Learning to Fly: Janni Younge Makes a New "Firebird" With No Strings Attached

By Kyle MacMillan

Janni Younge believes passionately in the power of puppetry. Although the centuries-old art form might seem passé in a world where video games and other online diversions are available in seconds, she believes it is even more needed than ever as a tangible antidote to such high-tech escapism. “People are relating to a very ancient instinct,” says the South African puppetmaker, “which is to enjoy the animation of an inanimate object. 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.”

Forget Jim Henson’s pratfall-prone Muppets or the playful banter of Shari Lewis’s Lamb Chop and Charlie Horse. The 41-year-old Younge 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 project—and her most ambitious so far—is designing and directing an adaptation of Igor Stravinsky’s famed 1910 ballet, The Firebird, which will bring together 14 dancers and puppeteers and dozens of custom-crafted puppets and animated objects. Co-commissioned by Ravinia, along with the Mann Center, Wolf Trap, Sun Valley Summer Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, the production will premiere this summer on a North American tour that will include a July 26 stop at the country’s oldest outdoor music festival, featuring guest conductor Ben Gernon and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performing the score.


Younge got her first set of puppets by the age of 5 or 6 and quickly became enthralled with putting on shows and seeing her sisters, parents, and their friends get swept up in the storytelling. “Over the years,” she says, “it became somewhat addictive to be able to create this kind of joy, to be able to use things to capture people’s imaginations.” But it wasn’t until much later that she realized that what was a fun hobby could also be a career.

Younge was an art major at the University of Cape Town when she attended a 1998 presentation by the Handspring Puppet Company called Ubu and the Truth Commission, a work inspired by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the 1990s, which was formed in the aftermath of apartheid. “The deep complexity of that whole dynamic was captured in this theatrical production in a way that even the news didn’t capture,” she says. Younge immediately realized that she could take her interest in art and transfer it to the theatrical realm and tell stories with objects. “At the time, I was on a path toward being a sculptor,” she says, “and I just saw the excitement of this magic that happens when you bring the sculptures to life, when you bring them into relationships with people and dynamics.”

As she was finishing her undergraduate degree that year, she heard about the French National School of Puppet Theater (École Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette) and she decided that if she wanted to pursue puppetry seriously, she needed just such training. At that time, she says, the French were ahead of such countries as the United States and England in treating puppetry as a serious art form versus light entertainment. After her studies there between 1999 and 2002, she returned home and rounded out her education later with a master’s degree in theater back at the University of Cape Town in 2007.

In the meantime, Younge dove into the professional world, serving from 2003 through 2011 as head of UNIMA SA, an association that promotes puppetry and visual performance in South Africa and presented the now-defunct Out the Box Festival. She then took over as associate director of South Africa’s famed Handspring Puppet Company, which has performed in more than 30 countries around the world. During her tenure, she directed Ouroboros, a love story between poet and dancer, which toured South Africa, France, Belgium and India in 2011–13. She left to establish her own production company in 2014 but still works closely with Handspring.


Three years ago, Younge was approached to put together a traveling 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,” she says, “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.”

There have been myriad productions and adaptations of The Firebird since its premiere over a century ago, 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 from the work in the eighth and final segment of Disney’s Fantasia 2000. But with one major exception, Younge avoided looking at any of these previous incarnations 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 says. Plus, the puppetmaker noted, Stravinsky created the score while working with Fokine, so it was important to see his choreography to fully understand 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,” she says, “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 (Jackie Manyaapelo), who embarks on a journey of personal discovery but also symbolizes the transformative odyssey that South Africa has been undertaking since the end of apartheid. At first she is inspired and uplifted, but her companion, the Alchemist of Honesty (Mongi Mtombeni), 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,” the puppetmaker says, “is very rarely captured visually in theater and fine arts because it’s such a complex thing to try to [conceptualize]. 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.


This battle of lightness and darkness does not end with one or the other triumphant, but with a kind of fusion of the two dynamics that is symbolized by a new integrated power—a dragon, which combines all three of the materials seen in the other puppets. The largest of the production’s puppets—what Younge calls a “mega-marionette”—the dragon measures approximately 40 feet from wingtip to wingtip. Using a series of pulleys, everyone onstage works together to manipulate this massive character as a final symbolic act of unification.

The production incorporates 10 dancers and four puppeteers, a ratio driven by the fact that it is easier to teach dancers how to manipulate puppets than the other way around. Every performer has some degree of interaction with the puppets, and everyone must fit into the overall movement aesthetic of the piece. “There is no keen line [between dancers and puppeteers],” Younge says. “[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.’”

It is hard to say exactly how many puppets make appearances in the work, because it depends on how one defines a puppet. “The nuance is: Do you count things like a bowl which becomes a head at another moment? Do you count that as a puppet or is it something else?” Younge says. She estimates that there are 50–60 puppets and “something elses” in the work, and 15 or so of those are full-fledged characters that would conventionally be considered puppets. “All of the scenes,” she says, “are filled with moving objects, whether they are puppets by your traditional understanding of a thing that is brought to life or whether they are extensions of the human body creating an image that is ready for interpretation.”

Work on Younge’s Firebird began in the spring of 2015 with the first of three workshops in which the creative team solidified the central elements of the adaptation, using mock-up puppets to test ideas and develop the visual language. Construction of the puppets and other visual elements began in the fall, with a second workshop to further clarify the concepts and an all-important third workshop to try out the finished puppets before rehearsals started. “With puppetry, you’re creating an actor, you’re creating somebody who has never been [onstage] before [as much as an object that] has never been done before—so you have to test it somewhere,” Younge says.

Rehearsals started at the beginning of May and they conclude with what are essentially dress rehearsals during performances in South Africa at the end of June. After a week of understudy rehearsals and another week off, the tour is set to begin July 20 in Philadelphia and course around the country before arriving August 11 and 12 in New York.

Preliminary discussions are already underway as to where the production might go afterward—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 American stops this summer.


Take a peek at the one-of-a-kind production in its trailer below:


Kyle MacMillan served as classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He currently freelances in Chicago, writing for such publications and websites as the Chicago Sun-Times, Wall Street Journal, Opera News, and Classical Voice of North America.

Learn more about the creation process of this production on Janni Younge's blog.

Tickets for the Jul 26 performance of Janni Younge's The Firebird can be purchased at Ravinia.org