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Whatever Happened to ...?

THERE WAS ONCE a popular series of books called "Whatever Happened to ...?", intended to illuminate the world at large, sometimes with a certain degree of ill-concealed gloating, about the subsequent careers of men and women who had outlived their fifteen minutes of fame, or even their half-hours of notoriety. Here the Tab Hunters of the world found documented those usually minor-keyed second acts to their American lives that F. Scott Fitzgerald denied even existed.

Ask almost anyone to name the great classic choreographers of the century just ended and you will get the immediate answer of George Balanchine, first, at least for the present and probably conceivable future, and then after a pause you will probably get the names of Frederick Ashton--another polite pause--Antony Tudor and Jerome Robbins. These, after all, are the guys being honored by the Kennedy Center's continuing Twentieth Century Choreographers Celebration in Washington.

This is fine, fair enough and certainly from our present perspective. which may be altered by time and changing taste, pretty much inarguable. It is what they call "current received opinion," which suggests that objective quality can be determined by some great popularity contest in the sky and is the result of perceived democratic consensus. Well, why not?

However--whatever happened to Mikhail Fokine and Leonide Massine? Now, had you asked the question "Who are the greatest classical choreographers in the twentieth century?" in, say 1920, the list would unquestionably, unquestionably have been headed by Fokine. By 1935, Fokine would have been supplanted as top of the dance pops by Massine, and even up until 1950 these two would have given Balanchine a run for his money. But today?

Of course, tastes change with the passage of time--history sorts out the Mozarts from the Salieris, and a Sibelius might go into temporary decline only to find another, perhaps securer place in music's pantheon: similar examples can be plucked from all the arts. But at the moment, it does appear incontrovertible that Fokine and Massine, those sometime giants of the dance world, are in eclipse, virtually forgotten. In this first year of the twenty-first century, they exist more in the pages of the history books than on the stage.

Look at the evidence. By inclination, choice and profession, I am an inveterate dancegoer. Now, between last January and the end of August, I find I attended a total of exactly 130 performances, most of them in New York (although some of foreign companies) and others in varied places--Chicago: Philadelphia; Houston; Tivoli, New York; St. Petersburg, Russia; London; and Sintra, Portugal--all in all, a pretty varied dance experience. Yet during all of those 130 performances (admittedly including modern dance as well as classical ballet) I saw not one ballet by Massine and only eight performances of ballets by Fokine, all in London.

There were two performances of The Firebird, one immaculately accurate but poorly danced by The Royal Ballet, and the other better danced, better decorated but slightly less authentic by the Kirov; two vigorously performed but shabbily revived performances of Scheherazade by the Kirov; extremely lackluster Kirov revivals of Le Spectre de la Rose (without either style or scenery); dances from Prince Igor (quite accurate but tamely danced) and Petroushka; and finally, also from the Kirov, one of the finest performances of Les Sylphides (they call it Chopiniana, abandon the Benois decor and kick off, as did the Ballets Russes, with the "Polonaise Militaire"!) it has ever been my good fortune to experience.

The Kirov examination of its lost past--which has led to its rediscovery of Fokine and Balanchine--would, in the case of Fokine, be facilitated if it took help from the West (where, at least until comparatively recently, Fokine has been a living tradition), as it has with the staging of Balanchine. These works are Russian heritage repertoire and admirably suited to be performed by Russian dancers. But then, so are the ballets of Massine, which are, so far as I know, totally unknown in Russia. Massine, more than any of the other great masters of dance, is in desperate danger of the neglect that in dance terms can lead to extinction.

Where is he performed today? The Joffrey Ballet, when it was based in New York, had a surprisingly large Massine repertory, including Le Beau Danube (a work that would be a gift for any of the Russian companies) and The Three-Cornered Hat, and it still offers the minor work (fascinating, however, for its Satie score and Picasso designs) Parade and, more rewardingly, one of the major "symphonic" works, Les Presages. American Ballet Theatre only has the rather weak Gaite Parisienne, made all the weaker by a disastrous redesign of its scenery and costumes. In Britain, although the Birmingham Royal Ballet revived Choreartium a few years ago, the Covent Garden company appears to have lost The Three-Cornered Hat, La Boutique Fantasque, Mam'zelle Angot and The Good Humored Ladies, while the English National Ballet, like the Royal Danish Ballet, has apparently abandoned all of its Massine repertoire.

Massine was essentially a character choreographer--even his so-called "symphonic" ballets had symbolic programs attached to them--and often he used balleticized national dances, such as in his Three-Cornered Hat or Donald of the Burthens, a Scottish work he made for Britain's Royal Ballet. He had neither the imagination, invention nor fluency of Balanchine or Ashton, a choreographer on whom he had some influence, as he did on John Cranko, but he had his own verve, vigor and style. And believe me, a work like Le Beau Danube or Mam'zelle Angot (never seen in America in its final revised version), is a marked cut above much of the choreographic pap offered by companies today in a quest for the new.

So won't someone rescue Massine (and Fokine--when did we last see, say, Carnaval or L'Epreuve d'Amour or even the less-successful Paganini?) from this ever-deepening obscurity? Balanchine is a splendid fellow, but surely someone would be prepared to take a chance on Le Beau Danube rather than the umpteenth production of Serenade or Symphony in C. And, by the way, when they have finished resuscitating Massine (and Fokine), how about Bronislava Nijinska and her big brother?

Senior editor Clive Barnes, who covers dance and theater for the New York Post, has contributed to Dance Magazine since 1956.
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Title Annotation:Massine and Fokine
Author:BARNES, CLIVE
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2000
Words:1047
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