursday, Aug. 4, and New York’s Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Thursday, Aug. 11, before heading back to Cape Town.

This beautiful, dynamic – if confusing – mix of dance, puppetry, projections and musical performance was the first such multimedia production by the symphony.

The musical performance was flawless. Music director Alasdair Neale and these world-class musicians played Stravinsky’s masterwork with complete clarity and warmth that were energetically in complete support of the piece.

And visually, it was thrilling to see something like this on this stage. However, the narrative that Younge and choreographer Jay Pather came up with in their retelling of the Russian folktale was, in the end, too dense and convoluted for the audience to connect with.

It becomes a muddle of intriguing imagery and movement that didn’t completely satisfy. People who came to the director’s talk and took the time to read the program notes had a better handle on it, but the majority expressed confusion.

The comments I heard ranged from “I need to go home and read the program notes,” to “What was that?”

The Prince character of choreographer Mikhail Fokine’s ballet is morphed into “The Seeker” (Jacqueline Manyaapelo), a young woman whose internal creative forces do battle with her doubts and inner critic as she struggles to make peace within and discover her new identity.

That personal struggle reflects the larger conflict faced by South Africans after the fall of apartheid and the establishment of a democracy that has left promises fulfilled.

It’s a big story to tell, and the enormity of it was reflected in the volume of movement and characters – from flitting birds to playful children, big-headed politicians to gigantic winged creatures – that overwhelmed the piece.

Some of it was intentional. Pather used a mashup of styles and a deliberate busyness to reflect the chaos of his country’s crisis.

As the piece progressed, the movement became leaner and more intentional until you arrived at a beautiful and lean duet between dancers Shaun Oelf and Elvis Sibeko that bought the two divergent elements together.

The large “egg” piece that hung center stage became a screen for Michael Clark’s hand-drawn animations that added another element. It did clarify some of the metaphors with more literal images about people living in poverty without water and electricity, but it was just one more place for the audience to look.

Younge’s puppets created powerful presences on stage, especially in the battle between a large phoenix and a dog-like beast. The company of dancers and puppeteers worked together to bring these creatures to life.

After they destroy one another they transform into a large dragon creature that nearly spanned the stage as the finale. This creature is the future Younge and Pather work toward, where two polarized factions come together to create something new.

It was a very impressive moment that brought the audience to its feet.

Sun Valley Summer Symphony

The Orchestra Festival, under the direction of Alasdair Neale, continues through Thursday, Aug. 18.

▪  Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf, “ with narration by Company of Fools’ core artist and Governor’s Award in the Arts recipient John Glenn, 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 4.

▪  This year's fundraising gala features Tony- and Emmy-winner Kristin Chenoweth, 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 7. $75 lawn seating is still available at SVSummerSymphony.org.

▪  Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 3 for Piano, with pianist Joyce Yang, 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 6.

▪  Dvorak’s Violin Concerto with Augustin Hadelich, 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 10.

▪  “Blockbuster Film Scores, “ with guest conductor Michael Krajewski, 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 13.

▪  Ravel’s “Sheherazade” with international opera star Michelle DeYoung, and “Bolero, “ Sunday, Aug. 14.

▪  Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 18.

Find more info at SVSummerSymphony.org.

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