The Firebird

Regent Theatre, The Octagon, Dunedin

21/08/2021 - 21/08/2021

Opera House, Wellington

29/07/2021 - 31/07/2021

Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch

26/08/2021 - 28/08/2021

Regent On Broadway, Palmerston North

02/09/2021 - 02/09/2021

Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre - Aotea Centre, Auckland

12/08/2021 - 14/08/2021

Production Details


 A newly commissioned Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB) production of The Firebird will soar across the country in July and August. Paired for the national tour with the dazzling Russian classic PaquitaThe Firebird is created for a new time and a new generation by RNZB Choreographer in Residence and multi award-winning choreographer for stage and screen Loughlan Prior. 

 Following the triumph of his Hansel and Gretel in 2019, Artistic Director Patricia Barker invited Prior to create a new production with fresh ideas for the fantastical fairy tale set in a mystical world.  

Barker says, “How we treat one another and how we care about the world for the next generations is at the forefront of our new production. Loughlan has dived into the world of The Firebird and the magic of Stravinsky’s score and has created a work that brings us closer to our own humanity.” 

First staged in Paris in 1910, The Firebird changed the direction of ballet and catapulted Stravinsky to star status. Together with designer Tracy Grant Lord, Prior’s The Firebird is one in which the natural world is threatened and humanity is staring into the abyss of extinction. Captured, the Firebird – a fertility goddess with magical powers – offers the possibility of redemption, if only humankind is brave enough to follow her.   

 Prior says, “The Firebird draws on the beauty of the earth at its most elemental, the vastness of the cosmos and the impact – both good and evil – of humans on our precious world.” 

 Generations of choreographers have been inspired by the elemental power of Stravinsky’s music, and by the Firebird herself – a timeless, untamable force. In the iconic and spine-tingling score, sinuous melodies spiked with shimmering orchestration create an exotic universe full of wild enchantment that was worlds away from the classics of Russian ballet. 

The RNZB has paired The Firebird with the Russian classic, Paquita – two very different kinds of ballet. Paquita, first staged in 1846, is a scintillating romp in which the dancers’ classical technique takes centre stage. This one-act version features sparkling tutus inspired by Russian master jeweller Fabergé, fleet footwork, soaring leaps, turns like spinning tops, and a finale which leaves the audience as breathless and exhilarated as the dancers themselves. Paquita will be staged by RNZB Artistic Director Patricia Barker.

 The Firebird with Paquita season information 

Wellington | 29 July to 31 July | Opera House 
Napier | 6 August to 7 August | Municipal Theatre 
Auckland | 12 August to 14 August | Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre, Aotea Centre 
Dunedin | 21 August | Regent Theatre 
Christchurch | 26 August – 28 August | Isaac Theatre Royal 
Palmerston North | 2 September | Regent on Broadway 

 More information here

More in Loughlan Prior here:



The Firebird 

Choreography: Loughlan Prior 
Music: Igor Stravinsky 
Costume and Set Design: Tracy Grant Lord 
Lighting Design: Jon Buswell 
Animation/visuals: POW Studios 


Choreography: Marius Petipa 

Staging: Michael Auer and Patricia Barker 
Music: Ludwig Minkus and Edouard Deldevez 
Costume Design: Patricia Barker 
Set Design: Howard C Jones 
Lighting Design: Jon Buswell 

Multi-discipline , Dance , ,

120 Mins

The triumph of renewal and creativity over devastation.

Review by Francesca Horsley 15th Aug 2021

Artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet, Patricia Barker is to be congratulated for her successful season of The Firebird with Paquita. The choice of combining two strong ballets representing a spectrum of the art form into one evening of dance, left audiences satisfied while exposing them to the opposing realm.

Paquita is pure vintage ballet – classical in a purity of form, clearly delineated hierarchies with the expected order of mounting virtuosic splendor. The backdrop of elegant blue drapes, a staged ballroom with sparking chandeliers invokes an era where the chaotic world was held at bay with sophistication, finesse and beauty.

The original Paquita, premiered in 1847 now rarely performed, was set in Spain under the Napoleonic rule. The Grand Pas Classique, a dance with variations was added by Marius Petipa in 1881 and this section has stood the test of time.  Key to the delivery is an exposition of the classical technique, where characterization is eliminated.

To perform the exacting choreography requires considerable mastery and the RNZB dancers delivered and then some. Crisp lines, well-articulated steps and arresting extensions brought the wonderful score by Ludwig Minkus and Edouard Deldevez to life. Nevertheless, there was a coldness to the delivery – maybe it was the temperature of the auditorium on a wintery night or the sharply lit stage that stripped softness and nuance from the dancers’ faces and bodies. Modern audiences seek connection and there was a need for this to reach across the footlights, otherwise the ballet risked losing engagement as it strove towards pyrotechnics and perfection.

The pas de trois was charming with Kate Kadow, Sara Garbowski and Kihiro Kusukami, and Ana Gallardo Lobaina shone in the Coryphee and second solo.  Guest principal dancer, Harrison James was a joy to watch. The show piece, the grand pas de deux between James and Mayu Tanigaito, was technically stunning but lacked the quintessential spark of lovers.

In 1910 the premiere of The Firebird signaled a tectonic shock for the art-form. By the late 19thcentury ballet had become stale, clichéd and decadent. Meanwhile, Paris was the nerve-centre for European intellectuals shaping modernism across all art forms, literature, design and architecture.

Enter Diaghilev and the Ballet Russe. The Russian ballet tradition from its home in St Petersburg had vigour, muscularity and exoticism, at odds with the technically brilliant but confined modes of the Western classicist tradition. The first performance of The Firebird featured a blending of Parisienne modernism and Russian artistic traditions, giving rise to a new balletic form that gave equal expression to dance, music, folk myths, and set design.

The role of Stravinsky was seen as key. His music broke the hold of the old and created a radical new musical language. Fokine’s choreography matched the score, removed pantomime ballet gestures and focused on a gritty storyline. Critics described their approach as jagged, but there was no escaping the reality of a new role they created for ballet – to ask questions, to give shape to the tensions of modern society and break its conventions.

Move forward 102 years and a new version of The Firebird by Loughlan Prior.  This time the chaos of the world is exposed in a dystopian rendering that places the Earth as a fierce protagonist – its wounded state visible in a deserted, waterless landscape.  A grey and bleak stage reveals people on the very edge of life, where thirst, treachery and violence prevail and love is hard to maintain. Bands of lawless survivors roam at will – reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, while seekers of hope seek refuge.

Replicating the original storyline, The Firebird, half women, half bird, is a mystical creature; this time her feathers bring life-giving water. Humans are a ruthless species and so, despite all that she offers, the Firebird is set upon, her destruction the goal. And yet, the Firebird story does not end in calamity. Its origins in the myths of ancient cultures mandate the triumph of renewal and creativity over devastation; its message that evil does not prevail, and hope will have the final word.

Prior’s choreography is a remarkable interpretation of Stravinsky’s music, fully realizing the atmospheric and movement cues of the score. The design by Tracy Grant Lord is darkly ominous, escorted by POW Studio’s tour de force of digital visual effects that conjure up billowing sandstorms, fire, slanting rain, a blossoming carpet of flowers.  At times this can overwhelm the action as the audience is prompted to interpret these elements at the expense of the dance.

Katherine Skelton was a quintessential Firebird; fragile and passionate; fierce and enduring. Her protectors Arrow, (Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson) and Neve, (Katherine Minor) revealed the best of humanity, while The Burnt Mask (Joseph Skelton) and Elizaveta (Leonora Voigtlander) were both compelling agents of destruction.

Prior’s work in many ways echoes the original – the questions he poses highlight the tensions of contemporary society. It is vivid storytelling and powerful choreography at its best.  Its ominous portents held the audience’s attention from beginning to end.



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Brave, innovative and welcome

Review by Lyne Pringle 30th Jul 2021

Two highly contrasting works in the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s programme will satisfy classical purists and those desiring innovation in the form.

Paquita and The Firebird display the considerable strengths of the company. The stage is alive with stylish design and exuberant physicality, despite somewhat muted recorded sound.

Paquita wasfirst created in St Petersburg in 1881 by the great choreographic innovator, Marius Petipa. This version is rendered in great style by Patricia Barker and Michael Auer. …

The second work of the evening, The Firebird, picks up the challenge laid down at the turn of last century by Serge Diaghilev and his company the Ballet Russes. In this version, choreographer in residence Loughlan Prior forms a partnership with POW Studios to flood the stage with spectacular projected animations and visual effects. [More]


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Timeless story applied to the darkest aspects of today’s existence.

Review by Deirdre Tarrant 30th Jul 2021

As these are both ballets with a strong Russian history and wonderful music it is disappointing that there is no live orchestra in the pit? I assume budget issues but it needs to be said that a night at our National ballet demands live music. These are  two strong scores and we have such great orchestras available . . . Live music was missed. 

That said, the curtain goes up on a slice of ballet tradition in Paquita, showcasing classical variations and disciplined corps de ballet with beautiful tutus and tunics designed by Donna Jeffris and Patricia Barker. These Variations are often  part of a dancer’s development and training. They are difficult but deceptively easy. This is the stuff of the ballet dream and the dancers rise to the technical challenges. The men, in particular, in the ensemble Polonaise and both soloists, Kihiro Kusukami and Laurynas Vėjalis, deliver strong technique and exciting virtuosity with aplomb and assurance.

In the Pas de Trois, Mayu Tanigaito and Katherine Minor are joyous and dance with excellent dynamic contrasts and musicality. Musicality is inconsistent in the solos but this will settle – there is nothing to hide behind in this ballet and the music demands precision and interpretation to provide the light and shade that engages us as an audience. A great ‘chocolate box’ of treats to open this night at the Royal New Zealand Ballet and definitely one for the balletomane purists. 

The Firebird has a compelling history both in Stravinsky’s controversial score and in the  many versions of this ballet choreographed to this music. Fokine’s first interpretation was performed by Diaghiliev’s Ballet Russes in 1913. Still inspired by mythology, still  dramatic,  dark, full of portent and anger, good and evil, choreographer Loughlan Prior and designer Tracy Grant Lord work together again to revisit this music and create their own contemporary vision.  
I watched without reading any programme notes and perhaps with too strong an expectation of the story line but the theatrical message of mankind’s cruelty, survival of humans, and magical influences  in this world is still one of doom, of consequence and of warning. The Firebird/ Phoenix is impressively danced by Ana Gallardo Lobaina as she struggles, loses, fights and re – flowers with a powerful presence. Guest, Artist Harrison James (a New Zealander who has his star ascending overseas and is home for this tour) is desperate, strong, anguished and embodies the fight for the survival of our  world. 

Prior’s choreography gives a vocabulary of contrasts to the ethereal Phoenix of spirit and to the earthed pull of humanity in Arrow (Harrison James) and Neve (Sara Garbowski) and in their world of ‘Wayfarers’. Even more harsh and antagonistic is the tyrannical Paul Mathews as he leads his ‘Scavengers’. Themes are drawn and adhered to but the complexity and layering  of the music seems glossed over in the choreographic search for a story line. 

Visuals and lighting (POW Studios and Jon Bushell) are powerful and give an urgent and filmic staging that is compelling as a way into this interpretation. The challenge is to balance the stage and at times this is certainly  achieved but the special effects and  overwhelming  desperation often overtook and I lost focus and listened!  

A challenging production and an exciting and emotive look at a timeless story applied to the darkest aspects of today’s existence. The pulse of Stravinsky’s finale was matched in the full stage ensemble and brought the work to a wonderful climax. 
Let there be hope and let it be dancing!  Thank you.

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