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Gelsey Kirkland, in Balanchine's FIREBIRD, 1970

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f.y.i. scan of a publicity photo of Kirkland as the Firebird in Balanchine's revived staging of '70, sent out in advance of NYCB's appearances in Columbia, Maryland, in Aug. of '70

the costume is the first of a series of creations by Karinska for the various revisions Balanchine made in the staging from this point on, specifically in '72 AND '80.

(the current costume for NYCB's Balanchine staging of FIREBIRD was put in place after the choreographer's death when Jerome Robbins was in charge of re-instating the pas de deux as danced by Maria Tallchief in 1949 when it was decided to approximate what originally wore.)



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I agree with Drew. It never worked, what with those pannier-like hip ornaments, the uncooperative train, and the strange headpiece looking like something from Pierre Lunaire. The contrast with the previous simple tutu, worn by Tallchief and others, was striking.

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well, yes and no, re: 'simplifying' design aspects of his ballet making.

Balanchine was eager for design effects when they were apt or when possible.

rem. his insistence on a spectacular vision of the growing tree in NUTCRACKER and his interest in stage effects and costume elements for, among other examples. DON QUIXOTE, L'ENFANT ET LES SORTILEGES, COPPELIA, HARLEQUINADE, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, VIENNA WALTZES, PULCINELLA, ROBERT SCHUMANN'S 'DAVIDSBUNDLERTANZ' etc.

one reason he was said to be hesitant about staging THE SLEEPING BEAUTY for NYCB was the fact that the NYST wasn't as equipped with depth of wings and traps, etc. to provide his planning with suitable capabilities.

when however, as one suspects, he felt that commissioned designs for the likes of CONCERTO BAROCCO and THE FOUR TEMPERAMENTS were detrimental to the 'visibility' of his choreography, he opted for the pared back scheme to solve the dilemma.

with regard to FIREBIRD, he's on record as finding the aging Chagall scheme in sore need of refreshening and he trusted Karinska almost it seems without question. with regard to the title figures costuming, as noted above this changed drastically at least three times in his lifetime: first, after Kirkland, for von Aroldingen with her train and rooster's head comb, more or less repeating the version of the Firebird, in blues and white, on Chagall's frontcloth for the staging, and next, for Nicholas when she was dressed in fluid, tissue-paper thin fabric of softly metallic gold, also with a train-cum-bustle construction.

a book out of Japan, shows a fairly complete array of Chagall's ballet costuming designs, including those for FIREBIRD from which karinska worked her re-made costumes of '70 and beyond.

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Poor Kirkland LOATHED that costume...! (as per her memoirs...)

Lovely pic of Prima Gelsey...

I saw her dance in it and to my (admittedly inexperienced) eyes it looked plenty problematic to dance in.

Sure does. Whatever Balanchine's rationale, it was a boo-boo.

I always thought it was a pity that Kirkland's only real experience of having Balanchine make a ballet on her turned out so poorly - perhaps if it had been a happier experience things might have worked out differently. "Ballets made for Gelsey Kirkland by Balanchine" is one of the great what-if categories of ballet.

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it might help to have seen Balanchine's FIREBIRD before condemning it sight unseen.

true, some here saw it, as i did, and some thought it a 'problem' - Kirkland didn't like the costume - she's not likely the first dancer to dislike a costume, which for better or worse, was the choreographer's prerogative to use in his ballet.

Balanchine certainly rethought his individual works as time went on, but i doubt that when this FIREBIRD was first shown it was some kind of mishap or uncertain effort on Balanchine's part.

i'd image what it looked like was what he wanted it to look like. it wasn't an impromptu effort, it was a creation for the occasion, which leads me to think he did what it was shown as he wanted it to look.

the subsequent costume changes were made with specific choreographic changes and specific dancers in mind. certainly von Aroldingen was very different physically from Kirkland. ditto Nichols from von Aroldingen.

so presuming this creation for Kirkland turned out 'poorly' is an after-the-fact value judgement.

at the time of the '70 FIREBIRD Balanchine was quite taken with Kirkland's talent - he's on record telling a reporter of the NYPost if mem. serves, that his chosen new Firebird, was "young and from our school," so i suspect what he gave her as choreography was what he thought showed her youthful talent off. he was hardly an immature dancemaker by 1970, without real ability etc.

furthermore, he had much faith in Karinska, whose design for Kirkland's Firebird likely honored Chagall's wishes as much as it did Balanchine's. the reason he kept Mme K. around was because he likely felt comfortable working and collaborating with her, which was not true of any number of designers he had previously, many because, as he once suggested of such individuals, they were "friends of Lincolns."

certainly this is not a 'typical' Firebird look, but who says Balanchine wanted such a predictable/typical look as some viewers did.

as Edwin Denby said to one detractor of Balanchine's when he railed against the choreographer's DON QUIXOTE by saying to Denby:" I couldn't wait to get out of the theater." to which Denby is reported have replied: "Then that's were you belonged."

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I was never impressed by the Chagall (or Chagall-derived) costuming. The "monsters," especially, were poorly done, reminding more than a few of us as trick-or-treaters on Halloween.. But the short tutu for the Firebird, the minimal feathered headdresses various Firebirds wore, and the simple dresses for the Maidens, all had the advantage of allowing you to keep your focus on what the dancers were doing.

The Kirkland and the even odder Aroldingen versions -- strange protuberances on hips and buttocks, quirky head-pieces (Lilly Dache on speed?), and the notorious train -- were, it seems to me, as distracting and unsuccessful as were the original Seligmann costumes for Four Seasons [edited to change to "Temperaments," per rg's kind correction below]. Both costumes were kitschy -- retro-chic today; painfully dated tomorrow -- in a Crazy Horse nightclub kind of way. Worse, they violated the line, speed, energy, and required from the Firebird herself, even in the new choreography for Kirkland. The train dragged the eye backwards when Firebird was darting frontwards. The headdresses always seemed in danger of toppling. I can remember at least one performance when the wings or bustles (can't remember which) needed quick and distracting mid-performance adjustment.

I love these confections in artist sketches and publicity photos. But on stage? I'm not convinced.

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re: Kurt Seligmann, he designed the much maligned costumes for THE FOUR TEMPERAMENTS; the costumes for THE SEASONS were by Isamu Noguchi. (it was, incidentally, in answer to a question about projects such as the Noguchi/Cunningham SEASONS that Balanchine is on record as saying: "friends of Lincoln's..."

with regard to the costuming in question here, true, the results were perhaps unpopular, and disagreeable to any number of viewers, but that doesn't mean that they displeased Balanchine or that he did 'poorly' by them.

his taste may not have been much shared, but it was his taste and he acted on it, in concert with Karinska, decidedly.

at the time of the '70 FIREBIRD Balanchine is quoted as saying that the English for Russian title of Stravinsky's music, Zhar Pitsa, that is FIREBIRD was a bit off and that really the bird was a creature of light not fire, thus his lack of interest in a red tutu. and as history shows the original Bakst costume for Karsavina in 1910 was even more eccentric and non-tutu-like than Karinska's Chagall rendering.

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Thanks for those corrections, rg. I happened to be listening to the Four "Seasons" on the car radio before returning home to post, and must have had that title on my mind. I did not know Seligman was not responsible for the costumes.

with regard to the costuming in question here, true, the results were perhaps unpopular, and disagreeable to any number of viewers, but that doesn't mean that they displeased Balanchine or that he did 'poorly' by them.

his taste may not have been much shared, but it was his taste and he acted on it, in concert with Karinska, decidedly.

A great point. I agree entirely. As to the question of Balanchine's taste -- I guess I was thinking of that when I posted the comparison with the Crazy Horse and similar nightclubs. I wonder how much of Balanchine's taste was formed in Paris in the 30s, and the versions of that which extend to Hollywood and Manhattan in the 40s and 50s.. There's something distinctly "Parisian showgirl" about those costumes for the Firebird. (Though she is more decently covered-up, of course.)

Incidentally, do you have any photos of Gelsey Kirkland in The Song of the Nightingale? Another bird. Another high-concept costume, though simpler than the one for Firebird, and rather beautiful as I recall.

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If I'm remembering correctly Jacques d'Amboise spent some time discussing the creation of the Kirkland Firebird in his fairly recent autobiography. The gist of if was that Balanchine resented the individual success that Maria Tallchief had with his first version of Firebird. Balanchine seemed to be working out some kind of psychodrama on Kirkland. According to her book, Kirkland disliked the music as well as the costume.

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Kirkland may well have been channeling Pavlova who also disliked the music, etc. of FIREBIRD thus leading Fokine to switch casting and choose Karsavina for the 1910 premiere.

to add to some confusion over time, Karsavina danced what was called a 'bird of fire (or light)' in the 1909 divertissement called "L'oiseau de feu" for LE FESTIN, but as we know this was to Tchaikovsky and was in fact his Blue Bird duet from THE SLEEPING BEAUTY.

attached scans show Karsavina in the FESTIN 'l'oiseau' and as Stravinsky's 'bird' (with arms outstretched). (both of these snapped from Andrew Foster's excellent book, TAMARA KARSAVINA, DIAGHILEV'S BALLERINA)

the Bakst sketches both show versions of the Stravinsky ballet.





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additional (final?) FIREBIRD footnotes:

a snap of Chagall's sketch for his Firebird costume and a color photo promoting Capehart television in 1950? - the date on my copy of this loose leaf from a magazine, perhaps LIFE, has the year written in pencil, which may be accurate or may be a guess - documenting, by way of what was then called an "action photo," a moment from a performance of Ballet Theatre's 1945 staging of THE FIREBIRD by Adolf Bolm, with Alicia Markova identified and perhaps with Anton Dolin (unidentified), probably in the Danse Infernale.

p.s. in answer to the query above about a photo of Kirkland as the Nightingale in John Taras's SONG OF THE NIGHTINGALE, no, i don't have any, but i fairly recall this Ter-Arutunian-designed costume with its basic unitard-light base arranged with various lengths and curlicues of semi-transparent tubing, meant, it would seem, to indicate spare plummage.



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The French historian Philippe de Lustrac has demonstrated that the Firebird costume that Bakst designed for Karsavina in 1910 (as shown in the 2nd photo above, with a modified headdress) was influenced by Siamese rather than Russian folklore. In particular, the 2 golden braids are taken from images of the fantastical Siamese Garuda bird, which always holds 2 golden snakes in exactly the same way. Interestingly, when Karsavina came back to the role in 1919 and reverted to an earlier Bakst costume (the one she wore for the 1909 Bluebird pas de deux with Nijinsky), she insisted on adding the 2 braids.

To confuse matters even more, the first Karsavina photo above, although technically "L'oiseau de feu", is not Firebird. It is the Bluebird pas de deux photographed in the mid 1920s - Karsavina always loved the original 1909 Bakst costume.

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