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Fokine on Broadway 1919-1926
by David for group historicalziegfeld Sep 30, 2011

Michel Fokine was the most famous choreographer in the world when he fled Russia in 1918, ostensibly to stage "Petrushka" in Sweden, but actually to escape the turmoil and philistinism of the Revolution. From 1909 to 1914 he had created a series of landmark ballets for Serge Diaghilev, stripping the ornamentalism away from the classical dancing style of Petipa, seeking an integrity of expression and pantomimic force. His irregular groupings of dancers across the stage marked the modernist turn away from the simple geometries and symmetries of the conventional imperial ballet. After a break with Diaghilev, Fokine returned to Petrograd in late 1914 and installed himself as the leading creative force at the Maryinsky Theater, the institution that had once marginalized him, considering him a radical. During the early years of the war, he created a series of significant works for the Imperial Ballet, until the empire was overthrown, and the Revolutionary order installed. He could not imagine that the Soviet regime would wish to maintain so courtly an art. After a year attempting to find a sinecure in Europe, he received a call from Broadway to choreograph a musical show. It was a singularly strange show, produced by Morris Gest, a man with a taste for continental talent. He had a French composer, an American designer, and Fokine's old collaborator from the Ballet Russe, Leon Bakst, creating costumes. The Plot . . . well a mythological pretext for parading as many beautiful women about the stage as could be managed. Fokine was to supply the dramatic spectacle. When he discovered that only one of his dancers, Mlle Dazie (as "Aphrodisia") had classical training, Fokine resorted to sculptural configurations with moments of arrest. The attitudes were strange enough to capture the eye, as the first the 2nd and 3rd images below attest. His stint as an instructor in the Imperial Ballet School served him in good stead as he arranged tyros in ensemble tableaus. By the time of Fokine's 2nd Broadway production, "Mecca," in autumn of 1920, he had scoured New York for chorines who had a talent for plastic expression and a willingness to follow instruction. Despite the pastiche oriental music by Percy E. Fletcher (surely the lamest musical collaborator Fokine worked with during his career), the choreographer constructed a dynamic sequence of pantomimic actions. Images 4-7 below illustrate the visual interest of Fokine's arrangements and were published in many newspapers and magazines in 1920-21. His personal success, and the substantial income he received from Morris Gest, convinced Fokine to establish a base in New York. He realized that his first order of business to do the kind of choreography he desire was to establish a ballet school in order to train Americans in 20th-century ballet technique. This he did in 1921. In the years following the founding of his school until the launch of his ballet troupe in 1924, he staged a very few dances on Broadway. In the Shubert Brothers "The Rose Girl," an operetta that opened their Ambassador Theater in 1921, Fokine staged a solo ballet for Lydia Lopokova and a gypsy number for Rose Rolanda. He and wife Vera Fokina performed a duet in the revue "Get Together." And he staged a lovely classical dance for Constance Binney (see the James Abbe image below) to George Gershwin's music in "Sweet Little Devil." By the time of that musical's closing in May 1924, Fokine was ready to present dance recitals by the enrollees of his school. 1925-1927 saw Fokine reassert his classical identity in a series of dances performed in Carnegie Hall and Lewisohn Stadium. His final Broadway venture was a ballet staged for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931. None of the dances Fokine devised for Broadway productions has survived in the repertoire. Yet numbers of the dancers he trained in his New York school became significant performers on the Great White Way. David S. Shields


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