Blueblood Ballet Teacher Irine Fokine Ends an Era

August 29, 2010

Saturday was the last time we would go to the ballet studio in NJ where we spent so many hours and years. We saw faces we hadn’t seen in decades and also new faces. We shared survival tales, and also wonderful memories of the performance opportunities.


At 88, Irine Fokine is in darn good shape. But she’s not up to teaching three classes a day, or running the business she ran for 60 years. So on Saturday, a bunch of us gathered at the Irine Fokine School of Ballet in Ridgewood, NJ, the place that had been like a second home to us. We reminisced about the beautiful, thrilling, or funny ballets we were in. Hearing Andy Wentink talk about some of the ballets I never saw, I realize Miss Fokine was a way more prolific than I knew about.


Her Nutcracker was a tradition in northern New Jersey, and I loved doing it year after year, growing into different roles. And we always had a full orchestra, as we did for Swan Lake and tons of other ballets. (For more about her Nutcracker, and those of her daughters click here)


We grew up learning about music through dance. Miss Fokine made a gorgeous piece called Lyric Suite to Grieg, and the music got under my skin. She made a modernist, minimalist piece called Diagonal to Bach that was brilliant in its progression—even as a teenager I recognized that. So while we were talking about that piece, she told us what inspired that it: She happened to be sitting with a jar of jumpy tadpoles, courtesy of her young son, while listening to Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. That explains why that ballet, though it so geometrical and minimal, was so organic too. That was my first contemporary ballet—either seeing one or dancing one. She also made By the Sea, a hilarious romp that we loved performing. And Legend, with very tricky partnering, to Smetana’s beautiful music.


Miss Fokine also had a chamber group where we did Cinderella (I fell in love with Prokofiev’s music) and a version of Coppelia. These were tiny groups of five girls and two boys. She was ingenious about casting and cutting these big stories down in size.


Long ago, we admired the “older girls” and then became the older girls. Likewise, on Saturday, a bunch of young girls crowded around Amanda Hankes, another Fokine alumna. They were excitedly asking her about her professional dance life at NYCB. 


There was so much we didn’t know about Miss Fokine and her mother, Alexandra Federova, who came to the studio to teach and set ballets. Fedorova had once been the “little sister” of Pavlova at the Imperial School in Leningrad. That meant she had to sew the older girl’s ribbons on her pointe shoes. But they must have stayed in touch because Pavlova became little Irine’s godmother. Fedorova had even danced in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes briefly and then became the star and choreographer of the Riga Opera Ballet. She came to NYC in 1937 and taught very popular classes where Robert Joffrey, Nora Kaye, and Donald Saddler studied.


As kids, we didn’t know any of this stuff. I wonder, would we have cared?


Miss Fokine’s secretary brought in a box of photos from 30 and 40 years ago, and we all rummaged through, squealing with delight. (Except when I got choked at seeing pictures of two close friends who died early.)


I had forgotten that it was Miss Fokine who first suggested I choreograph. I was 13 or 14, and it was at Cape Cod. She handed me a record of Grand Canyon Suite and told me to make a dance. Ahh, the Cape, an idyllic memory of dancing morning and evening, swimming in between, and improving enormously by the end of the summer.


Miss Fokine’s daughters carry on the tradition. Donna Decker’s ballet school is in Oneonta, NY, and Nina Marlowe’s is in Phoenix. I learned that Miss Fokine is not only a great grandmother, but a great great grandma. Nina’s son Stevie recently became a grandfather. I swear, Miss Fokine will live forever.