If you are wondering who Michel Fokine was, he was a dancer and choreographer that profoundly influenced the 20th-century classical ballet repertoire.
In 1905 he composed The Dying Swan for Russian Ballerina Anna Pavlova. He was chief choreographer at Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes from 1909 to 1914 and during this time he created Petrushka, The Firebird and L’Oiseau de Fau.
Michel Fokine And His Life
Fokine was born into a prosperous middle-class family. He was the 17th of 18 children, but only five survived to adulthood. In 1889 he entered into the Imperial Ballet School at the Mariinsky Theatre. He was talented not only as a dancer but also as a student of music and painting. He began quite early in his life to plan choreography and seek out appropriate music in the school library as well as sketch designs.
He made his debut as a dancer with the Imperial Russian Ballet on his 18th birthday. He graduated in 1898 and achieved the rare distinction of entering the Imperial Ballet directly as a soloist.
He began teaching in 1902 and became the first soloist in 1904. He staged his first ballets the following year – Acis and Galatea for a pupil’s performance and Le Cygne for Anna Pavlova. His first ballet for the Imperial Theatre was Le Pavillon d’Armide in 1907.
He was very deeply influenced by the lofty qualities of the Romantic Ballet Era with its emphasis on expression and his personal passion lead him to museums and galleries to study the works of the past.
He would formulate his ideas before creating his ballets. ‘Dancing should be expressive,’ he wrote in a note submitted to the management of the Imperial Theatres with the scenario of Acis and Galatea.
He believed that works must not degenerate into mere gymnastics and should reflect the feelings of the character portrayed. The movement should fit the time and style of the period. The costumes should not be established ballet style, but be consistent with the plot. The ballet should be uninterrupted by not having separate numbers and not be interrupted with applause and its acknowledgment by the artists. The music had to express the story of the ballet.
The above were some of the principles of the choreographic revolution he effected in the next ten years.
In 1904 he wrote the scenario for his first ballet based on the ancient Greco-Roman – Legend of Daphnis and Chloe. It made very little impact with the directors of the Imperial Theatre and he was not encouraged to produce it. Later he created it for Diaghilev in 1912.
At St Petersburg, he had no power to implement his beliefs so he began to work as a choreographer in 1904 for his pupils. It was Acis et Galatee based on an ancient Sicilian legend.
His enthusiasm for antiquity owed nothing to the free dance ideas from American Dancer Isadora Duncan, although her appearance in Russia in 1905 greatly consolidated his own beliefs. In 1905 he also did his famous solo The Dying Swan for Anna Pavlova.
Fokine was an integral part of the Ballets Russes Paris triumph. Diaghilev was well known for bringing artists together in successful collaboration and with Fokine as the chief choreographer, the link between the dancers Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky, and Adolph Bolm as well as designers Alexandre Benois and Leon Bakst and composer Igor Stravinsky in beautiful unified creations like L’Oiseau de Fau and Petruska.
Michel Fokine’s relationship with the Diaghilev ballet deteriorated when Nijinsky was launched as a choreographer, but he still remained with the company until 1914 when he returned to Russia. It was during World War 1 and he toured with his wife, giving dance concert performances.
The pair left Russia in 1918 and made their home in New York City from 1923.
Fokine founded two short-lived ballet companies, the Fokine Ballet in 1922 and the American Ballet in 1924. Fokine became a U.S. citizen in 1932.
Between 1934 and 1936 he returned to Europe and choreographed several new works there for the Ballets Russes.
He worked with companies in both the USA and Europe creating new ballets such as L Epreuve d’amour in 1936 and Don Juan in 1936. None of these later ballets had the same impact that his earlier work did.
One of the few choreographers to come to a first rehearsal with clear and complete ideas for a ballet, Fokine had great facility and speed in choreographic invention, intense musicality, and the ability to memorize an orchestral score. He was by no means equable at work. Tamara Karsavina wrote in her autobiography Theatre Street that “he was extremely irritable and had no control of his temper,” but she emphasized that dancers became devoted to him.
The vocabulary of classical ballet has been enormously extended since Fokine’s day, and subsequent audiences sometimes feel that his choreography is dated. Those of his ballets remaining in production have inevitably suffered distortion. He himself was conscious that this would happen. “The longer a ballet exists in the repertoire,” he wrote in his Memoirs, “the further it departs from its original version. . . . After my death, the public, watching my ballets, will think ‘What nonsense Fokine staged! ”
Here is a list of some of Michel Fokine’s well-known ballets:
Even if he had not been a choreographer, Michel Fokine would have lived in history as an outstanding dancer. His achievements in one art have tended to overshadow his greatness in the other. As a choreographer he is the most influential figure of the first half of the twentieth century, matching Noverre in the importance of his reforms and providing a reference pointe for all his successors.
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. He died on the 22nd of August 1942 in New York City.
The comedy ballet Helen of Troy for the American Ballet Theatre was completed by David Lichine and was premiered in Mexico City on the 10th of September 1942.
His wife Vera Fokine, who was also a dancer and who had performed in many of his ballets survived him until 1958.
Here is some rare video footage from that era.