The Reforms Of Michel Fokine Essay

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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