Even so, few classical choreographers have had such a rough deal from posterity as those heroes of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, Michel Fokine and Leonide Massine. Both were regarded in their day as the greatest choreographers of the 20th century, but by the time we had moved into the 21st century, their standing had been supplanted by George Balanchine and Frederick Ashton. This is possibly fair enough, yet Fokine in particular had an enormous effect on contemporary dance, conceivably more than any choreographer since Jean-Georges Noverre, who was incontestably the father of modern ballet, way back in the 18th century.
FOKINE, born in St. Petersburg in 1880, died in New York in 1942, and briefly before his death became one of the founding choreographers of American Ballet Theatre. This spring ABT honors his memory with new productions of four of his ballets: Les Sylphides, Petrouchka, Le Spectre de la Rose, and Polovtsian Dances. It is ironic to think that Les Sylphides, with its romantic Chopin music, was once the most widely performed ballet--more popular than Swan Lake, Act II. Now, during the course of 30 years or so, it has become more or less a rarity.
Fokine was a revolutionary choreographer. His was a reaction toward realism from what he felt was the sugarcoated prettiness and emptiness of the Maryinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg, typified by Petipa and Ivanov. His concept of ballet, succinctly expressed in the Five Principles he laid down in a celebrated letter to The Times of London on July 6, 1914, concerns the high seriousness of ballet as an art form. It stresses that theatrical dance should be an expression of the whole body, with mime and gesture consolidated into the dance movement, and that ballet should be a combined operation of the arts involving equally dance, music, design, and drama.
All this owed much to the revolutionary theories Noverre first set down in his Lettres sur la Danse (1760). Fokine in his memoirs interestingly disagrees with the older man's dictum "that a well-composed ballet has to be a pantomimic one." However, Fokine's norm, with very few exceptions, notably Les Sylphides (1908) and later Les Elfes (1924), was the strongly thematic ballet.
In both his preference for natural movement and in his use of classical composers, he was influenced by Isadora Duncan. It is consequently ironic that in a 1931 confrontation at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan between Fokine and Martha Graham, the greatest of Duncan's metaphorical dancing daughters, the misunderstanding between the two was so profound that at one point Graham informed the 50-year-old dance revolutionary, "You don't know anything about body movements." They finally, if acrimoniously, agreed to disagree. And yet Fokine's Five Principles were unconsciously adhered to by Graham, and for that matter Doris Humphrey, more than many classical choreographers. Graham was also one of Fokine's metaphorical dancing daughters-but never knew it.
What Fokine achieved went far beyond his own ballets, for he renewed a belief in theatrical dance as an art rotor. Without that belief, a belief bolstered by others in Diaghilev's circle, notably the designer Alexandre Benois--a ballet such as Balanchine's Prodigal Son would hardly have been possible. Moreover, because Fokine's brand of dance expressionism fitted in so neatly with Soviet Russia's aesthetic theory of "socialist realism," perhaps the greatest Fokinean ballet of them all was created by a Balanchine classmate at the Maryinksky, Leonid Lavrosky, with his 1940 Romeo and Juliet. Nowadays, virtually every contemporary choreographer owes Fokine a debt.
So, what of Fokine's own ballets: Were they a much-applauded passing fancy, or are they for all time? The atmosphere and style are difficult to recapture if unassisted by a continuous performing tradition. The intricacy of ensemble movement and gesture, perfectly demonstrated by Petrouchka and The Firebird, challenge not only dance notation but even the memories of ballet masters. Some recent revivals, especially in Russia, have been all but laughable. Yet we should always retain Les Sylphides and, as long as male dancers try to match themselves with the legend of Vaslav Nijinsky, we will doubtless have Le Spectre de la Rose and perhaps Petrouchka. But they will never be what they were.
Senior Consulting Editor Clive Barnes also covers dance and theater for The New York Post.
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|Title Annotation:||Michael Fokine, father of the modern ballet, coreographer|
|Date:||May 1, 2005|
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