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Janni Younge believes in the power of puppetry. Although the centuries-old art form might seem passé in a world dominated by video games and other online diversions, she believes it is more needed than ever. “People are relating to a very ancient instinct, which is to enjoy the animation of an inanimate object,” says the South African puppet maker. “Particularly in contemporary puppetry, where you see the performers creating life in a thing that is clearly not alive, there is a kind of electricity that happens. We relate to it on a very primal level.”

Younge (top photo) has gained international fame for a sophisticated, adult brand of puppetry more akin to that in The Lion King, but without the Broadway songs and schmaltz. Her work has been seen over the last 13 years at the Royal Shakespeare Company and Bristol Old Vic in England, as well as in internationally touring productions mounted by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company. Her latest and most ambitious project so far is designing and directing an adaptation of Stravinsky’s famed 1910 ballet, The Firebird, which brings together 14 dancers and puppeteers and dozens of custom-crafted puppets and animated objects. Co-commissioned by the Ravinia Festival, along with the Mann Center, Wolf Trap, Sun Valley Summer Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, the production is being presented on a North American tour that stops July 26 in Highland Park. At Ravinia, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ben Gernon (in his CSO debut), performs the score.

During a rehearsal, puppeteers guide the Firebird across the stage.

In a rehearsal, puppeteers guide the Firebird across the stage.

Three years ago, Younge was approached to put together a puppet-and-dance production set to a well-known classical work, and she and her creative team chose The Firebird, which has what she calls a “deep passion” inside it. “Stravinsky’s music is very layered and very rich, and the characters inside of it, coming from mythology to begin with, have a particular resonance with puppetry, which is a very metaphorical art form.”

Since its premiere more than a century ago, there have been myriad productions and adaptations of The Firebird, including the 1949 setting by famed choreographer George Balanchine (created for prima ballerina and longtime Chicagoan Maria Tallchief), a stunning reimagination by Dance Theater of Harlem in 1982, and the inclusion of a suite in the eighth and final segment of Disney’s “Fantasia 2000.” But with one major exception, Younge avoided looking at any of these previous versions because she and her collaborators wanted to engage with the story on their terms, and they didn’t want to be influenced or distracted by other interpretations.

However, Younge did pay close attention to choreographer Michel Fokine’s 1910 Ballets Russes production for which Stravinsky’s music was created, because it was both the original and the version that many people have in their minds when they think of this classic ballet. “It felt important to me to acknowledge and work off of where both audiences and previous creative people have come from,” she said. Plus, Stravinsky created the score while working with Fokine, so it was important to see his choreography to understand fully the “intention of the music.”

This new approach draws on the basic symbolism and dramaturgy of Fokine’s ballet, which tells the story of the good prince Ivan Tsarevich. While hunting, he stumbles into the sinister enchanted garden of the evil Koschei, whom he eventually vanquishes with the help of the Firebird after falling under the spell of a dozen enchanted princesses. But Younge has given the story a contemporary African setting and infused it with larger-than-life puppets and African dance choreographed by Jay Pather. “To me, this is where I live, these are my roots, this is where I come from, so the interpretation is both very South African, but it’s also very much about the workings of a human being.”

In Younge’s version, Ivan becomes a female character called the Seeker, who embarks on a journey of personal discovery but also symbolizes the transformation South Africa has undergone since the end of apartheid. At first she is inspired and uplifted, but her companion, the Alchemist of Honesty, pushes her to look more deeply inside herself, setting off a kind of internal battle between the darker sides and lighter sides of her psyche. “The multiplicity of being human is very rarely captured visually in theater and fine arts because it’s such a complex thing to try to [conceptualize],” Younge said. “I’ve sort of set myself the challenge of venturing into that field, because I think it is very rich and exciting to open that box. Maybe it’s a little Pandora’s box in a way, because some of the things that get released are not always lovely.”

Puppets in the form of animals and children serve as metaphorical representations of the Seeker’s emotions, and each group has been constructed with a signature material that visually sets it apart. The Firebird character from the original ballet has become a group of birdlike characters (made of paper) that symbolize inspiration and passion. The enchanted princesses have been transformed into the Innocents, who are embodied by children (made of vellum, stretched and dried goat skin), and Koschei and his demons are represented by the snake, dog and beast (made of rattan) as the forces of doubt and anxiety.

The production incorporates 10 dancers and four puppeteers, because it’s easier to teach dancers how to manipulate puppets than vice versa. Every performer has some degree of interaction with the puppets, and everyone must fit into the work’s over-all movement aesthetic. “There is no keen line [between dancers and puppeteers],” Younge said. “[My hope is that] the audience is not going to be able to go, ‘Oh, there is a puppeteer clomping along the stage,’ or, ‘Oh, dear, that was clearly a dancer handling a puppet.’”

Preliminary discussions are already under way about where the production might go next, possibly Asia or Europe. But for now, Younge and her collaborators are focused on making sure that this new Firebird takes flight successfully in Chicago and at the rest of its U.S. stops this summer.

This is an excerpt from an article published in the July edition of the Ravinia magazine. To read the complete version, click here.