Mikhail Fokine was born in Saint Petersburg on March 26th 1880 and he owed his celebrity to Serge Diaghilev, just as Diaghilev owed him the success of his first “Saisons Russes” in Paris. He was accepted into the Imperial School of Dance at the age of nine and Fokine was soon noticed for his precocious talents in dance, mime, music and painting .In 1898, he was recruited by the Imperial Ballet at the Maryinksy Theatre, where he was immediately given the solo parts. He was Anna Pavlova’s first partner – she was a year younger than he – and he composed the “Dying Swan” for her in a single day for a charity gala in 1907. The “Dying Swan” is the most famous solo ever choreographed for a dancer.
Fokine also directed several ballets for students at the Maryinksy Theatre School, where he became a teacher when he was only 22 and in 1907, he was asked by the Imperial Ballet to create “Le Pavillon d’Amide”, then the following year, he choreographed “Chopiniana”, the first version of “Les Sylphides”. Serge Diaghilev noticed him and decided to entrust him with all the choreography for his first “Saison Russe” ballet season at the Châtelet Theatre in 1909. “Le Pavillon d’Amide”, “Les Sylphides”, “Cleopatra” and the “Danses Polovtsiennes from Prince Igor” met with astounding success. Fokine then went on the choreograph Serge de Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes’ greatest successes, including “The Firebird”, “Scheherazade”, “Le Spectre de la Rose”, “Petrushka” and “The Blue God”, all danced by Nijinsky, the idol of the crowds.
After falling out with Diaghilev in 1914, Mikhail Fokine continued his career between Monte Carlo and New York, where he lived from 1923 until he died in 1942.
This amazing choreographer left us more than sixty ballets, including ten immortal masterpieces composed for the Ballets Russes between 1909 and 1914, his five most brilliant years, like Nijinsky for whom he created the most handsome roles.
Breaking Petipa’s tradition of three-act ballets, Fokine revolutionised the history of dance. Fulfilling Diaghilev’s wishes, he concocted evening programmes comprising three or four different works and attached great importance to the quality of the music (mainly Russian), the décors and the costumes (designed by Bakst, Roerich or Benois). His highly varied inspiration produced romantic ballets (“Les Sylphides”, “le Spectre de la Rose”, “Papillons”) or ballets taken from popular Russian tales (“Petrushka”, “Daphnis and Chloe”, “Prince Igor”, “the Fire Bird”) with a hint of the sensual and opulent East (“Sheherazade”) drawing equally on historical mythological and biblical sources (“Cleopatra”, “Daphnis and Chloe”, “The Legend of Joseph”).
His style was distinguished by the total freedom of body movements (quite the opposite to the rigid and brilliant academic vocabulary of the 19th century), without any strict rules, emphasising the characters’ expression and the music. Rudolf Nureyev – who could not remain indifferent to roles so close to his Russian sensitivity and his Tatar sensuality – included five of Fokine’s masterpieces in his repertoire.
NUREYEV DANCES FOKINE
« LE SPECTRE DE LA ROSE »
Music by Weber, “Invitation to the Waltz» orchestrated by Berlioz). Created on April 19th 1911 at the Monte-Carlo Opera House by Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky. Libretto by Jean-Louis Vaudoyer after a poem by Théophile Gautier. Décors and costumes by Léon Bakst.
On her return from a ball, a young girl breathes in the scent of a rose that a gallant partner offered her as a souvenir of the evening. She falls asleep in an armchair and dreams that the rose has changed into a handsome young Spirit in love, just like her partner but completely covered in rose petals. After gently spinning around and sketching a last waltz with her, the Spectre leaves as he arrived, through the window in a leap whose lift and grace astounded the public when Nijinsky danced the part in Paris. The young girl then awakes and forgets her illusions when she sees the rose that has fallen at her feet during her slumber.
“Le Spectre de la Rose” was one of the first ballets danced by Rudolf Nureyev after he escaped at Le Bourget. Pierre Lacotte taught him the part for German television, just before it was filmed in Frankfurt in 1961. Nureyev didn’t perform it on stage until 1979 in New York – 24 times – during the Joffrey Ballet’s homage to Diaghilev. He danced it again the same year with Margot Fonteyn and the London Festival Ballet at the Coliseum in London, then again in the United States with the Joffrey Ballet. He performed it for the first time in Paris on February 20th 1981 for a Private Gala organised by Yves Saint-Laurent at the Opéra Comique, then 9 times at the Châtelet Theatre in January 1982. It was a work he often included in his programme, mainly with the Ballet de Nancy when they toured Latin America, London and Japan (in 1984).
It was in this ballet that he danced his last performance with Margot Fonteyn, on June 23rd 1979, bringing to an end the perfect harmony of a legendary couple that lasted 17 years. Margot Fonteyn – aged 60 – decided at the last moment to go back on stage that evening for the last time. Nureyev himself performed the “Spectre” for the last time on August 29th 1987 at the London Coliseum with the Ballet de Nancy.
« LES SYLPHIDES »
Music by Chopin, orchestrated by Glazunov and Keller. Décors and story by Alexandre Benois. Created on June 2nd 1909 at the Châtelet Theatre by Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky.
This one-act ballet is simply a dream inspired by some of Chopin’s piano scores and it finds a Poet, dressed in a black velvet leotard with white collar and cuffs, in the middle of a flock of white creatures with butterfly wings, in a romantic, night-time setting inspired by the second acts of both “Giselle” and “La Sylphide”. The Poet dances a Nocturne with three soloists, a solo mazurka and a duo with the main etoile in a grand adagio to a waltz, before the finale which brings together the Poet and all the sylphides in the Grande Valse, opus 18.
Shortly after his London début with Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev danced the Poet for the first time on May 3rd 1962 with Yvette Chauviré and the Royal Ballet. In November, he danced it with Margot Fonteyn, as he did again in 1963 in London and New York. They were both filmed by British television for a colour programme entitled, “An Evening with the Royal Ballet”. Nureyev danced this role all over the world, in particular at the Paris Opera in December 1973 with Noella Pontois in a Homage to Diaghilev (when he also danced “Petrushka” with Yvette Chauviré then with Jacqueline Rayet and “Apollon Musagète” by Balanchine), on a Canadian tour in 1973 and 74, once again with Margot Fonteyn (then Natalia Makarova and Lynn Seymour) at the London Coliseum in 1977… and for the last time on July 13th 1982 with Evelyne Desutter at the Macerata Arena (along with “Le Spectre de la Rose”).
« LES DANSES POLOVTSIENNES »
From the opera «PRINCE IGOR» to music by Borodin. Fokine created this ballet on May 19th 1909 at the Châtelet Theatre, with décors and costumes by Nicholas Roerich, with Adolph Bolm in the part of the Warrior Chief.
In the second act, to entertain Prince Igor, his prisoner Khan Kontchak offers him an entertaining dance performed by his most beautiful slaves and his most valiant Polovtsian warriors.
Rudolf Nureyev did not often dance the short but fiery role of the warrior chief after his début in this work in 1962 with the Royal Ballet. He performed it in October 1981 in Bari with “Le Spectre de la Rose”, “Les Sylphides” and “L’après-midi d’un faune”, then in Cannes (with “Petrushka” and the Ballet de Nancy) on December 31st 1981 and January 1st and 2nd 1982.
« PETRUSHKA »
Music by Stravinsky, libretto by Stravinsky and Alexandre Benois, who also designed the décor and costumes. Created on June 13th 1911 at the Châtelet Theatre by Nijinsky, Karsavina, Orlov and Cecchetti.
The action takes place in Saint Petersburg in 1830 as the Shrove Tuesday celebrations take place. An old charlatan draws the crowds round his fairground stall, where – with a wave of his wand – he brings three marionettes to life: the shy Petrushka who is in love with the Doll, a pretty thing who prefers a stupid Moor’s attentions. Petrushka suffers from the fact he is no more than a puppet who cannot express his love like a human being. He turns against his rival who – in a fit of anger – follows after him and splits his head open with a huge blow of his scimitar, in front of the terrified crowd. The old charlatan reassures the audience by showing them that Petrushka is no more than a rag doll. He drags him away like a dead body when, horrified, he sees Petrushka (or his spirit, the spirit of the Russian people?) mocking him above the stall, before collapsing pitifully, falling lifeless to the ground. Petrushka is a popular hero like Pierrot in France and the public is moved by his sensitivity, his unhappy love story and the acknowledgment of his desperate situation, manipulated by a charlatan who forces him to play this sad part.
Rudolf Nureyev danced the role of Petrushka for the first time on October 24th 1963 with the Royal Ballet. This popular Russian character, on which his strong personality left its mark, was one of his most moving compositions. It is impossible to forget the expressive image of his gloved hands holding his pathetic, white-painted face under the clown’s hat. He performed Petrushka all through his career and all over the world, particularly at the Paris Opera in 1972, 73 and 75, with Noella Pontois and Charles Jude (Yves-André Hubert filmed them for Antenne 2 TV channel, which broadcast the ballet on December 27th 1976), in New York and Chicago with the Joffrey Ballet in 1979 and 1980, dancing the same programme in homage to Diaghilev, Fokine’s “Le Spectre de la Rose” and Nijinsky’s “Après-midi d’un Faune” (the whole performance was filmed in Nashville in 1980). Rudolf Nureyev went on long tours with this programme and the Ballet de Nancy in 1982 – dancing at the Châtelet Theatre among other venues, which is where the ballet was created by Nijinsky – to Florence and London, then all of Latin America in 1983, Nancy in 1984 and 1986, the Edinburgh Festival in 1987 etc. Rudolf Nureyev danced Petrushka for the last time in Naples with the San Carlo Ballet on December 15th 1990.
« SCHEHERAZADE »
Ballet in one act to music by Rimsky-Korsakov. Libretto (after one of the Tales of the Arabian Nights), décors and costumes by Alexandre Benois. Created by Ida Rubinstein, Vaslav Nijinsky, Enrico Cecchetti and Serge de Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes on June 4th 1910 at the Paris Opera.
Convinced by his brother – Shah Zeman – that his favourite slave, the beautiful Zobeide, is unfaithful when he is away, Shah Shahryar pretends to go out hunting. As soon as he has left, the women in the harem persuade the Chief Eunuch to unlock the gates and set free the captive slaves, to indulge in the pleasures of love with them. The most handsome of them all, the Golden Slave, captures Zobeide who does nothing to resist his passionate embrace. Shah Shahryar bursts in at the height of the orgy and orders that all the slaves and favourites be killed. He hesitates faced with Zobeide, who begs his forgiveness, but when she sees her efforts are in vain, she prefers to stab herself at her master’s feet rather being shamefully killed like her companions. The ballet caused a stir because of the oriental beauty of Benois’ décors and costumes, which had a strong influence on fashion and the decorative arts in Paris in 1910.
The Golden Slave was the last Fokine character that Nureyev included in his repertoire in 1978 at the Met in New York with the London Festival Ballet. He danced it again in Washington and London the following year. Strangely enough, he danced this enormously sensual role again twelve years later, for a single televised gala on December 31st 1991 in Vienna. It was one of his last stage appearances before his death, since he only danced four times after that, ending his career on February 29th 1992 in the part of Carabosse when the Berlin Opera took his own production of “Sleeping Beauty” into its repertoire.