The spaciousness of mythic stories is more and more essential to navigating life these days. How else to both witness and experience, much less make sense of, this clash of stories, the social unrest and economic and environmental unraveling? Much as I crave neat resolutions, I am more and more convinced of the importance, indeed necessity, of the open-endedness provided by narrative art. Whether it’s creation myths, fairy tales, or epic multi-media experiences like the miraculous Janni Younge production of Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” the language of symbol has something urgently to say to each of us.
I saw “Firebird” last night at Wolf Trap, the music played by the National Symphony, puppets by Janni Younge’s team at Handspring Puppetry (who gave the world “War Horse”), and choreographcd by Jay Pather. The production was a rich, intelligent, feeling blend of dance, costume, puppets, and visual art. They drew their creative inspiration from the music, as well as the larger societal story of South Africa’s young democracy, with its beautiful vision of a “rainbow nation,” sliding into corruption and greed, corporate control, the continuation of searing inequity, protest, rage, grief, disillusion. They are in a fertile period of hope and darkness and the unknown. You don’t need me to tell you that the fear, hatred, danger, and overwhelm they feel is absolutely relevant here as well.
The basic scheme of this “Firebird” is a point-counterpoint of the forces of light and darkness, symbolized as birds and snakes. In the beginning, a young woman is attracted to “birds” that emerge as scraps of white paper to evoke feathers, wings, purity. In the old mythic tales, birds always symbolized spirit; they were of the upward-flowing realm of air and fire. The birds dance around the young woman, inspiring her. At first, they are fragmentary, suggestive, not yet fully formed or realized. Glimpses of what might be.
Throughout it all, an animation plays on the huge orb that hangs above the stage. Is it the moon? Or an egg? The world? A crystal ball? It is all of those and more. The circle is unity within uniqueness. Evocative, monochromatic paintings blossom, morph and flow on the orb, a screen into other worlds. Reds and oranges flare as flames and sunlight and swirls of cosmic creation, passion in hearts, new life in bellies, hair on fire with inspiration, an eye blinking open in wonder at all it sees. Leaves of fire in a cosmic tree of life. An egg cracks open, a fist reveals a flame in the palm, cities and slums appear, full pantries and empty ones, starving people protest, a mother and child stare out, a snake slithers in an infinity loop. Birds and feathers appear and disappear.
A second character, the Alchemist of Honesty, is a formidable, powerful and loving presence that guides the young woman throughout the performance. She is the magician, the mentor figure of the hero story.
The whole thing is a dream. Is it the dream of the young woman? Or the community? It could be the collective dream of this very audience.
The girl’s dance with the birds unleashes the counter forces of doubt, darkness, menace, and destruction. These take the form of sticks that cut through and sweep away. They form snakes, monsters. The snakes are beautiful in their power, the puppets magnificent creations of articulated segments, cages of sticks. Their heads come to life, their glass eyes flashing fire as they undulate around the stage, animated by the dancers.
The puppeteers’ choice of materials is brilliant. White paper for the airy birds, raffia sticks and goatskin vellum for the earthy beasts.
Now the girl’s ideas emerge in the form of children, some fully, some partially formed. They play, dance, kick, throw and catch balls. There are so many of them! They quickly get out of control. Some become monstrous and try to sweep the others away. What seems at first to be innocent becomes frightening and threatening. The girl is overpowered and outmatched by too many ideas. With the help of the Alchemist, she sweeps them away.
When the Firebird appears, she is fully formed, a miracle of the puppet maker’s art, animated by a man inside wearing a harness, by dancers working each leg and two more on the wings.
Far from being a distraction, it is transporting to watch the dancers and puppeteers interact with and animate the puppets. The dancers are so expressive. Their bodies and faces are joy, surprise, fear, curiosity, bewilderment, confusion, bravery, courage, love, tenderness, persistence, ferocity.
The firebird vanquishes the snakes. We breathe in relief. But now comes a larger menace, a hybrid creature with a lion’s body, four clawed legs, and a snaky head and tail. This puppet is huge, worn by two men in harnesses.
The bird and beast—light and darkness—battle as the music reaches a frenzied crescendo. They go at each other while the girl and the other dancers move around them in fear and wonder. This is what imagination has unleashed. This is what the girl and the others created, have summoned into the world through the spark of inspiration, the hellish shadows of doubt, the redoubling of effort, the persistence. The help, always, of the Alchemist.
And again it’s out of control. It has always been out of control. We just forget. We fool ourselves into believing in our sovereignty, our power.
In a devastating climax of music and action, the two beasts fall. They settle, in heaps of sticks and paper and skin, onto the stage floor, framing empty space. The girl stands alone, bereft. The Alchemist is gone. It is all void, emptiness. And silence.
A current buzzes through my body and I begin to weep and weep. Even as I know there is more. There is always more. And I forget that every time. I doubt. I am far too small to contain the more. The best I can do is bear witness and stay the hell out of the way. It’s going to happen with or without me.
Onstage, slowly, slowly, the sound begins again. The orb over everything begins to transform, the white curved segments part to each side. Something is emerging. We don’t know what, but we suspect. We dare to hope. To imagine. Could it be?
I glance at the fallen firebird, the defeated beast. I weep and weep. They went too soon. They were so, so beautiful. I could have watched their fluid movement for hours more in rapt attention.
And now we see a huge head, part bird, part snake. Frightening, and yet—so, so gentle. Its great powerful head turns to regard the girl, and in those lively glass eyes is a look of infinite love. And—can it be?—gratitude.
It’s as if this magnificent creature that is as yet unfolding, still becoming, is thanking the girl. Is saying, behold. You dreamed me. You and these others. Though you had little idea what you were summoning. And only because you kept going was I able to be born. Your struggles were my gestation, your greatest fears were my incubation, your flawed and broken humanity breathed the fire of life into me.
The music builds, the brass, the drums, and the wings spread. Legs emerge. The tail, strangely familiar, turns out to be made up of the vanquished snake. All the parts and fragments of the fallen, discarded creatures are recombining to make this one. Nothing is created or destroyed; it only changes form.
The dragon rises. Off to one side, a few dancers and puppeteers have brought out parts of one of the child figures. She hangs upside down as they put her back together.
Storyteller Michael Meade reminds us that in the old mythic tales, we always fall downward when we come to earth. We tumble out of the birth canal headfirst, and so this child puppet is assembled upside down.
And now her handlers, her allies, the friends we all need in order to realize our potential, carry her oh so carefully to the dragon. S/he lowers her/is head and the child is lovingly placed on the dragon’s back. With a brief turn of the head to regard the girl, the dragon sees her. After welcoming her home, the dragon rises.
This. This is what you are capable of. If only you stay your course, appeal to the Alchemist when you need help, go forth even in fear and doubt.
All this time, I am still crying. One of those rare moments in life where everything, everything is perfectly, transcendently clear. The violins swell in solidarity. Yes, Yes. Light and darkness. Good and evil. We actually do summon doubt and fear and even hatred when we become inspired and joyous and dare to love. It is our bargain for coming here to do our work in the world.
The horns are triumphant, the tympani rumbles. We are carried away on the sound, the hope, the promise of rising again from the ashes.
All is as it should be. Don’t even bother to wish for evil to go away. Or to hope that doubt doesn’t come along to infect yet another creative project. Assume that it will. Expect it. Dare it. (Stop short of taunting, though—no need to be foolish.)
The thing is: this is what can come. This miraculous dragon, something you couldn’t possibly dream of. You just wanted to dance with a few birds, to indulge a small flame of inspiration and nurture some ideas into a new creation.
And it took you on the ride of your life.
Before the production, Janni Younge advised us not to feel overwhelmed when there seems to be too much going on on stage. She said, watch what catches your eye. Know that it’s for you. This perfectly resonates with what storytellers Martin Shaw and Michael Meade both say. Stories are told in the language of symbols, which speak to each of us uniquely. Meade calls it “mythological acupuncture.” The story sticks you exactly where you need some treatment.
Her advice stood me in good stead at times when there were ten or twelve dancers on the stage, puppets breaking up and recombining in different forms, and the animation playing on the “egg” over the stage. This is a powerful idea, to notice and value what catches your attention. It changes everything.
Here are a few links to videos about the production, which unfortunately is only coming to a few venues in North America:
This one starts off in Africaans, but quickly moves into English. Shows rehearsals and building puppets, with a few interviews.
This is a 4-minute montage of the onstage production.
And here’s a rousing version of “Firebird.”
Lastly, if working with these themes and with mythic story is appealing, I am co-leading a retreat in October called Thriving on the Threshold: Becoming a Community of the New Story. We will wander in the forest, gather stories from the land, and share mythic stories. For more information, here is the link.