Spotlight: Michael Fokine

Today's Spotlight Saturday, the last of the year, focuses on Russian dancer and choreographer Michael Fokine.

He was born Mikhail Mikhaylovich Fokin in St. Petersburg on 23 April, 1880. He was accepted into the Imperial Ballet School at the age of 9, and made his debut in the ballet Le Talisman that same year, under the direction of Marius Petipa. On his 18th birthday in 1898, he debuted with the Imperial Ballet at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in a production of Paquita.

With Anna Pavlova in 'Harlequinade'

Fokine was not only a talented dancer, but a talented painter; he also played the mandolin, domra, and balalaika. He briefly considered pursuing a painting career as he became frustrated with his dancing career. In 1902, however, he was offered a teaching position at the Imperial Ballet School, which allowed him to begin exploring the world of choreography. His students included Desha Delteil and Bronislava Nijinska. In 1905, he choreographed his first full-length ballet, Acis et Galatee, based on a Sicilian legend.

As Lucien d'Hervilly in 'Paquita'

He wanted to move beyond the stereotypes of ballet, by stripping the ballets of their outdated miming and instead utilising the technical movement to tell the story. He experimented with freer use of the upper body and attempted several times to have the ballerinas dance barefoot; his requests were refused by the management of the Imperial Theatres, and for his 1907 ballet Eunice Fokine resorted to having bare feet painted onto the dancers' tights to give the appearance of bare feet.

With Tamara Karsavina in 'The Firebird', 1910

Fokine created a solo dance for Anna Pavlova in 1907, to music from Le Cygne; given the title The Dying Swan it became her most famous piece. A young Vaslav Nijinsky performed in one of Fokine's early pieces, Acis et Galatee, and later became the star of Fokine's 1907 ballet Chopiniana, later renamed Les Sylphides in 1909.

As the Golden Slave with wife Vera Fokina as Zobeida from 'Scheherazade' (1914)

In 1909, he was invited by Sergei Diaghilev to become the resident choreographer for the first season of Diaghilev's company, the Ballets Russes. His tenure was successful; he co-choreographed the popular 1910 ballet Scheherazade, based on the tales of 1001 Arabian Nights. The 1910 season starred Nijinsky as the Golden Slave. He then choreographed The Firebird (1910); Petruskha (1912), to music by Igor Stravinsky; Daphnis et Chloe (1912); and Le Spectre de la Rose (1911), which starred Nijinsky. Fokine left the Ballets Russes in 1912 but was persuaded to return in 1914, choreographing three more ballets: Midas, The Legend of Joseph, and Le Coq d'Or.

With Tamara Karsavina in 'Le Dieu Bleu' (1912)

The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 forced many dancers to return to their home countries, including Fokine. In 1918 he moved to Sweden with his family and later established a home in New York City. He founded a ballet school there in 1921 and continued to make appearances with his wife, Vera Fokina. In 1924 he organised his own company, the American Ballet, which performed regularly at the Metropolitan Opera House and toured the country. His first creation for the company was the comedic Bluebeard, to a score by Jacques Offenbach. Meanwhile, his Les Sylphides was the first ballet presented at the American Ballet Theatre on 11 January, 1940.

With Tamara Karsavina in 'The Firebird', 1910

Fokine joined Colonel de Basil's off-shoot of the Ballets Russes, later renamed the Original Ballet Russe, in 1937. For this company he created Cendrillon (1938), and Paganini (1939), among other works. His choreography featured with the company until 1941. Fokine staged more than 80 ballets in Europe and the United States. His best known works are Les Sylphides, Le Carnaval (1910), and Le Pavillon d'Armide (1907).

Fokine died in New York on 22 August 1942, aged 62. In tribute to him, seventeen ballet companies around the world performed Les Sylphides simultaneously.

As Arlequin in 'Le Carnaval'

Thanks for reading! Spotlight Saturday is now on a break until the new year. Look out for next Thursday's post on everyone's favourite holiday ballet - The Nutcracker.

- Selene

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