Fokine's Legacy (excerpt)
By Sarah Hixon
By the end of the 19th century, ballet had become a formulaic spectacle, following strict rules and protocol. The two-act Romantic ballet had been embellished by Petipa into the four-act “grand ballet” of immense scale and opulence. Stage action was governed by the hierarchy of dancers, centered around the prima ballerina (Scholl 3). The narrative action of these Classical ballets was often accomplished long before the ballet’s ending, leaving at least one act to showcase technical virtuosity. Michel Fokine, a student, performer, and teacher of the Imperial Ballet, was to break with these traditions and usher in a new genre in dance aesthetics.
Fokine, like many Russian artists at the turn of the 20th century, was influenced by the social and political turmoil of his country and the new movements calling for reform. He found the politics and artistic restrictions of the Imperial Theater confining, and was one of the twelve delegates elected to fight for dancer rights in the 1905 strike (Garafola 4). Clearly, Fokine championed new ideas for ballet. He began to formulate a list of “reforms” for ballet choreography, which he employed in his own creative work (Scholl 59).
Many of the reforms Fokine called for were not especially new to the dance world (Scholl 60). Similar arguments about content, cohesiveness, and expressiveness had been advocated a century earlier by Noverre. While it is argued that many of Fokine’s new ideas for ballet were taken from other artists of the period, especially Isadora Duncan, he is one of the first choreographers to attempt the application of these ideas on the ballet stage. Fokine condensed the structure of the grand ballets, using only the most important and expressive moments to create shorter more cohesive works. Fokine’s ballets were generally brief, not usually being longer than one act. He also firmly believed in the “authenticity” of costume, setting, and movement for a particular libretto. Rather than merely covering the traditional ballet d’ecole style in a veneer of exoticism, he believed in studying the time and place which was to be the ballet’s setting (Garafola 9). In order to achieve these effects, Fokine would free the dancers of their restrictive corseted tutus and put them in more revealing and realistic costumes (Garafola 38-39).
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Garafola, Lynn. Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. New York: Da CapoPress, 1989.
Jowitt, Deborah. Time and the Dancing Image. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Scholl, Tim. From Petipa to Balanchine. Classical Revival and the Modernization of Ballet. New York: Routledge, 1994.