Rediscovering Michel Fokine: By Challenging Russian Tradition, This Modernist Choreographer Wrestled Ballet into the Twentieth Century

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In 1942, when choreographer Michel Fokine died in New York, the dance world mourned, lie was the grand old man of ballet modernism, the first to break with the "old" (nineteenth-century style) ballet and create classics that embodied the new. Numerous companies danced his works, and dancers yearned to work with him.

When Ballet Theatre (as American Ballet Theatre was initially called) made its debut in 1940, Fokine headed the roster of choreographers, and Les Sylphides, his oldest extant ballet and the first plotless ballet, opened the company's very first bill. Balanchine, who saw Les Sylphides as a student in St. Petersburg, called it his favorite ballet.

Born Mikhail Mikhailovich Fokin in St. Petersburg in 1880, he attended the Imperial Theater School, studying with such outstanding teachers as Pavel Gerdt and Nikolai Legat. In 1898, he entered the Maryinsky company (later known as the Kirov Ballet) as a soloist. Cavalier roles soon came his way, and often he was paired with the exquisite Anna Pavlova, a rising young ballerina.

Despite his success, Fokine began to chafe at the company's stifling artistic atmosphere. Marius Petipa was now in his 80s, and his ballets, which included La Bayadere and The Sleeping Beauty, had never been surpassed. But they belonged to the past. Even the reform-minded Alexander Gorsky failed to break with the multi-act format or Petipa's "grand" ballets, the conventionalized structure of his pas de deux, the cold symmetry, of his ensembles, and the hodge-podge of classical and character dance and mime in a single work. Nobody seemed to care about the absence of dramatic logic or expressiveness, or that bravura for the sake of applause was the norm. And nobody could imagine ballet without tights, tutus, or pointe shoes. With Fokine, all this would change.

In 1904 Isadora Duncan paid her first visit to St. Petersburg. Those first performances left Fokine a changed man. "Duncan," he wrote years later in Memoirs of a Ballet Master, "reminded us of the beauty of simple movements.... [She] proved that ... plain, natural movements--a simple step, run, turn ..., small jump ...--are far better than all the richness of ... ballet technique, if to this technique must be sacrificed grace, expressiveness, and beauty."

Fokine now began to choreograph. Like Duncan, he chose music from the concert hall, dressed his women in tunics, and made freer use of the torso. He rejected pyrotechnics and, on a selective basis, pointe work and even turnout. He treated port de bias as windows on the soul. Even Les Sylphides, Fokine's evocation of Romantic ballet, has Duncan's perfume, albeit blended with the classical poetry of Pavlova, the muse for whom he created the ballerina role. For Pavlova, too, he choreographed The Dying Swan, the solo that defined her artistry to audiences on her extraordinary tours to the four corners of the globe.

In 1909 Fokine joined forces with Serge Diaghilev for the first Paris season of what was to become the celebrated Ballets Russes. Made up of dancers from the Imperial Theaters of Moscow and St. Petersburg, this company, which performed only in the West, became a showcase for Fokine's "new" ballet, as Russian critics were beginning to call his growing body of one-act works.

Fokine's next five years were amazingly fertile. With Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina as his chief interpreters, he revealed the folklore and fairgrounds of Russia to the West in ballets such as Firebird and Petrouchka, both to music by Igor Stravinsky, and the Polovtsian Dances from the opera Prince Igor, with its thrilling hordes of real men (as opposed to the female travesty dancers who performed male roles in the West). …