Winged ballets: Firebird
Birds are the focus of some of ballet’s best known pieces such as Swan Lake and Firebird, and continue to spur the creation of new ones. There’s just something about these winged creatures that apparently challenges choreographers to channel their unique movements and character through dance.
When Ballet Manila opens its 22nd performance season billed as "Flights of Fantasy," a bird takes centerstage once more. The famed mythical bird of Philippine lore becomes the subject of resident choreographer Gerardo Francisco’s Ibong Adarna, promising to be a dazzling spectacle in the tradition of Ballet Manila’s blockbuster Tatlong Kuwento ni Lola Basyang and its equally successful sequel, Tatlo Pang Kuwento ni Lola Basyang.
To usher in the world premiere of Ibong Adarna in August and the return of the ballet classic Swan Lake in October, we look back – through this series – at the bird-inspired ballets that have taken flight and even soared at Ballet Manila.
In 2000, internationally acclaimed choreographer Jean Paul Comelin came to the Philippines to create his own interpretation of Firebird for Ballet Manila. Though he retained the music created by Igor Stravinsky for Mikhail Fokine’s Firebird ballet in 1910, Comelin used a variety of elements that would his version distinct.
During his research, he learned that there was a notion of a mythical Bird of Paradise across many cultures. This bird, known by different names – the Firebird, the Garuda, the Phoenix or the Filipino Adarna – was sought after, he said, for the cure of illnesses, for freedom, for love, for wealth, or simply for the pursuit of an ideal.
Comelin wanted to introduce a local color to his Firebird, so he extracted passages from the Ibong Adarna, which were read in Tagalog at the beginning of the ballet. Along with Stravinsky’s music, he used a Southeast Asian drum composition called Blessing of the Earth, as well as flute solos to introduce the trinity of goddesses in his story – the Ibong Adarna, the Lotus Goddess and Medusa.
His two-act ballet focuses on a Shaman who is in search of enlightenment and whose soul is taken on a journey by the Bird Goddess to the tree of knowledge (the “axis mundi”). The Shaman eventually falls for the lotus divinity, conquers the wicked Medusa and returns to earth a better man, with the villagers that had been turned to stone when he left now restored to life.
Comelin tapped Belgian designer Inga Borg to create the scenery, costumes and masks that reflected the choreographer’s fascination for Southeast Asian mythology. The ballet’s setting was a village resembling a Filipino landscape of rice terraces.
The combination of poetry, scenery and costumes, musical score and dancing by Ballet Manila was meant as a total theatrical experience. “To be shared by those who look for a spiritual life of beauty, love and belief,” Comelin wrote in his Firebird notes.