The girls of a poet’s dreams. A classic Russian folk tale. And a story out of “The Thousand and One Nights.” These are hardly revolutionary subjects. But 100 years ago, when Michel Fokine made ballets out of these three scenarios, he may as well have been Steve Jobs smashing the computer model in the 1980s with his Apple Macintosh.
Look closely at the works of the Russian-born Fokine, a reformer born in 1880 who is a pillar of modern ballet: In the response of bodies to music in his plotless “Les Sylphides,” in the compressed experiments with style and storytelling of his “Firebird,” and in the R-rated orgy of his “Scheherazade,” there is open revolt. These short works, created between 1907 and 1910, spit in the eye of the formulaic, static three-act ballets of the 1800s. Such beautiful bomb-throwing!
We can see the elements of that rebellion. But can we still feel it? Any lick of it? This will be the test of the Mariinsky Ballet when it performs an all-Fokine program Tuesday through Jan. 22 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. On the bill is Fokine’s most famous work, the moonlit waltz of woodland spirits in white chiffon that we in the West know as “Les Sylphides,” but which the Russians call by its original title, “Chopiniana,” after the piano works that accompany it. Also featured are “Firebird,” the story of a magical bird, raging demons and a kindhearted prince, whose score heralded the young Stravinsky as a rising talent, and “Scheherazade,” with its symphonic suite by Rimsky-Korsakov.
We may think of these works, well-known as they are, as omnipresent in the ballet world. But it has been nearly a quarter-century since “Chopiniana” was danced at the Kennedy Center, and more than 30 years since the Fokine “Firebird” (many others came after him) or “Scheherazade.”
Seldom seen as they have been here, these works are fixtures in ballet history. But the story of the Fokine program is of history lost and reclaimed, of art circling through time to close the holes that politics and shifting tastes left open. It is a story of repair. But has the fix come too late?
“This is the historical place of these ballets,” Yuri Fateev, the Mariinsky Ballet’s deputy director, says by phone from St. Petersburg recently. “They move back home.”
Fateev is speaking metaphorically, as a caretaker of a coveted prize. In truth, “Firebird” and “Scheherazade” are more like orphans than native Mariinsky works, although they were created as precisely that — Russian ballets, made for export. Fokine, a former Mariinsky dancer, has the uprooted biography of so many great Russian artists of his period.
His innovations went in two directions — one-act dance-dramas and abstractions, such as “Chopiniana.” He created that ballet for his home company between 1907 and 1909, refining its lightness and flow, its sustained, dreamy mood, and the daring simplicity of movements. The dancers don’t hotdog with virtuosic leaps and turns — that is what Fokine rejected, what he considered the acrobatic trappings of the Mariinsky’s cache of works by Marius Petipa, creator of “Swan Lake” and “The Sleeping Beauty.”
Instead, the sylphs of “Chopiniana” gently nod their heads and echo the music with their arms. They gather into listening poses and — as if to emphasize that they are dancing for themselves, not for applause — they even turn their backs to the audience. If anything, the virtuosity is in something so subtle, it’s barely discernible. Anyone who has danced in a careful production of “Chopiniana” will tell you: It is the breathing.
“The dancers are not only moving together but breathing together,” Fateev says. “The breath is very important, so the head, arms, legs and tutus all move together.”
This ballet, one of the most widely performed, has remained in the Mariinsky (formerly known as the Kirov) repertoire. But Fokine didn’t stay in St. Petersburg. He left to join Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and created “Firebird” and “Scheherazade” for that troupe of expatriates. They premiered in the Ballets Russes’ landmark 1910 season in Paris — the “saison russe,” or “Russian season” — and set off a sensation.
Parisian women redecorated their salons in the flaming colors of the “Scheherazade” sets and costumes by Leon Bakst. A year later, the Ballets Russes performed in London, where the production captured the British imagination.
The effect is still rippling through popular culture. It surfaced in the popular British TV series “Downton Abbey,” a period drama about high society in the early 1900s that is currently all the rage among PBS viewers. In an episode last season, the modern-leaning Lady Sybil shocked her family by dressing for dinner in harem pants — a knowing nod to the fad started by Fokine. The title character in his “Firebird” wore pants, as did the harem wives in “Scheherazade.”
Filmy pants were just about all they wore in that spree of lustful slaves and willing women.
“It was very hot onstage,” Fateev says, unexpectedly dropping perfect slang into his charmingly hesitant English. “It’s emotional, and the relationship between the female and male dancer. They show their love onstage, and it’s hot.
“I try to understand how it looks in the beginning of the 20th century,” he continues. “It shocked the public. Now there’s so much hotness on TV and in the nightclubs, but this is still hot today, when the bodies are moving and the arms are moving.”
“Scheherazade” was about as far from what Parisian audiences knew of ballet — the demure tales of virtue and romance, like “Giselle” — as you could get.
“Suddenly you had these animated crowds, and all these men onstage, which would have been a shock,” says Lynn Garafola, who teaches dance history at Barnard College. “They run riot in the harem. It’s very erotic. They’re coming out in these exotic outfits. There was a lot of erotic frenzy masked under all this exoticism. “
Fueled by Fokine’s dramatic, sensuous distillations of Eastern fantasy and his homeland’s folklore, the Ballets Russes started a Russian ballet craze throughout Europe, which eventually reached these shores. So did Fokine. Although he returned to the Mariinsky for a few years after leaving Diaghilev, he soon left for Sweden and spent his final years, up to his death in 1942, in New York. There, he helped found Ballet Theatre (which later became American Ballet Theatre). His works gave the plucky troupe marketable Russian bona fides; his “Les Sylphides” (“Chopiniana” by its “saison russe” name) was one of Ballet Theatre’s biggest hits.
Back in Russia, things were different. “Firebird” was embraced by the Mariinsky after the Russian Revolution, when the artistic leadership loosened up, but under Stalin it disappeared. Full-length narratives were in, and Stravinsky — who smacked of modernism — was out. So were Fokine’s brevity and sexiness. Garafola says “Scheherazade” was probably never danced at the Mariinsky.
Until 1995. That’s when Andris Liepa, a former Bolshoi star (and partner of the famed Nina Ananiashvili) who had joined the Mariinsky, staged it for that company along with “Firebird” and “Petroushka,” another Fokine piece created for the Ballets Russes. He was helped by Isabelle Fokine, the choreographer’s granddaughter.
“We might say it’s kind of ironic, but I think it’s about national idea,” Garafola says. “The sense that here is the beginning of the tradition of Russia abroad, which was expunged from the tradition of Russia at home.”
Like Fokine’s works, those of George Balanchine — another Mariinsky product who left for the West — have also gradually made their way to Russia. Works by Bronislava Nijinska, sister of the celebrated dancer Vaslav Nijinsky and an important forward-thinking choreographer for the Ballets Russes, have also been danced by the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi. All of these steps, created long ago but put in motion today, are an attempt to recapture the lost buzz of Russia abroad.
These efforts are part of others undertaken by the Russian ballet companies to reclaim their history. The Mariinsky labored over a four-hour historical reconstruction of the original “Sleeping Beauty”; at the Bolshoi, choreographer Alexei Ratmansky remade Shostakovich ballets that were shelved under Stalin: “The Bolt” and “The Bright Stream.”
“This business of thinking about history and thinking about repertory in terms of history, what has been changed and why, what ideas did those ideas reflect — this is esthetic and political and cultural,” Garafola says. “I think there has been a lot of rethinking in the two companies, and I think this Fokine program was probably the initiator of this rethinking because it came so early. He was a natural starting point.”
Of course, the Russians aren’t the only ones trying to mend rips in their cultural fabric. We do it here. Garafola points to the “wounded history” of tap dancing, in the segregated worlds of vaudeville and Hollywood musicals. It all but died out, until a few decades ago when it was rediscovered by a mix of modern dancers and Broadway producers.
The question is, are the Fokine works still artistically viable? Or has their time passed? Certainly, “Chopiniana” is a classic. “Firebird” has the sophisticated Stravinsky score in its corner, but will the experimental tension still be there? Fokine placed only the title character in pointe shoes, and gave her ballet steps; an ensemble of princesses moves in a loose, naturalistic style, a preview of modern dance.
And will the harem-run-amok of “Scheherazade” seem hot, as Fateev promises — or cheesy? Will the Mariinsky dancers believe in its passions, or play them as camp?
Even the most earnest, noble efforts can’t turn back time to when the creative energy of a work of art was at its most fierce. But then again, nobody believed more in illusion than Fokine. He spent his life in its service. Perhaps that is the repair to keep in mind here — how miraculous it is to witness the continuing belief in a fragile art, whatever its rocky past.
with three works by Michel Fokine: “Chopiniana,” “Scheherazade” and “Firebird.” Tickets $29 to $150, Jan. 17-22, at the Kennedy Center Opera House.