Sometimes known as the father of twentieth-century ballet, Russian choreographer Michel Fokine (1880–1942) revived the art of dance, bringing new expressiveness, dramatic impact, and unity to an art form dominated by entrenched classical ideas.
Fokine's work served as a bridge between the great ballets of Russian tradition and the innovative, often shocking world of modern dance. Working closely with musicians and stage designers, Fokine provided the choreography for several of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky's important early works. Later, living in the United States, Fokine did much to encourage a ballet scene that was still in its infancy. If other choreographers went on to create dance innovations of which Fokine hardly dreamed, he nevertheless paved the way for the new freedoms others exploited. In the words of Dance magazine writer Lynn Garafola, "Fokine's works wrested ballet into the 20th century, giving it new life and a whole new raison d'etre, even as they touched the collective heart and mind. Had Fokine never lived, it's safe to say, 20th-century ballet would have been very different."
Skills Persuaded Father to Back Career
Fokine was the 17th of 18 children, but only five survived to adulthood. He was born on May 5, 1880 (April 23 or 25 in the old-style Russian calendar), in St. Petersburg, Russia; his birth name was Mikhail Mikhailovitch Fokin, but in francophile Russia it was not unusual for an artistically ambitious young person to use a French form of his or her name. Fokine's father was a prosperous businessman, and there was plenty of money for family trips, music lessons, and other endeavors. Fokine's mother loved the theater and passed on an appreciation of the arts to her children, several of whom embarked on creative careers. One of Fokine's older brothers, an army officer, attended dance performances and stimulated Fokine's own enthusiasm for ballet. His father, however, discouraged him from pursuing a dance career. Fokine auditioned in secret for admission to St. Petersburg's Imperial School of Ballet, one of the great institutions of the old classical style. After he came home with news that he had achieved the top score at the audition, his father gave in.
Fokine's education at the Imperial School was a broad one. He studied the piano, mandolin, and balalaika, became a painter and read classic literature, and was a noted soccer player. His ballet training was strict, emphasizing the techniques specified by classic Russian choreographers such as Marius Petipa of St. Petersburg's famed Maryinsky Ballet. A handsome, athletic dancer, Fokine was a standout student. After graduating from the Imperial School in 1898, he quickly began to find solo roles at the Maryinsky and elsewhere. In 1902 he was invited to join the school's dance faculty.
By that time, the ballets of Petipa were several decades old. Classical Russian ballet was an impressive spectacle, marked by awe-inspiring displays of technique from individual dancers, lavish sets, and huge, symmetrical choreographic patterns. Fokine grew frustrated with the inconsistencies of the ballets staged at the Maryinsky: they showcased Russia's greatest dancers, but they often failed to make sense dramatically. The choreographer, the composer, the costume designer, and the set designer might each be a top-notch talent, but all too often they worked in isolation rather than cooperating in the service of a well-told story and a unified mood.
In 1904, the radical American dancer Isadora Duncan visited Russia, and Fokine saw her perform. Fokine himself never became fully sympathetic to the wilder experiments of modern dance, and he later deplored Duncan's work specifically, but at the time the expressivity of Duncan's solo dances unleashed his own creativity. His first major ballet, Acis and Galatea, was choreographed for an Imperial School graduation ceremony in 1905. He married one of his students, Vera Antonova, that year; she interpreted many of her husband's dances, and the two raised a son, Vitale, who became a dancer himself.
Fokine had danced with one of Russia's top ballerinas, Anna Pavlova, in the early 1900s, and now, aware of his growing reputation, she asked him to create a new dance for her to perform. He obliged with The Dying Swan, based on a piece called The Swan, by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, that Fokine had been playing on the mandolin at home prior to his conversation with Pavlova. The simplicity of the work and its attempt to create an evocative interpretation of a well-known orchestral piece showed Isadora Duncan's influence. Pavlova performed The Dying Swan all over the world, and years later, on her deathbed, she uttered her last words: "Prepare my swan costume."
Created Ballet Based on Chopin's Music
Fokine's 1907 ballet Le Pavillon d'Armide was his first to be staged at the Maryinsky Theatre and marked another breakthrough: he coordinated his work closely with designer Alexandre Benois to produce carefully wrought visual effects. His Chopiniana of the same year was a novelty; based on the music of composer Fryderyk Chopin, it may have been the first plotless ballet. Fokine revised the work in 1908 and retitled it Les Sylphides, under which name it became one of the most famous ballets of the twentieth century. Fokine was rapidly becoming recognized as Russia's most innovative young choreographer, and in 1909 he was selected by impresario-producer Serge Diaghilev to become ballet master for his new Ballets Russes (Russian Ballet) company, a touring ensemble that would bring the best of Russian dance to Western Europe.
The move put Fokine in the company of creative artists who were thinking along similar lines, and over the next five years he created classic after classic as the Ballets Russes thrilled audiences in Paris and London. He drew on Russian folklore in Polvotsian Dances from Prince Igor and Scheherazade, the latter based on the famed orchestral tone poem by composer Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. Fokine emphasized the importance of careful research into cultural traditions underlying the setting of a ballet. His vigorous choreography, using male dancers to an unprecedented degree, was matched by explosively colorful sets designed by artist Leon Bakst. Fokine found his greatest collaborator in composer Igor Stravinsky, for whose edgy scores The Firebird and Petrouchka he provided the original choreography.
Fokine's treatment of dancers by this time differed radically from the ballet he had been taught. Where traditional ballet emphasized footwork and leg motions, Fokine demanded that dancers use their entire bodies to express the ideas that a composer or writer was trying to communicate. Ballerina Tamara Karsavina, speaking to dance historian John Drummond and quoted in the New Statesman, said that Fokine "was like a sculptor. Sometimes [when] he wanted a pose, he wouldn't explain very much, he would show it and then come and arrange it." In a letter he wrote to the London Times in 1914, Fokine explained his widely quoted Five Principles of ballet: expression must be appropriate to the subject of a dance; dancers' gestures are meaningful only insofar as they relate to dramatic events; dancers must be ready to use their entire bodies; a ballet is not a vehicle for a virtuoso soloist but an integrated conception involving everyone on stage; and dance, music, and décor must work together in the service of the story.
Partially Eclipsed by Nijinsky
The revolution that Fokine helped to unleash partially overtook him as Europe lurched toward political crisis. His star dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, ventured into new realms where Fokine himself, with one foot in classical tradition, would not go, and Nijinsky displaced Fokine as the chief choreographer of the Ballets Russes, creating dances for Stravinsky's most daring score yet, The Rite of Spring (1914), a piece that included pounding rhythms, irregular accents, and visceral subject matter. Fokine returned to Russia and during World War I he toured with his wife, giving dance concert performances.
In 1918 the pair left Russia, fearing for their safety due to the Bolshevik Communist takeover. After touring in Scandinavia they settled in the United States the following year. In their new home, they found themselves at the opposite end of the spectrum from their native Russia in terms of the degree to which dance was rooted in the community; ballet and ballet schools were rare outside of New York City, and opportunities for Fokine to make use of the full reach of his choreographic talents were rare. The Fokines opened a dance studio on Riverside Drive in New York and undertook more of their relatively inexpensive duo concert tours, traveling around the country. Often Fokine lent his expertise to the world of popular dance, doing choreography for musicals, revues, and even nightclub acts. He had little interest in the world of real modern dance, where America led the world in new developments; in a celebrated 1931 incident he wrangled with modern dance pioneer Martha Graham, who told him that he knew nothing about body movements. Fokine founded two short-lived ballet companies, the Fokine Ballet in 1922 and the American Ballet in 1924.
Some felt that Fokine's talents were being wasted in America; New York Times critic John Martin, quoted on the Yonkers History website, bemoaned Fokine's scramble to make a living and opined that "it is as if Beethoven were giving piano lessons instead of composing." Yet Fokine drew huge crowds to some of his performances; a trio of Fokine concerts at New York's Lewisohn Stadium drew a total of 48,000 people. When American ballet took off in the late 1930s under the leadership of George Balanchine, dance companies were heavily populated by dancers Fokine had trained. Fokine became a U.S. citizen in 1932.
Returned to Europe
Fokine continued to travel widely, premiering new works in South America as well as in the U.S. Between 1934 and 1936 he returned to Europe and choreographed several new works there for the Ballets Russes. In Germany he clashed with cultural officials from the new Nazi regime. Fokine and his wife returned to the U.S. in 1936 and purchased a large house in the New York suburb of Yonkers. In 1938 he choreographed a production of the Jerome Kern musical Show Boat, and he joined with composer and fellow Russian emigré Sergei Rachmaninoff to create a new ballet with original music, Paganini, the following year.
At an age when he could easily have slipped into retirement, Fokine threw himself into new work. The new Ballet Theater company, later renamed the American Ballet Theater, formed in the early 1940s and developed into the nation's most influential dance organization. Fokine created the ballet Bluebeard for the new company in 1941. He traveled to Mexico City for rehearsals of another new work, Helen of Troy, in the summer of 1942 but cut his trip short after suffering a blood clot in his left leg. His condition worsened, and he contracted pneumonia. Fokine died in New York on August 22, 1942. He was the creator of 81 ballets, and Les Sylphides, his most famous work, was performed as a tribute after his death by 17 different ballet companies around the world. Toward the end of the twentieth century his works were performed less frequently, but a slew of revivals in the early 2000s testified to his continuing influence.
Beaumont, Cyril, Michel Fokine & His Ballets, C.W. Beaumont, 1935 (repr. Dance Horizons, 1981).
Bremser, Martha, ed., International Dictionary of Ballet, St. James, 1993.
Dance Magazine, October 2003; May 2005.
New Statesman, September 18, 2000.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), June 20, 2005.
"Michel Fokine, Father of Modern Ballet," Yonkers History, http://www.yonkershistory.org/fokine.html (November 9, 2005).