A Conversation with Mikhail Fokine
(Interviewed by Arnold Haskell at Paris in 1934)
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To the best of our knowledge, the interview below, with Mikhail Fokine (1880-1942), has never been republished since the 1940s. Fokine discusses, inter alia, Mary Wigman and Rudolf von Laban in somewhat less than flattering terms.
Mikhail Fokine entered the School of the Maryinskii Theatre in 1889, as a student of Gerdt and Legat, and became premier danseur in 1904. From 1902, he taught at the School himself, and between 1909 and 1912, he was the principal choreographer of the Ballets Russes of Diaghilev. In 1918, he fled Russia, finally emigrating to in the United States in 1921.
The interview below appears in a wartime (1942) edition of a long-out-of-print book found at an antiquarian booksellers in April 2005, Balletomania by Arnold Haskell, 1934, Victor Gollancz Ltd.
NB: The stock-in-trade of Victor Gollancz Ltd. having been ceded to the Orion Publishing Group, we have taken the precaution of ringing Orion’s Rights Department, and asking their permission to copy onto Internet the text below. As Orion is unable, at the present time, to locate the Copyright holder, its use is authorised for non-commercial purposes only.
A/ Before I reply to your question as to how I actually create, I must tell you of the method that underlies all my work.
Early in my career I was so disgusted with the stilted ’unrealistic’ side of ballet that I nearly left it altogether, when my memorandum was shelved by the authorities, to become a painter. I have always been deeply interested in painting, and I took to it again when I was forty-three. I dropped it when I was appointed a teacher in the theatrical school. At once I felt happier, and began to put into practice my new tendencies towards a ballet realism.
From the first, people greeted me with ’Why do we need this young Fokine, when we have the glorious Petipa ?’ Petipa himself was more generous, for after the production of my first ballet, Acis and Galatea, he sent me a card with the inscription, ’Cher camarade. Enchanté de votre composition. Continuez et vous serez un très grand maître de ballet’’. I felt from the very first that no matter how obscure, fantastic and unrealistic the art form of dancing may seem, to be of any value it must have its truth in life. That was my first urge.
Q/ How deep was the influence of Duncan on you ?
There is a passage in a letter from Diaghileff, published in Propert’s The Russian Ballet, 1921-1929, that reads ’I knew Isadora well at Saint Petersburg and was present with Fokine at her first début. Fokine was mad about her dancing and the influences of Duncan on him lay at the base of all his creative work.’
A/ That is absurd. Diaghileff could never have believed in such a statement nor made it with the slightest degree of sincerity. He watched my rehearsals and saw me compose. He knew perfectly well the differences between my new Russian Ballet and Duncan’s dance. I remember going to see her with him. I had already been engaged as maître de ballet, and had by that time carried out considerable reforms on the Russian stage. The reason for my very great enthusiasm was just because I felt that here were so many of the elements that I was practising and preaching. I found naturalness, expressiveness and real simplicity. There was a similarity in our aims, but in method an enormous and obvious difference. My Russian and Oriental compositions and my romantic ballets, Les Sylphides, Carnaval and Le Spectre de la Rose, have nothing in common with her.
The resemblance is only in Daphnis et Chloé, Narcisse and the bacchanals from Tannhäuser and Cléopâtre, and that is because our sources were the same, the same vases and sarcophagi in the same museums. The similarity there only lies in the static, the design of the poses; the differences are far greater. Her dance is free, mine stylised, and my movements are mechanically highly complex. I was working on dancers with a fixed technique and an old tradition, she for an individual, herself.
I am very happy, though, that in the treatment of ancient Greek themes, her speciality, I have something in common with her, just as I am delighted to differ from her in other moods and styles. She stood for the freedom of the body from clothes, while I believe in the obedience of the movement to costume, and its proper adaptation to period. She had only one plastic conception for all periods and nationalities, while I am essentially interested in the difference of the movements of each individual.
She had, for instance, the same form of dance for Wagner, Gluck, Chopin, the Spanish dances of Moskovski and the waltzes of Strauss. The national character is absent; only Greece existed for her, as if it could be adapted to all periods. Diaghileff was far too keen an observer not to know all this, especially as his opportunities were better than anyone else’s. His statement was made with some purpose or other.
As you know, early in my career I laid down five main principles for the production of ballet, which are, in brief:
- To invent in each case a new form of movement corresponding to the subject and character of the music, instead of merely giving combinations of ready-made steps.
- Dancing and gesture have no meaning in ballet unless they serve as an expression of dramatic action.
- To admit the use of conventional gesture only when it is required by the style of the ballet, and in all other cases to replace the gestures of the hands by movements of the whole body. Man can and should be expressive from head to foot.
- The group is not merely an ornament. The new ballet advances from the expressiveness of the face or the hands to that of the whole body, and from that of the individual body to groups of bodies and the expressiveness of the combined dancing of a crowd.
- The alliance of dancing on equal terms with the other arts. The new ballet does not demand ’ballet music’ from the composer, nor tutus and pink satin slippers from the artist. It gives complete liberty to their creative powers.
Q/ These artistic principles are so much a part of your whole general outlook that they are no longer consciously to the fore each time. How in detail do you compose ?
A/ There are no fixed rules there; in various ways, as the mood occurs. Only yesterday for instance, I sat up in bed all night, surrounded by sheets of music. Once the score has become a part of me images are formed, which I occasionally fix in little drawings. That is the general plan, but the fantasy comes during rehearsals. Carnaval, for instance, was literally an improvisation during one rehearsal for a charity performance; two further rehearsals, with some thought in the interval, and it was complete.
Today it takes many more rehearsals than that to put it on again. Igor, which is to me my most perfect work - there is nothing that I would want changed in it - also came very easily in about eight rehearsals. It is the most complex of all my ballets to revive without my direct supervision, just as Les Sylphides is the easiest. Some of the groups in that, as it now stands, were actually arranged on the stage a few moments before the curtain rose. The Dying Swan too was done hurriedly for Anna Pavlova at a charity performance, the concert of the artists of the chorus of the Imperial Opera in Saint Petersburg, 1905. Small work as it is, and known and applauded all over the world, it was ’revolutionary’ then, and illustrates admirably the transition between the old and the new, for her I make use of the technique of the old dance and the traditional costume, and a highly developed technique is necessary, but the purpose of the dance is not to display that technique, but to create the symbol of the everlasting struggle in this life of all that is mortal.
It is a dance of the whole body and not of the limbs only; it appeals not merely to the eye but to the emotions and the imagination.
Q/ How far do your dancers collaborate with you in a production ?
A/ Not at all. I never conceive works for particular artists, but the particular artist does lead me to make modifications. I did not create Le Spectre de la Rose for Nijinsky, but because of his particular style it became less masculine, and quite different from what I myself made of it. Petrouchka also I did not compose deliberately for Nijinsky. He left his mark on it, but there are various possible interpretations. That is why these works can be so constantly revived.
Q/ What do you think of recent choreography, beginning with your immediate predecessor Nijinsky ? L’Après Midi d’un Faune, for instance ?
A/ L’Après Midi d’un Faune was purely un succès de scandale, AND later became un succès de snobisme. It is fundamentally a work of no importance. Nijinsky’s own role, with its oblique movement, is lifted straight out of the bacchanal from Tannhäuser, which I arranged for Karsavina and him. The same archaic poses, only he substituted for the final embrace the act of onanism which I find most displeasing. Also the music, décor and choreography are definitely out of sympathy, even hostile to one another. There are moments when the public laughs instinctively, and they are perfectly right; they have felt the error. Notably when the nymphs run in flight, heel to toe. As you know the correct walking movement is heel to toe, while with running it is precisely the opposite. He has therefore adopted a meaningless and unrealistic distortion, which the public has sensed.
Frankly I find that recent choreography has all the faults of the pre-Fokine ballet, only with added pretentions. Style has been completely forgotten, ’points’ and arms express different things. Such Greek themes as Apollon and Mercure should not be danced in ballet shoes, any more than ballet on a purely Russian theme like Les Noces. Also, just as in the old days, there is far too great a reliance placed on programme notes. Most of the ballets I have seen are not expressive in themselves. They are far too closely involved with literature, and consequently appeal only to a small specialised Les Noces.
Q/ In order then to purify choreography can you conceive of it as an entirely independent art, of dancing alone without music or costume ?
A/ No. Absence of music is only justified at some particular point, so as to emphasise and bring out a definite dramatic meaning. Dancing always implies noise, stamping clapping, singing, drums or percussion of some kind from the very times of its origins. To-day it is no longer to interesting to return to such primitive sounds. I prefer therefore to use the more highly developed forms of music. Yes, music is essential, while décor is of lesser importance, an embellishment that can add much, but that cannot disguise unsound work.
Yes, of course, museum study is an essential. I have just been spending several weeks in the Assyrian section of the Louvre for Semiramis. That does not mean a slavish imitation, but one must get soaked in the art of a period to render the correct style.
Q/ How far was Diaghileff creative ?
A/ As far as I can see, not at all. I admire him immensely, and there is no one in a better position that I to judge the full extent of his achievement. Why lessen it by ridiculous claims ? He was a genius as a propagandist for art, and as a businessman. He was something more besides. But many books have recently given an entirely false impression, and I hope that you will not perpetuate these mistakes. No one has ever claimed that he wrote the music or painted the décor. I cannot remember one single choreographic idea of his. Cocteau, Vaudoyer, Benois all gave ideas, but never Diaghileff. I had created before he ever came on the scene. The whole idea of the one-act ballet, and the other reforms that made the enterprise possible, were already accomplished. Before I joined him I had already composed Carnaval, Les Sylphides, Cléopâtre, and Le Pavillon d’Armide, the ballets that established the first big triumphs. That is in itself sufficient answer.
It is Alexandre Benois who first wrote to me suggesting that Diaghileff should take my ballets to Western Europe, and I am deeply grateful to him for all the opportunities he gave me, but the early ballet was the Folkine Ballet. Diaghileff’s creation, then, at any rate consisted in changing a few names. Nuit d’Egypte became Cléopâtre, Chopiniana, Les Sylphides. That is the clever business man. Then there is the story of L’Oiseau de Feu. Music had been commissioned from Liadov for a ballet to be composed by me around that old Russian legend. After very many months, when it was long overdue, Diaghileff met Liadov. ’Well, is my ballet ready’ ’It won’t be long now, it is well on the way’; was the reply, ’I have just bought the ruled paper’.
As you know, Stravinsky subsequently wrote the music, and had his first triumph, but meanwhile a new ballet of that name was awaited. Diaghileff found the solution simple. He took the old Blue Bird, not yet known in Paris, and it was temporarily renamed The Firebird.
I have in all created sixty-five ballets, and the majority have been done either before or after my association with Diaghileff. Without him my work would not have been universally known, but it exists just the same. Orphée of Gluck is one of the finest things I have ever done.
Q/ Amongst all the dancers you have seen is there any one obviously outstanding ?
A No. It is never possible to say in an unqualified manner that a dancer is incomparable. Nijinsky was incomparable in Le Spectre de la Rose, and very bad indeed in Prince Igor. Pavlova, Karsavina, Fokina were each incomparable in certain roles and types of dancing.
(...) There are to-day so many admirable schools, those of the great ballerinas in Paris and others. To-day I can assemble a troupe of dancers as fine in quality as at any period. There are some magnificent dancers in America to-day, waiting for the chance to do important work.... Have you seen my pupil Patricia Bowman ? There is an absolutely faultless technique.
Q/ And now for your views on the new Central European dance of Wigman, Laban and their followers. It is a sore point with me.
A/ Must we talk about that, and spoil a good meal ? You know my views so well. I have often spoken and written to you about it, on the last occasion when poor Simeonov died. As it is important I will just go over some of the points.
I was glad to hear from you that England has rejected it, for it, for it is a development of dilettantism unparalleled in the history of the dance, a definite step backwards.
This so-called innovation is built up on a total absence of a real knowledge of the grammar and syntax of dancing, and, in order to revolt against anything, it is essential to know it in close detail, perhaps even more thoroughly than its devotees. Musically it is wretched. I find this association with percussion and undeveloped music highly significant.
It is very typical of the Wigman school to substitute elbow for arm movements. For instance, in the gay happy mood of a gypsy dance, the elbows are moved; for a sad dance, they are raised, letting the hands hang down helplessly. But most of all they are used to express energy, the strained energy of trying to force one’s way into a crowded subway during the rush hours.
I went once to an explanatory lecture by Mary Wigman. Nearly the whole time she gesticulated with clenched fists, and the clenched fist and the elbow seem to be the symbols of this movement. Then someone in the audience asked for the reason for the exaggerated turned-out position of her feet in dancing. She explained that it was for the elasticity of her jumps, to gain elevation. This is, of course, quite inaccurate. Immediately after I had denounced in the Maryinsky Ballet the old-fashioned superstition of turned-out feet (dancing en dehors), Nijinsky surprised the entire world by his tremendous elevation without ever turning out his legs à la Wigman or in the old Italian manner. Incidentally Wigman herself has no elevation.
Q/ But is there anything new in it at all ?
A/ Absolutely nothing. I have seen each movement in ballet before, and can always tell you what they are attempting to reproduce. It is all hopelessly old-fashioned.
Ballet has already outlived such ’modernism’ (....)
The possibility of creating something really new is unlimited, as unlimited as the experiences of life itself, but only when the dancer has a strong technical foundation. The Germans, through lack of experience, invariably confuse the technical exercises with the real thing. One of them once said ’The ballet is horrible, look at this Fifth position’, - which she then made incorrectly. ’How can you do a Greek dance like that ?’ But there exist a number of ballets in which the points and the five positions are not used at all, ballets which are based entirely on natural movement.
I illustrated this by saying to her, ’In order to lift their arms, your girls lift first their shoulders, then their elbows, and only after that the entire arm. That is not natural; when I go to take my hat off the peg, I left my entire arm to reach for it’. ’Perhaps, but, just the same, your movement really comes from here’, she explained, pointing to my solar plexus. ’All movement does, you breathe’. ’Yes, that’s true. I always breathe,’ I admitted, and we got no further.
THE TEACHING OF DANCING CONSISTS TO A LARGE DEGREE IN THE CONSTANT ELIMINATION OF UNNECESSARY STRAIN. (Fokine’s emphasis).
With them everything is cut and dried, quite remote from reality. The chest caved inward expresses hate or envy, yet when we approach the bed of a sick friend the chest is caved inward to express, not our hate, but our sympathy.
The true and final answer is, of course, that we can do everything that they do, while they in their turn can do nothing of our work. I have noticed that as a teacher. In the classroom it is ten times more convincing than on paper.
Pompous words such as ’free impulses’, and the whole phraseology that goes with it, cannot give them a mastery over their bodies, which are always tense and strained. Do you notice how their followers always call it a ’a sad art’, and talk of ’dark souls’ ? People explain it as an after-war neurosis, the spirit of a defeated nation, but the reason is, doubtless, that the portrayal of sadness calls for very little movement. The more joyful we feel the more we desire to move about. The dance is primarily an expression of joy, though sadness of course may be a subject for the dance, as all the other emotions. Yet it is not for nothing that so many have copied Pavlova’s Dying Swan, and no one her many fast and joyous dances.
This is not Duncan at all. The great Isadora Duncan has reproduced in her own dancing the entire range of human emotions, but when I think of dancers à la Duncan, I always picture a girl in draperies with her hand on her head in the manner of the funeral processions on a Greek urn.