The Firebird

The Firebird

Is this ballet for you?

Go if: You are fond of stories featuring princes, enchanted creatures and magical lands, all wrapped in folkish colours. You love allegro (ie. fast) dancing and you’re happy with the prospect of seeing a different ballerina-bird, at least it’s a change from the usual swans.

Skip if: You’re afraid of the Bogeyman and other nightmare creatures (the Immortal Kostcheï’s domains are awash with them).

Dream Cast: Mara Galeazzi / Leanne Benjamin.

NYCBs Ashley Bouder as the Firebird. Photo by Paul Kolnik ©

NYCB's Ashley Bouder as the Firebird by Paul Kolnik ©. Source via Oberon's Grove at

The Firebird is a one act  Neoclassical ballet created by Mikhail Fokine for Ballets Russes, to music specially commissioned from Stravinsky (who at the time, was just a twenty-eight year old unknown composer). This ballet is based on the lovely Russian folk tale of The Firebird, known to be a magical creature capable of bringing both fortune and misfortune to its captor.

The Story:

Prince Ivan Tsarevich gets lost at nightfall while hunting and stumbles upon a magic garden filled with golden apples, part of the realm of an evil magician, the Immortal Kostcheï. Ivan encounters a Firebird whom he tries (and eventually manages) to capture. Annoyed and desperate to fly off,  the Firebird pleads and barters with Ivan: in exchange for her freedom she will give him a feather which Ivan can summon her with, should he ever need “urgent magical assistance”. Ivan agrees and lets her go. NB: If you are used to Odette’s  how-I-was-turned-into-a-swan mime in Lev Ivanov’s Swan Lake, watch here how the Firebird’s own pleading mime blends in with the dance and the music, making the  Swan Queen’s miming sequence appear more incidental and detached from the dancing by comparison.

Ivan now finds himself at the gates of a castle where he sees 13 beautiful princesses emerge to play with golden apples. They tell him that the castle and its surroundings form part of the enchanted domains of the Kostcheï. Ivan falls for the most beautiful of the princesses, the Tsarevna, who warns him that every knight who has attempted to rescue them from the Kostcheï’s domain has been turned into stone. She also shares with Ivan the secret to Kostcheï immortality: he has locked his soul in a secret place and so long as it remains there, so will his evil powers.

Ivan resolves to challenge the Kostcheï, but runs into a parade of exotic creatures and enchanted folk who surround him until the Kostcheï himself materializes. Sensing danger, Ivan waves the feather and summons the Firebird. She forces all those creatures to dance frantically (in what is called the “infernal dance”), until they eventually tire themselves into sleep.

The Firebird leads Ivan to the hiding spot for Kostcheï’s immortality: a magic box containing an egg. The Kostcheï awakes just in time but cannot stop Ivan  who now drops the egg to the ground, forever destroying the Kostcheï. The captives are restored to human form and Ivan and the Tsarevna are married. Everyone joins in the celebrations.


The Firebird has been staged by various ballet companies around the world  in all kinds of forms and shapes, the most recent being Graeme Murphy‘s version for the Australian Ballet with designs by Leon Krasenstein. Other renowned productions include:

George Balanchine’s for NYCB (1949) with designs by Chagall;

John Cranko’s for the Stuttgart Ballet (1964 );

John Neumeier’s for the Frankfurt Ballet (1970);

Glen Tetley’s for the Royal Danish Ballet (1981);

Christopher Wheeldon’s for the Boston Ballet (1999)

The Royal Ballet’s version has direct, unbroken links back to the Ballets Russes’ original production both in Natalia Gontcharova, who staged the Ballet Russes 1926 Firebird and whose designs are used in the RB’s production, and in Tamara Karsavina, the legendary ballerina who created the Firebird role and taught it to Margot Fonteyn.


The original score that Stravinsky composed for the ballet is one of his most popular works. There are further suites arranged to be played in an orchestral setting along with the original 50 minute score (the complete set is referred as the Symphonic Suite). For your Ipod/Spotify playlist we suggest the recording conducted by Stravinsky himself (with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra).

Mini Biography

Choreography: Mikhail (Michel) Fokine
Music: Igor Stravinsky
Original Design: Alexandre Golovine, Léon Bakst
Original Orchestration: Igor Stravinsky
Original Cast: Tamara Karsavina, Mikhail Fokine
Premiere: 25 June 1910

Sources and Further Information:

  1. Wikipedia entry for The Firebird.
  2. Belarus Bolshoi Theatre’s notes for The Firebird.
  3. Kennedy Center’s notes for The Firebird.
  4. Australia Dancing’s entry for The Firebird and Research Materials.
  5. The Firebird by Igor Stravinsky. Dover, 2000. ISBN 0486414035, 9780486414034.

Her favourite ballets feel like good books – one can see them 1,000 times and they always feel fresh. Linda loves Giselle, all full-length MacMillan plus Song of the Earth, Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, Balanchine’s Serenade and Agon, Ashton’s Scènes de Ballet and Symphonic Variations.


  • [...] tale is a staple of every Russian childhood and has important connections to older folklore like The Firebird. As with La Fille Mal Gardée, The Little Humpbacked Horse has seen several choreographic [...]

  • [...] Yesterday we dropped by the Clore Studio at the Royal Opera House to catch the first dress rehearsal of “Umbra” by young choreographer Freya Thomas. Freya’s piece is part of Dance Futures, a new project from ROH Education which will see over 120 young people take to the Covent Garden main stage this Sunday to present a mixed bill that also includes a new work by Wayne McGregor (to be performed by young East Londoners) and Fokine’s classic The Firebird. [...]

  • [...] … and also a video display with a stream of Gontcharova’s original designs and pictures of Tamara Karsavina, who created the role of The Firebird. [...]

  • September 14, 2010


    The original Stravinsky score for Fokine’s ballet is 45 minutes long. The current Mariinsky production (Fokine) is listed at 44 minutes and BRB’s (also Fokine) has it listed at 47 min, so I guess the real length is somewhere in between depending on the conductor ;)

  • September 14, 2010

    Zac : )

    I’m doing research on the Firebird, and I was just wondering if you know how long (In minutes) Fokine’s version of the Firewbird was?

    Thanks. :)

  • September 7, 2010

    Cult Blog Post of the Week

    [...] The V&A mini site for “The Golden Age of Ballets Russes” has now been loaded with photos, links and events. Ahead of the exhibition (opening 25 September 2010) we have been keeping up with their blog posts. While the press has been focusing on the Picasso frontcloth of Two Women Running on the Beach (considered to be Picasso’s largest work on canvas) the staff at V&A reminds us of the magnificent proportions of Natalia Goncharova’s cloth for The Firebird: [...]

  • January 9, 2010


    I think Balanchine actually staged the 1949 version with Maria Tallchief in the lead role – but Kirkland danced the role on Balanchine/Robbins 1970 restaging. We’ll clarify this in the fact card, thanks!

  • January 9, 2010


    The Firebird ballet was actually created for Gelsey Kirkland by her choreographer, George Balanchine.

  • September 10, 2009

    In Bloom « The Ballet Bag

    [...] created on her by some of today’s most renowned choreographers. She  singles out her role in The Firebird as one of her greatest physical challenges but motherhood, she says, has been the biggest challenge [...]

  • [...] (sort of) repeat came with The Firebird, with Mariinsky designs and dancers Irma Nioradze and Ilya Kuznetsov. Despite the solid dancing, I [...]

  • [...] Russes’ first season in Paris. On the bill are two indisputable classics: Les Sylphides and The Firebird (both by Mikhail Fokine), along with Sensorium, a new work by Alastair [...]