Every dance lover knows that Michel Fokine helped revolutionize ballet. But we are being reminded of it with particular force during American Ballet Theatre’s brilliant Fokine Celebration. To see four of Fokine’s ballets together is not only to better understand his accomplishment, it is also to be given some sense of the thrill audiences must have felt who saw early performances of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.
Fokine created the second and final version of “Les Sylphides” in 1909 shortly before joining Diaghilev in what would become the Ballets Russes. In the ballet, set to orchestrated piano pieces of Chopin, a poet dances with a group of sylphs. There is no further narrative, and “Les Sylphides” is credited with being the first abstract ballet. But it is also unusual in the way in which Fokine integrated his leading dancers into the larger group. The soloists, dressed like the corps de ballet, often emerge out of the group and merge again into it in a flow of movement.
Fokine took his cue for “Les Sylphides” from the romantic “ballet blanc” but his work has none of the dark undertones of actual romantic works such as “Giselle” and “La Sylphide.” Rather, it exudes the perfume of nostalgia. In Kirk Peterson’s staging the ballet also borders on the precious. This is due primarily to the extremely slow tempos given some of the dances, including the Prelude and the Waltz solos, which attenuates the atmosphere of delicate evanescence nearly to the breaking point. Fortunately the two Mazurkas, the first for the ballerina, the second for the male lead, were given more robust tempi, as were some of the group dances.
Friday night’s cast was excellent, especially the corps, which managed to be both accurate and softly alive. Notable, too, was Marcelo Gomes as the poet. Often the sole male in this work looks lost and slightly embarrassed. Gomes, however, was fully engaged, and attentive to the whisperings of the supernatural creatures surrounding him. Gomes also danced in the soft, pliant style appropriate to the dream-like quality of the ballet. Stella Abrera, who danced the Mazurka and the pas de deux with Gomes; Anna Liceica in the Waltz; and Zhong-Jing Fang in the Prelude were all as ethereal as one could wish.
It is interesting that Fokine chose the romantic ballet d’action for his study in abstraction. The classical ballet of Petipa, with its essentially plotless divertissements, would seem to have been a more appropriate model. There were political reasons for Fokine’s choice. Petipa was the old guard and you can’t be a rebel if you seem to be following in the footsteps of your father. Equally important, though, were aesthetic considerations. Fokine had been influenced by Isadora Duncan’s naturalism and the ballet d’action was more in line with this approach than the classical ballet. It allowed Fokine to develop his own ideas of naturalism, which he would enlarge upon during his years the the Ballets Russes. “Petrouchka,” which may be Fokine’s greatest work, shows where naturalism had led him by 1911. There is the famous story of how Fokine insisted that every person in the crowd scenes be a distinctive character, something he felt Stravinsky also conveyed in his music. Every segment of society is represented at St Petersburg’s Shrovetide Fair, from military officers and aristocratic families to gypsies and drunkards, and each individual pursues his or her activities with the attention people do everywhere. The result is among the most vibrant and varied crowd scenes in ballet. Then there is Fokine’s telling of the strange story of Petrouchka and the movement he devised for the central puppet characters. The plot, both violent and poignant, depicts Petrouchka’s murder and ghostly revenge, while the title character provided Nijinsky with one of his most moving roles. Add to this Stravinsky’s riveting score and Alexandre Benois’ extraordinary sets and costumes with their opulent, exotic details, and the whole is a twentieth century masterpiece.
Staging “Petrouchka” is a daunting task but Gary Chryst, who was in his day a famous Petrouchka at the Joffrey Ballet, has created a splendid production. Friday night’s cast was up to the challenge, as well. Each of the leading characters was finally drawn. Isaac Stappas’ Moor was stupid and mindlessly violent. Xiomara Reyes managed to be at once blankly unfeeling and yet gripping as the ballerina. Petrouchka, an extremely difficult role that is often rendered either expressionless or maudlin, in Herman Cornejo’s hands was given extraordinary nuance and depth. The smallest jerk of his body conveyed psychic pain, his flailing at the walls of his room, hysterical but somehow soft, signaled his impotence, while his mittened hands became metaphors for the imprisonment of his spirit. To gain this level of poignancy and force when the dancer’s face must remain nearly immobile is a major feat. There is no doubt that Cornejo must be reckoned among the great Petrouchkas. The cast was rounded out by Chryst himself as a mesmerizing Charlatan.
“Le Spectre de la Rose,” set to Carl Maria von Weber’s “Invitation to the Dance,” was created for Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina in 1911 to show off Nijinsky’s celebrated elevation. The pas de deux exudes a hint of symbolist decadence in its androgynous figure of the Rose who invades a young girl’s dream and dances with her in her slumbering state. To my mind Angel Corella looked uncomfortable in the rose-petal costume and in the plastique poses he had to assume with their soft, undulating lines. His best moment was his arrival, magically appearing at the girl’s window. His leaps, which make up a good part of the dance, looked slightly stiff, strange in this usually buoyant and virtuosic dancer. Amanda McKerrow as the Girl had little to do but bourrée about in a somnolent state, which she did perfectly well.
The “Polovtsian Dances,” which ended the evening, was staged for ABT by Frederic Franklin. In Borodin’s opera, “Prince Igor,” the dances culminate a Tartar entertainment for the captured prince. The dances were originally choreographed by Lev Ivanov; Fokine choreographed them as a separate work for the Ballets Russes in 1909. The ballet caused a sensation, seeming in Parisian imaginations to capture all that was primitive, colorful and exotic about Russia. The original designs were by Nicholas Roerich, who a few years later would create the designs for Nijinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” Here we have a similar brooding backdrop of huts in an endless landscape of barren hills and sky, coupled with costumes in rich shades of red and brown reminiscent of the colors in tribal rugs. The effect is at once rough and opulent. Fokine, in keeping with his ideas at the time, put all the women in soft shoes rather than on pointe and wove the dances for the principals (the Warrior Chiftain and Polovtsian Princess) in among the corps even more fully than he had done in “Les Sylphides.” The ABT performance was exciting, and was given an added surge of energy by an impetuous and dangerous looking Carlos Acosta and the beautiful Veronika Part.
ABT’s Fokine Celebration, which continues through Wednesday, is a great gift to audiences. It gives us the opportunity to see and consider anew Fokine’s contribution to ballet, and to appreciate in particular a ballet that is more democratic than most in its melding of group and individual.