Why Are We Seeing So Few Fokine Ballets?

April 8, 2008

Judging by the reps of current companies, you’d think there was nothing between Petipa and Balanchine. But in between those two giants was Michel Fokine. His ballets had the breath of life in them, compared to the mere pageantry of Petipa. I know, I know, Petipa was a great and prolific choreographer who gave us the whole grand tradition of Russian classicism. But it’s hard to for me find any aesthetic interest in the rows and rows of display in his ballets. On the other hand, Fokine gave us Les Sylphides (or Chopiniana), Petrouchka, and The Dying Swan among other ballets

    This week at City Center, the Kirov is showing an all-Fokine program. Four ballets are on the bill including Scheherazade—rarely seen these days. I gotta admit I couldn’t pay much attention to the choreography because Diana Vishneva was so damn sexy in it. But that ballet, together with Chopiniana, Spectre de la Rose, and The Dying Swan, shows the sheer range and colorfulness of Fokine ballets. And there is nothing like Chopiniana/Les Sylphides—so wafty, so delicately balanced, so dreamy, so musical.

    Clive Barnes told me that Chopiniana was originally a narrative ballet. He’s always right on matters of history, but still it was hard to believe, given that it’s been held up as the first plotless ballet. But sure enough, when I looked it up in Cyril Beaumont’s Michel Fokine and His Ballets, I found that it was first done in March, 1908 as a suite of five scenes to Chopin. The first, the Polonaise, was in a fancy ballroom. The second, the Nocturne, was in a deserted monastery, with the ghosts of monks plaguing Chopin at the piano, placated only by the figure of his muse. The third, the Mazurka, is an aborted wedding scene. A young woman betrothed to an old man eventually decides to skip the wedding and elope with her young lover. The fourth, the Waltz, was a purely classical pas de deux in the manner of Taglioni. The last was the Tarantella, with a whole village in Naples, including children.

    A month later, Fokine presented the ballet as an expanded version of the Waltz section—a moonlit, romantic, albeit plotless ballet, later to be called Les Sylphides. Fokine was often accused of wanting to destroy classical ballet—what with his crazy ideas about artistic integrity and minimizing gratuitous displays of virtuosity—so he devised this as a way to show his classicism. It included not only the Waltz but also a Mazurka, a Prelude, and of course, the Nocturne that gives the ballet its exquisite lilting sadness.

    Fokine was not only the bridge between Petipa and Balanchine, but he provided the cornerstone of the rep of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in its early days. I wish there were more efforts to stage his ballets. There seems to be more attention to Massine and Nijinsky (which I appreciate as much as anybody). Perhaps Fokine isn’t thought of as modern as those others. Or perhaps his granddaughter, Isabelle Fokine, is keeping a tight rein on the ballets. (I remember years ago when she complained about how everyone did Petrouchka—thus the scarcity of that terrific ballet.) In any case, it’s pretty wonderful that the Kirov has brought us some of the Fokine ballets.