The Reforms of Michel Fokine
Photography, painting, videography, and literature have all progressed over time.
New technology, and new ways of thinking have brought these arts to new levels. There
seems to be a broad misconception, though, that ballet is an art form that does not
progress; does not change. Many people assume that ballet's set vocabulary of movement
places limitations on how far the art can expand. Little do many people realize that this
vocabulary is a mere foundation for the myriad of interpretations that the art went and will
continue to go in. Michel Fokine is one revolutionary ballet choreographers, whose
reforms have taken this previously monotonous art to a new level.
Fokine's ideas were revolutionary for his time, but ironically made perfect sense.
He believed that all of the elements in a ballet should be parallel. In other words, he
thought that the music, costuming, makeup, movements, and sets should all reflect the
same culture and time period of the ballet. During this time in ballet there were often
incongruencies. For example, there would be Russian music, and pointe shoes in a ballet
that supposedly was based on a foreign medieval culture. Fokine was extremely and
consciously consistent in his works. Fokine explains, "The ballet should be staged in
conformity with the epoch represented."
Fokine sets his 1911 ballet, Petrouchka, in Russia. The first scene is a street fair,
which Fokine sets appropriately. He is sure to make the costumes realistic of that time
and place. Rather than dressing the dancers in tutus and leotards, they wear dresses that
are brightly colored and long. They are bundled up appropriately in many colorful layers,
considering the chilling temperatures of Russian winters. They also do not wear pointe
shoes with long laces, but instead high heel character shoes that were typical of the time
period. Fokine also successfully creates personalities for the three dolls, partly by their
costumes. Petrouchka, who is a forlorn rag doll, wears a thin suit that is as lifeless and
limp as his personality. The costume and makeup is effective in showing his lack of
motivation and sadness. The Moor doll on the other hand, who is a very bold and vain
character is seen in dress that corresponds. His makeup is also very bold. The ballerina
doll is dressed in typical ballerina costume with a china doll face. This compliments her
simple mind and flirtatious tendencies.
He also made sure that the background was appropriate and related directly to the
content of the scene. For example, the "sumptuous and colorful quarters of the Moor",
(Reynolds) parallels his personality perfectly. Fokine hired some of the most popular
contemporary artists of his time to create these scenes, such as Picasso. In Petrouchka's
barren cell, the walls are painted black, which reflects the sorrow that he is going through,
during this scene. Also, the street market scenes show a carousel, street vendors, and a
large fair booth, which were all completely realistic and appropriate for the occasion.
Many artists before and after Fokine did not put thoughts into these sorts of things,
thinking that the ballet technique is the only important part of the production.
Fokine was also a strong believer in the ballet being "a complete artistic creation
and not a series of separate numbers (Fokine quoted in Cass). His belief in this explained
his hatred towards the practice of frequent applause interrupting ballets. He thought that
this took away the focus of the dancer, both literally, and figuratively. This belief is
integrated into his pieces by the movement that he gives his characters. He would never
give a character movement that does not express that character, such as, choreographing
large leaps and many turns just to show off the dancer's talent. It is seen in Petrouchka
that Fokine "was obviously a sharp observer of what psychologists today call body
language" (Cass). Petrouchka's movements are extremely indicative of his personality and
feelings. For example, when he stands still, his knees buckle and turn in, and his arms
crisscross. Using a turned in position to express a character's introvertedness was a
technique that had never been used, and probably not even thought of prior to Fokine.
Petrouchka also expresses himself in a variety of other ways. For example, he lays on the
ground and sobs convulsively, and he flies into a foot-stamping rage. The Moor's
arrogant personality can also be detected through his movement. He moves in a turned
out, heavy, and extroverted way. The ballerina moves with mechanical ease and blankness
to show her lack of intelligence and vacancy of mind. The crowd at the fair "bustles
about the fairgrounds with realistic movement, creating an impression of lively
spontaneity" (Nancy Reynolds). This sense of realism contrasts greatly with previous
ballet works. In other dances the background people would most likely stand stiffly in a
position for the time that they are not dancing. In Petrouchka, their movements, although
they look very improvised, are very carefully choreographed by Fokine. Each person is
"occupied with an activity appropriate to his character and station" (Reynolds). For
example, there are entertainers at this street market who do gymnastics, and male Russian
dancers who do jigs. Fokine uses these extremely nontraditional forms of dancing to
have no one as an "extra", but to give a specific purpose to each character.
Other examples of Fokine's reforms include his untraditional role of the male.
Fokine provided "a welcome change from male dancers who were merely strong arms
serving to elevate females" (Cass). In Spectre de la Rose (1911), Fokine casts a man
(originally Vaslav Nijinsky) as a beautiful rose that appears in the dreams of a young,
innocent girl. He makes this character beautiful through a lovely realistic costume, as well
as movements that are characteristic of a graceful, blooming flower. He successfully takes
the audience's attention away from the mysterious man dressed as a flower, and turns it
into awe of the breathtaking and extremely graceful rose. In this way, Fokine transfers all
attention to the beauty of dance, rather than gender roles. The role of Petrouchka is also
very atypical for a male. In most traditional ballets the man portrays a strong, masculine,
brave, and heroic character. Rarely before has one seen a man portray a weak, scared,
powerless, and forlorn being. But alas, Fokine was also successful in making this
character seem real and convincing, so the audience would not dwell on the use of
nontraditional gender roles.
Another reform was Fokine's use of facings. This is just another element of his
belief in congruity in his art. He realized that in real life, one would not vainly face a
crowd, but would face the person they are addressing. Fokine would put a dancer on the
part of the stage and in the direction that was most parallel with the scene they were
representing. He never choreagraphed empty movement to impress the audience or fill the
music. He was sure to not let the music dictate the dance, as many artists before him had
done. In his Memoirs of a Ballet Master, he wrote "The choreography for a pas de deux
I performed with Anna Pavlova we mostly staged ourselves . . . We did whatever we felt
we could do best," (Fokine quoted in Cass). This superficial movement was completely
against what Fokine believed in. Movement that did not contribute to the purpose and
plot af the piece was useless. Due to his intense focus on his intent, he successfully gave
the music, choreography, costumes, and sets equal importance and relevance to the entire
Fokine's exceptional dedication to his art is quite obvious. It is simply seen
thorough his opinion of applause, that his focus is his art, more than any recognition he
may get for it. While most artists would bask in the glory of each set of applause, Fokine
despised it, except at completely appropriate times. He believed that to move on from
tradition, one must be thoroughly trained in that technique, which he was. His many
daring reforms truly opened the world of ballet up to new possibilities, while not straying
too far from traditional technique.