14 MARCH 1992, Page 43


Fokine a son gout

Deirdre McMahon

This year is the 50th anniversary of Mikhail Fokine's death. He was one of the most influential choreographers of this century, yet the status of Fokine's legacy remains uncertain. He created about 80 ballets but of these only seven remain in active repertory: The Dying Swan, Les Syl- phides, the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor, Scheherazade, The Firebird, Le Spectre de la Rose and Petrushka. The exquisite Camaval has not been seen in England since Scottish Ballet's production in the late 1960s. Apart from Festival Ballet's 1976 revival of Coq d'Or, hardly any of Fokine's post-1914 ballets have been revived. As to the works which remain in the repertory, they • remain so identified with their original interpreters and with the particular Ballets Russes style which lasted up to the second world war that it is diffi- cult now. to recapture their magic and power.

Les Sylphides is the cornerstone of Fokine's achievement. It was created in April 1908, just three months after the brief solo he had made for Pavlova, The Dying Swan, and in it he developed many of the ideas from that solo. The dancing was not a demonstration of technique but a means of creating a poetic image. 'It is a dance of the entire body,' Fokine wrote. A brilliant teacher, Fokine taught his students not to treat the music as mere accompani- ment but to interpret the phrases, accents and musical nuances. He stressed the extension of the lines of the body and the importance of the plastic contrasts of head and shoulders. Fokine paid tribute to his original legendary cast — Nijinsky, Karsav- ina, Pavlova and Preobajenska — but there was another dancer who has left her impression on Les Sylphides although she never danced it and despised ballet: Isado- re Duncan. Fokine described her as 'the greatest American gift to the art of the dance' and she taught him the beauty of simple movements. A simple step, run, turn on both feet, small jump on one foot were far better than all the richness of ballet technique if to this technique were sacri- ficed grace, expressiveness and beauty. These lessons were absorbed by choreogra- phers who came after Fokine and the influ- ence of Les Sylphides can be seen, for example, in Balanchine's Serenade and Ashton's Monotones. One can even see echoes in an early Cunningham work like Septet.

Over the last few months Les Sylphides has been performed by our three leading classical companies: the Royal Ballet, the English National Ballet and the Birming- ham Royal Ballet. The Royal Ballet's ver- sion was revised in 1956 by Grigoriev and Tchernichova, Diaghilev's leading regis-

seurs; English National Ballet's production was staged by Fokine's last great inter- preter, Alicia Markova; Birmingham Royal Ballet's new production has been staged by the Russian ballerina Galina Samsova. All three productions have been scrupulously staged, but the problem is that British dancers have a rather formal, precise response to the music. They also dance the ballet with an excessive reverence.

Part of the blame lies with the orchestra- tion. All three companies use Roy Doug- las's version which is slow, heavy and coarse. It lies over Chopin like a sodden blanket. As Fokine told Markova, the dancing in Les Sylphides is beyond tech- nique; everything has to be sustained, float- ing, there is no beginning or end to movements — they melt away like sound on air. The Kirov production, although tex- tually suspect in places, was a revelation of Fokine's intentions — it was light, airy, and joyous. British productions look phlegmatic by contrast.

For Birmingham Royal Ballet Samsova has a faster musical tempo. She has also tried to impart a Russian fluidity to the port de bras and epaulement seen to best advan- tage in the performances of Jessica Clarke and Samira Saidi. However, few of the dancers can sustain that tripping lightness in their pointe work and without this Les Sylphides loses much of its expressiveness.

Fokine sometimes said to his son that a choreographer's creation 'leaves only a fleeting impression with even the most experienced spectator. The more a ballet is scattered around the world, the more it deteriorates'. Perhaps. But Les Sylphides, which celebrates its 84th birthday this month, remains the elusive epitome of style.

'Do you have anything that isn't regurgitated?'