Fokine Marvellous

By Sennett, Richard | New Statesman (1996), September 18, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Fokine Marvellous

Sennett, Richard, New Statesman (1996)

The Russian choreographer Michel Fokine revolutionised the art of dancing, and then he was eclipsed by Nijinsky. Richard Sennett tells his glorious and sad story

News comes of the escalating spat between the violinist Nigel Kennedy and the impresario Sir John Drummond. Kennedy has played Berg's funereal Violin Concerto dressed in a black cape; Drummond hates the cape as a gesture of pandering to the masses -- although I haven't seen too many black capes in my local supermarket lately. Kennedy accuses Drummond of "elitism".

In one way, this is no more than another round of Britain's favourite sport, class warfare. Kennedy has lost this round, because that black cape is, in fact, a little gesture of contempt. It betokens the assumption that difficult or demanding art can't be served to the general public straight; high art needs to be "presented", "explained" or, in this case, dressed up.

The black cape has sharpened my memories of the season given this summer by St Petersburg's Kirov Ballet at covent Garden in London. There were, indeed, few representatives of the great unwashed or the young in the lower reaches of the house -- ticket prices of up to [pound]70 a seat ensured that. But the Kirov programmes, especially those devoted to the choreographer Michel Fokine, presented to us work that once sought, and succeeded in, speaking of new and strange things directly to a large public.

Michel Fokine (although Russian, he preferred the French spelling of his first name) was trained as a dancer in the strict rules that governed St Petersburg's Imperial Ballet at the end of the 19th century. By the age of 24, in 1904, he had set about revolutionising the art of dancing. Nineteenth-century choreographers focused on the movements of the legs, whereas Fokine used the whole body. Fokine's predecessors trained the dancer's legs to turn out; he turned them in or folded them. Before Fokine, choreographer, set designer, costumer and composer each worked in isolation on a dance; Fokine set about bringing these arts together. He aimed, with painterly collaborators such as Alexandre Benois and Leon Bakst, and eventually under the presiding genius of the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, at total dance theatre -- just as Richard Wagner aimed single-handedly in Bayreuth to create total opera theatre.

The first collaboration between Fokine and Benois, the one-act ballet Le Pavilion d'Armide of 1907, made use of new music by Nikolai Tcherepnin; Benois co-ordinated costumes with the stage sets; and the choreography daringly makes the dancers' shoulders as expressive as their toes. A year later, Les Sylphides was a dance work that managed to look backward and forward at once: backward to the era of the great ballerina Maria Taglioni in the middle of the 19th century; forward in giving the corps de ballet a new unity of movement tying the piece together as a whole.

These early works provided a foretaste of the revolution in dance that Fokine and his collaborators would launch at the Ballets Russes in Paris. Fokine's story, once he allied himself to Diaghilev's troupe in 1909, is, however, both glorious and sad. In four years, he created a spate of masterpieces -- Scheherazade, Firebird, Le Spectre de la Rose, Petrouchka, Daphnis et Chloe. How he did so has been recovered for us by Drummond (whom history will remember as a dance researcher, rather than a class warrior). In Speaking of Diaghilev (Faber and Faber, [pound]14.99), Drummond drew out, for instance, the aged ballerina Tamara Karsavina, who recalled Fokine as a man of "terrific tempers", but no disciplinarian: instead, "he was like a sculptor. Sometimes he wanted a pose, he wouldn't explain very much, he would show it and then come and arrange it ..." All the Paris ballets show traces of that working method, the hard work of composition subsumed in art's greatest illusions: spontaneity and simplicity.

Vaslav Nijinsky is a large part of what went wrong for Fokine.

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