Michel (Mikhail) Fokine 1880 – 1942 was born Mikhail Mikhailovich Fokine on 26 April in St. Petersburg-Russia.
He was accepted into the Imperial Ballet School at the age of 9 and made his performing debut that same year at the Maryinsky Theatre in the ballet The Talisman under the direction of Marius Petipa. Upon graduation he entered the company as a soloist, where he frequently partnered another promising newcomer, Anna Pavlova.
During his student days he studied both piano and violin. He went on to master the mandolin and balalaika and joined the small string orchestra created by the Maryinsky Theatre Orchestra musicians. Following this success as an instrumentalist, he was invited to join the famed orchestra of V.V. Andreiev, all while still working as a soloist of the Imperial Ballet. He went on to transcribe, orchestrate, and compose music. During the later years of his choreographic career, he conducted the orchestra on occasion, while his ballets were being performed on stage.
His other great passion was to be a painter. Having showed exceptional talent as a student, he studied at the school of Dmitriev-Kavkasky where pupils were prepared for entrance into the Academy of Arts.
Disappointed by the artistic life of a dancer during this period, he considered these other paths, until in 1902 he was offered a teaching position at the Imperial Ballet School. This not only supplemented his income, but gave him a chance to explore his own views of artistic cohesion and choreographic possibilities. His first ballet Acis and Galatea, was created for a student performance.
In 1904 he presented a letter to the Directors of the Imperial Theatre that was the basis for his now famous 5 principles describing the need for ballet’s reform.
"....In place of the traditional dualism, the ballet must have a complete unity of expression, a unity which is made up of a harmonious blending of the three elements—music, painting and the plastique art……. dancing should be interpretative. It should not degenerate into mere gymnastics …it should explain the spirit…….”
This was the first in a number of proposals he sent to the theatre officials, which at this point, were still met with indifference.
His revolutionary ideas are sometimes attributed to others, so it is interesting to note that the above efforts were made four years before meeting Diaghilev and ten months before Isadora Duncan first appeared in Russia.
He went on to choreograph a number of pupil’s performances and charity events, now inspiring a group of young followers, gaining the attention of artists like Alexander Benois, and even the approval of Petipa, whose artistic vision he was rejecting.
In 1905 he married the young dancer Vera Antonova, and became a father following the birth of their son Vitale. He also created one of his most iconic pieces of choreography that year, The Dying Swan. Pavlova was scheduled to appear in a concert given at the Hall of Noblemen Assembly and requested that Fokine create something for her. Having just mastered Saint-Seans’ Swan on the mandolin , and inspired by Pavlova’s delicacy, he choreographed this poetic solo.
For the next three years he created a number of ballets, presented at the Maryinsky Theatre. However most of these were self produced for charity benefits. Fokine would often be selling tickets from his apartment, while he and his wife were making the costumes. The Administration of the theatre still had misgivings about Fokine’s ideas judging him to be too radical. They would attempt to restrict his activities and sensor his reforms.
Then in 1908 Benois introduced Fokine to Serge Diaghilev, a meeting that was to change both their lives and the course of ballet history. In describing that first meeting Benois states ”Fokine is all aflame with ideas”. Diaghilev proposed bringing four of Fokine’s ballets to Paris. Le Pavillon D’Armide, Cleopatre, the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor, and Les Sylphides (the first plotless ballet), all of which made up the first Ballet Russes season at the Chatelet Theatre in 1909.
The impact of the first seasons of the Ballet Russes is hard to overstate. The influence it cast on the entire world of art, music, culture, fashion, literature was unprecedented and is still a source of fascination to this day.
1910 brought the creation of three more Fokine masterworks: Carnaval, Scheherazade and The Firebird. Carnaval premiered at the Pavlov Hall in a performance organized by the magazine Satyricon, to Schumann’s score of the same name. In the original cast of this commedia dell’arte piece, was Vsevolod Meyerhold (a founding member of The Moscow Art Theatre) as Pierrot. Here, Fokine found sympathetic artists like Stanislavski, whose work greatly supported Fokine’s ideas of how ballet pantomime should be transformed.
Scheherazade, produced specifically for the company, became one of the Ballet Russes most successful presentations, with spectacular designs by Bakst and choreography exhibiting a completely new sense of form and sexuality. For The Firebird, Fokine wrote a libretto based a series of Russian Fairy Tales and collaborated with one of the century’s greatest composers, Igor Stravinsky, on this, his first ballet score. All of these ballets were the main event of the 1910 Ballet Russes season at the Paris Opera.
The following year the company returned to the Chatalet, where Fokine created Narcisse, Sadko & an intimate ballet, which insured legendary status to its star. Spectre de la Rose became one of Nijinsky’s most enduring images. The other important work of 1911 was a second collaboration with Stravinsky, Petrouchka, a unique piece of theatre in its’ use of ballet as a means of telling a symbolic story within a real environment. Petrouchka stands as one of Fokine’s greatest achievements.
In 1912 he choreographed Thamar, Le Dieu Bleu , and his long planned Daphnis & Chloe, with a score by Maurice Ravel created around Fokine’s libretto. However the premiere of Daphnis was to be the turning point in the relationship between Fokine and Diaghilev. Fokine felt that Diaghilev was taking actions to undermine the ballet’s success, in an effort to insure that Nijinsky’s first ballet, L’Apres-Midi d’un Faun, would be the evening’s sensation. The final straw for Fokine was an attempt by Diaghilev to schedule the ballet first on the programme, while moving curtain time to a half hour earlier than normal, resulting in the audience arriving in the middle of the ballet. A violent argument ensued between Fokine and Diaghilev, concluding with Fokine’s resignation.
Fokine returned to the Imperial Theatre in 1913 where he choreographed Islamy and Papillion. He then went to Berlin to work with Anna Pavlova’s company creating two ballets for her: Les Preludes, & Seven Daughters of the Mountain King. Later that same year he was in Paris at the Chatelet choreographing La Pisanelle for Ida Rubinstein.
Then in 1914 Diaghilev persuaded Fokine to return to the Ballet Russes. For this new season Fokine created three ballets: Midas, and The Legend of Joseph with an original score by Richard Strauss. This ballet also featured the company’s new leading dancer, Leonide Massine in the title role. The other new work of this season was Le Coq d’Or with designs by one of the new “Moscow Futurist” artists, Natalia Goncharova. The season was a great success and there were plans for Fokine to create seven new works for his return to the Ballet Russes. But just as the Fokines were about to leave Paris, the announcement was made that war with Germany had been declared.
Unable to return across Europe, they went to Spain, expecting to travel on a southern route through Turkey. However when Turkey entered the war, they were stranded in Spain. Fokine took the opportunity to study Spanish dancing. He was later to use this knowledge in his ballets, Jota Aragonesa (1916), Ole Toro (1924), Panaderas (1930), and Bolero (1935).
Finally having made his way back to St. Petersburg (now Petrograd) through Scandinavia, he remained in Russia for the duration of the war returning to the Imperial Theatre. Though international travel was impossible, work at the Maryinsky went on as normal for the first few years of the war. Despite the fact that nearly all his new ballets were created as fund raisers, for the war relief effort, some went on to have lasting success. In 1915 he created Francesca de Rimini, Stenka Razin, and Eros. The following year brought The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and in 1917 his last work for the Maryinsky, Russlan and Ludmilla, which is still a staple of their repertoire today.
Following the October revolution of 1917 most Imperial Theatre artists were leaving the country in any way they could. The Fokines made their way to Sweden as Fokine had received an offer to stage Petrouchka in Stockholm. He was able to persuade the Soviet officials for the needed permits to travel. Fokine, his wife, and son, made their way through the front lines of the Russian Civil War in dramatic escape. The Fokines spent the following year in Scandinavia touring and performing, when in 1919 he received an invitation to come to New York to work on a Broadway production, Aphrodite.
This was to be a pivotal move for Fokine, as New York remained his home base for the remainder of his life. While in New York he received an invitation from Diaghilev to resume his work with the Ballet Russe, but Fokine was unwilling until Diaghilev cleared his financial debts. He still owed Fokine payments from his 1914-1915 contract. The last attempt at contact between the two came in 1928. Fokine was rehearsing Polovtsian Dances in Paris. Diaghilev was in the building and overheard Fokine’s voice. He asked the dancer Boris Romanov to intervene and ask if Fokine would be willing to see him. Fokine was deeply moved but at the last minute Diaghilev didn’t enter the studio. The two never met again, as Diaghilev died the following year.
Life and work in the United States was difficult as trained and professional ballet dancers were non-existent. The first few years consisted of concert tours given by the Fokines themselves, and choreographing for the Broadway theatre.
In 1921 Fokine opened a ballet school in New York that was to become a training ground for the first generation of American ballet dancers. By 1924 he organized his first company the “American Ballet” which performed regularly at he Metropolitan Opera House, and toured the principal cities of the US. As well as staging his established repertoire, he also choreographed a number of new ballets over this period: La Reve de la Marquise, Igroushki (Russian Toys), Adventures of Harlequin, Medusa, Les Elfes, & Fra Mino which was created for the start of a European tour beginning in Berlin 1925. They went on to Copenhagen, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, & Sweden.
From 1926-27 performances in New York filled the Fokine Ballet company schedule beginning at Carnegie Hall and concluding with the unprecedented success at Lewisohm Stadium with 48,000 people in the audience over 3 performances. The following year brought further work on Broadway, including the Ziegfeld Follies.
1928-29 he returned to Paris and Riga at the National Opera, finishing with a season at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. In 1930 Fokine closed his school in New York in order to work in Hollywood. After a few experimental films there, the studio bosses judged his work to be “too artistic”. In 1931 he left for South America to work at the Colon Theatre, Buenos Aires, where he staged eight of his ballets. He was also receiving repeated requests to return to Russia from the Soviet authorities and the theatre officials. The regime convinced a few artists. Serge Prokoviev was persuaded. However events like the arrest and execution of Meyerhold by the NKVD, later confirmed Fokine’s decision not to return.
In the summer of 1934 a return engagement of the Fokine Ballet to Lewisohm Stadium caused a sensation. After 15,000 seats and 2,000 standees were admitted, there were still thousands trying to get in. The police had to be called to control the crowds. On 8 August 1934 the New York Times had a headline on the front page that read “POLICE CALLED AS 10,000 TRY VAINLY TO SEE FOKINE BALLET AT STADIUM”.
In 1935 Fokine went to La Scala to choreograph The Love of Three Oranges and Samson and Delilah with designs by Nicholas Benois, son of Alexander. The performances were successful and highly praised by the critics. But Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia brought about an uncomfortable atmosphere outside of Milan, and hostility on the part of Italians in the surrounding countryside. Fokine then went to Paris to choreograph a number of works for Ida Rubinstein at the Paris Opera, which included La Valse with his former collaborators Maurice Ravel and the senior Benois.
1936 marked a Renaissance for Fokine. It began by working with Rene Blum’s Ballet de Monte Carlo. He choreographed three new ballets: Les Elements to music by Bach, Don Juan, and the comedy L’Epreuve d’Amour with designs by Andre Derian to a newly discovered Mozart score. The London papers described the ballet as “a triumph of charming chinoiserie ”. Fokine also staged most of his Diaghilev repertoire for the company, as well as some of his later successes including Les Elfes, and Igroushki.
During this period Colonel de Basil’s Ballet Russe were performing a number of Fokine Ballets revived by Serge Gregoriev. Fokine was so dismayed by the state of these productions that he decided to sue de Basil. Through the intervention of friends the two men met. This meeting resulted in a close personal friendship developing and a long professional association. Fokine was engaged by de Basil to repair and revise his older ballets and to choreograph Cinderella, a new version of Coq d’Or, and one of his later masterpieces, Paganini. Serge Rachmaninoff had been one of Fokine’s closest friends since 1919. The two had often talked about collaborating on a ballet. During a visit in 1937 they decided on Paganini. With this piece Fokine took the genre of ‘story ballets’ to a new realm. It was surreal and psychological tale about the musician’s torment. With designs by Soudeikine, the ballet premiered at the Royal Opera House - Covent Garden on 30 June 1939. The next day, the papers referred to this as Fokine’s ”greatest creation”. Fokine and Rachmaninoff intended to collaborate again, and began preliminary work on their next piece, but time and world events would prevent that from coming to fruition.
Fokine toured Europe with the company, but war was imminent. He returned home to New York for his last, and one of his most important ventures. Invited by Lucia Chase to be one of the founding members of the newly planned American project – the Ballet Theatre. For this new company, Fokine was to stage his established repertoire and create new works. The historic premiere of (American) Ballet Theatre saw the curtain rise on Les Sylphides, the first ballet ever presented by the company on 11 January 1940. His first new creation for the company was the comedy Bluebeard, to an Offenbach score. The cast included: Alicia Markova, Irina Baronova, Lucia Chase, Anton Dolin, Nora Kaye, Anthony Tudor, and Jerome Robbins. The Times review called it “Downright hilarious”. His next creation for the company was The Russian Soldier choreographed to Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije, with designs by the Russian painter Mstislav Doboujinsky, and an original libretto by Fokine. The story revolves around a dying soldier’s hallucinations as images of his life pass before his eyes. The action takes place on two stages, sometimes with two scenes going on simultaneously, a first in ballet. The Chicago Tribune called the work “Sublime”.
His next and final creation for Ballet Theatre was Helen of Troy. While rehearsing the company in Mexico City he developed a thrombosis in his leg. By the time he reached New York it had developed into Pleurisy, which turned into double pneumonia. He died on 22 August 1942. In tribute to his passing, seventeen ballet companies around the world performed Les Sylphides simultaneously. When asked to comment on Fokine’s death, his beloved friend Rachmaninov stated “now all the geniuses are dead.”
During his lifetime Fokine created over eighty ballets, many are considered masterpieces. In addition to his catalogue of work, he is most noted for the fact that he revolutionised the art of dance.
Written by Isabelle Fokine © Fokine Estate-Archive