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The choreographer, dancer, teacher and reformer of ballet, Mikhail Mikhailovitch Fokine, was born in St. Petersburg on April 26, 1880, the son of an affluent businessman. He was enrolled in the Imperial School of Ballet at the age of nine and first studied with Platon Karsavin, the father of the ballerina, Tamara Karsavina.
As a young student, Fokine progressed rapidly and subsequently studied with Pavel Gerdt and Nicholas Legat. Nine years later he graduated and was accepted as a soloist in the ballet company of the Maryinsky Theatre, an exception to the rule that graduates enter the company as members of the corps de ballet. He made his debut on April 26, 1898 in a pas de quatre from Paquita, dancing with Lubov Egorova, Julia Sedova and Anatole Oboukhov.
Although Fokine was an excellent, expressive and technically strong dancer and a fine mime, his renown in the dance world evolved from his roles as a choreographer and a teacher. He began teaching an intermediate class in 1902 and three years later was promoted to the advanced class.
In 1905, Fokine choreographed his first ballet, Acis et Galatee for the Annual Pupil’s Performance and in the same year composed one of his most popular works, The Dying Swan, a solo for Anna Pavlova, which was performed to Saint-Saens’ music at a charitable function. In 1906, he composed two more ballets — A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Le Vigue, and the following year he staged his first ballet for the Imperial Theatre — Le Pavillon d’Armide, a ballet in three scenes to music by NicholasTcherepnine, with decor and costumes by Alexander Benois, and with Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky and the choreographer dancing the leading roles.
Les Sylphides, originally entitled Chopiniana, was created in 1908 and was presented in its final form in 1909 when Fokine staged the ballet for Diaghilev. Although this was one of Fokine’s earliest works, this poetic romantic ballet was revolutionary and a tremendous influence on 20th century dance.
A year later Fokine accepted Serge Diaghilev’s invitation to stage several ballets for the proposed season of Russian ballet in Paris in 1909. This association gave Fokine the opportunity to show his work abroad and was the real genesis of Fokine’s career as a choreographer and the beginnings of a new era in ballet.
Working with Diaghilev, Fokine spent most of his time in France, leaving only to fulfill certain obligations to the Imperial Theatre and, during World War I, to spend those years in Russia. After his break with Diaghilev, he pursued a career as a freelance choreographer. In the early years after World War I, he worked primarily in Scandinavia before settling in New York in 1923 and travelling widely to stage and restage ballets. He was married to the dancer Vera Antonovna.
Fokine’s influence on modern ballet has been profound. He was a choreographer of enormous impact, composing 68 original works. Among his other works choreographed in Russia for the Imperial Theatre are: Eunice (1908), the Polovetzian Dances in the opera Prince Igor (1909), Egyptian Nights (1909), Orpheus and Euridice (1911), Judith (1912), Eros (1915), and the dances in the opera Russlan and Ludmila (1917). Stenka Razin (1917) is his one work for the present Russian State Theatre. Prince Igor (1909), Les Sylphides (1909), Carnaval (1910), Scheherazade (1910), Firebird (1910), Le Spectre de la Rose (1911), Petrouchka (1911), Paganini (1939) and Bluebeard (1941) are some of his works that are still included in contemporary repertory.
Fokine’s ideas for reform in ballet began as early as 1904 when he submitted a scenario for a ballet based on Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe with notes to the director of the Imperial Theatre. Included in these notes was a plan for the reform of ballet. He felt that ballet had reached a point where it was stifled by tradition and could not advance; that ballet must be freed from conventional costume and gesture, from a set order of steps; and that technique must be a means not an end. Above all he demanded inspired music and unity of expression — an organic fusion of dance, music and painting. Ten years later Fokine’s fundamental ideas of his reform appeared in a letter to The London Times (July 6, 1914). They are as follows: 1. To create in each case a new form of movement corresponding to the subject matter, period and character of the music, instead of merely giving combinations of ready-made and established steps. 2. Dancing and mimetic gesture have no meaning in ballet unless they serve as an expression of dramatic action. 3. To admit the use of conventional gesture only when it is required by the style of the ballet, and in all other cases to replace the gestures of the hands by movements of the whole body. Man can and should be expressive from head to foot. 4. The group is not only an ornament. The new ballet advances from the expressiveness of the face and the hands to that of the whole body, and from that of the individual body to groups of bodies and the expressiveness of the combined dancing of a crowd. 5. The alliance of dancing with other arts. The new ballet, refusing to be the slave of either music or of scenic decoration, and recognizing the alliance of arts only on the condition of complete equality, allows perfect freedom both to the scenic artist and to the musician. These reforms, embodied in Fokine’s choreography, helped to revolutionize 20th century ballet.
Double pneumonia complicated by pleurisy caused Fokine’s death on August 22, 1942 in New York. Ten days before his death he had revived Petrouchka for American Ballet Theatre. Other of his ballets in the Company’s repertoire have included: Bluebeard, Carnaval, Helen of Troy, Russian Solder, and Le Spectre de la Rose. Fokine staged Les Sylphides in 1940 for the Company’s opening night.
Sources: The Dance Encyclopedia, Compiled and Edited by Anatole Chujoy and P. W. Manchester; Simon and Schuster, New York, 1967; The Complete Book of Ballets, by Cyril W. Beaumont; Putnam, London, 1956; The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Ballet, Horst Koegler; Oxford University Press, London; Memoirs of a Ballet Master by Michel Fokine, tr. by Vitale Fokine, edited by Anatole Chujoy; Little Brown & Company, Boston, 1961
Researched and compiled by Fran Michelman