Michel Fokine: Father of Modern Ballet

     M ichel Fokine with his wife, Vera, and son, Vitale, moved to Yonkers in 1936 and leased one of the mansions of the Perot estate at 253 North Broadway. They must have liked life in Yonkers because in 1941 they purchased a castle–like structure named “Chateau Fleur de Lys,” still standing at 170 Shonnard Terrace.

Michel Fokine

Mikhail Mikhailovich Fokine was born on April 25, 1880 in St. Petersburg, Russia, the seventeenth of eighteen children, five of whom grew to adulthood. His father, Michael, was a merchant and his mother, Catherine, a native of Mannheim, Germany, loved the theater. Older brother, Nicholas, a cavalry officer, frequently attended ballets which he would describe in detail to a much younger Michel. Hundreds of applications were submitted each year for the ten or twelve spots in the Imperial School of Ballet at St. Petersburg. Michel was granted a secret audition because his father frequently stated, “I do not want my Mimotchka to be a ‘hoofer’’.” However, once his father learned that Michel had achieved the number one ranking, he relented.

In 1889 Michel entered the Imperial School of Ballet where dance instruction was intense and academic subjects secondary. There he pursued reading and painting and learned to play the mandolin, piano, balalaika (three–stringed Russian instrument), soccer, tennis and pranks.

Upon graduating in 1898 Michel joined the Maryinski Imperial Ballet at St. Petersburg, the home of opera and ballet in Russia, as a soloist rather than a subaltern, and began dancing with the famous Anna Pavlova. Hired in 1902 to teach the girls junior class, he became the youngest faculty member ever and later became instructor of the senior girls and boys divisions.

The first two years at the Maryinsky were depressing for Michel and he considered abandoning ballet. He believed that ballet at that time was too absorbed with technique and gymnastics execution, that there was too much emphasis on the legs and less on the rest of the body. Michel spent his free time taking painting classes and playing the mandolin in the Maryinsky Theater Orchestra. He was teaching his students to appeal to the viewers’ souls and emotions, not just to their eyes. The whole body, not just the hands, should be used for interpretation and expressing emotion. He did not approve of always using ready–made dance steps, short skirts, and pink dancing shoes. Michel thought the time period and character of the nation represented should be researched and reflected in the dance and that the troupe of dancers should be used for expression and not just ornamentation. He believed an attempt should be made to harmonize music, scenery and dance. This philosophy was summed up in his “Five Principles” as explained in a letter to the London Times on July 6, 1914. These principles revolutionized ballet and were applied to his creations during the early 1900’s, performed at the Maryinsky Imperial Ballet and, under Serge Diaghilev, at the Ballets Russe. Some of them were The Dying Swan, Le Vigne, Le Pavilion d’Armide, Les Sylphides, Prince Igor, Cleopatra, Carnaval, Firebird, Scheherazade, Le Spectre de la Rose, Petrouchka, Daphnis and Chloe and Le Cog d’Or.

In 1905 Anna Pavlova, the great Russian ballerina, came to Fokine and asked him to suggest some music for her to dance to in the Hall of Nobles. At the time Michel was playing Saint Saens Swan at home on the mandolin and choreographed a ballet to it in a matter of minutes. That ballet remained in Pavlova’s repertoire for the rest of her life. Her dying statement on August 23, 1931 was “Prepare my Swan costume.” Pavlova appeared in many of Fokine’s early ballets as did the dancer, Nijinsky. In 1905 Michel Fokine married one of his students, Verotchka (Vera) Antonova, and they would later have a son, Vitale.

When creating the ballets Firebird and Petrouchka, Fokine collaborated with Igor Stravinsky and with Maurice Ravel for Daphnis and Chloe. He also worked closely with Serge Rachmaninoff to present Paganini in 1939.

The Bolshevik Revolution caused the Fokines to move from Russia in 1918. They toured Scandinavia, settled in Denmark for a short time and in August of 1919 came to the United States, having been contracted by Morris Gest to stage the Bacchanal in Aphrodite. Very few ballet schools existed outside of New York City. Female ballet dancers were unprepared and males non–existent as ballet dancers. For Aphrodite the Fokines used semi–amateur ballet dancers and ballroom dancers. Michel Fokine was a pioneer the United States was unprepared for.

Fokine's granddaughter, Isabelle, taking class from her father, Vitale, in the arly 1970s.

In the 1920’s the Fokines toured many of the large cities in the United States, mainly east of the Mississippi River, beginning with the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. They opened a school for dancers in their home at 4 Riverside Drive, and Michel did work on and off Broadway. He choreographed musical numbers for the Shuberts, Charles Dillingham and several for the Ziegfeld Follies, for which Yonkers resident, Joseph Urban (see YHS Newsletter, Volume 3, Issue 2, 1994), designed the scenery. The Fokines danced at galas, charities and toured movie houses. In Pittsburgh a short ballet was performed in a movie house featuring a film starring former Yonkers resident Constance Bennett. In 1924 the Fokines arranged a dance program for the Sleepy Hollow Country Club in Briardiff Manor.

Later Vitale Fokine would call these “wasted years” for his father and said that the seed of his efforts landed on non– productive land. In 1936 New York Times dance critic, John Martin, describing Fokine’s activities in the United States said, “It is as if Beethoven were giving piano lessons instead of composing.”

The New York area responded positively to Fokine performances. In 1927 and again in 1934 Michel and Vera appeared in three performances in Lewisohn Stadium before a combined audience of 48,000. In 1937 and 1938 they drew big crowds at the Jones Beach amphitheater, and in 1938 to Randalls Island where he choreographed Yonkers resident Jerome Kern’s Show Boat.

By the mid 1930’s, due to lack of funding and his age, Michel Fokine had given up the idea of founding a ballet school. Lincoln Kirstein, who died on Jannary 5, 1996, brought George Balanchine to the United States in 1933 and in 1948 established the New York Ballet. In 1933 Balanchine was twenty–four years old, with no major successes and so would have to create. Fokine was fifty–three with many successes and so would probably re–stage. And yet in the mid 1930’s Michel Fokine returned to Europe and created seven new ballets. A few years later he encountered Nazism. While rehearsing in Berlin, the theater manager told him to end the rehearsal because it was Hitler’s birthday. Fokine refused. He also rejected an invitation to meet Goebbels, and when invited to Hermann Goering’s box to receive congratulations, he again refused and told the horrified theater manager, “I don’t want to meet that —”

On January 23, 1942 Fokine’s last ballet, The Russian Soldier premiered at the Boston Opera House. That summer he went to Mexico City to stage Helen of Troy and injured his leg, causing him to return to New York. He was hospitalized with pleurisy, developed double pneumonia and died on August 22, 1942. His body was waked at the Campbell Funeral Home in Manhattan, a funeral service was held at the Russian Orthodox Church of Christ the Saviour and burial took place at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale. Vera joined him there in 1958 and Vitale in 1977.

As a memorial to Michel Fokine, one of his eighty–one ballets, Les Sylphides, was performed simultaneously by seventeen ballet companies around the world.

On January 5, 1993, The Return of the Firebird, consisting of the ballets Firebird, Petrouchka and Scheherazade (the latter for the first time in Russia) was presented at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. Andris Liepa, premier dancer of the Bolshoi and Maryinski Ballets, produced the program with the aid of choreographer Isabella Fokine, granddaughter of Michel and Vera, and daughter of Vitale.

—Tom Flynn