Fokine’s Introduces Abstract Ballet Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Michel Fokine took ballet into new dimensions when he elevated the male role and showed that ballet could be beautifully abstract.

Summary of Event

While browsing through some pieces at a music shop, choreographer Michel Fokine found a suite titled “Chopiniana,” orchestrated by Aleksandr Glazunov. Glazunov, Aleksandr Fokine considered arranging a ballet to the suite, but he first decided to add a waltz to the piece, and he asked Glazunov to orchestrate this as well. The resulting ballet, Réverie romantique, Réverie romantique (ballet) which was performed by the Russian Imperial Ballet in 1907, represented Fokine’s attempt to return ballet to the conditions of its highest development. Ballet;abstract Dance;ballet Sylphides, Les (ballet) Music;ballet Ballet;Les Sylphides[Sylphides] Choreography;ballet [kw]Fokine’s Les Sylphides Introduces Abstract Ballet (June 2, 1909)[Fokines Les Sylphides Introduces Abstract Ballet (June 2, 1909)] [kw]Sylphides Introduces Abstract Ballet, Fokine’s Les (June 2, 1909) [kw]Abstract Ballet, Fokine’s Les Sylphides Introduces (June 2, 1909) [kw]Ballet, Fokine’s Les Sylphides Introduces Abstract (June 2, 1909) Ballet;abstract Dance;ballet Sylphides, Les (ballet) Music;ballet Ballet;Les Sylphides[Sylphides] Choreography;ballet [g]France;June 2, 1909: Fokine’s Les Sylphides Introduces Abstract Ballet[02430] [c]Dance;June 2, 1909: Fokine’s Les Sylphides Introduces Abstract Ballet[02430] [c]Music;June 2, 1909: Fokine’s Les Sylphides Introduces Abstract Ballet[02430] Fokine, Michel Nijinsky, Vaslav Pavlova, Anna Karsavina, Tamara Platonovna Diaghilev, Sergei Preobrajenska, Olga Benois, Alexandre

The ballet’s first piece, a polonaise, was performed in a ballroom setting by dancers in rich Polish costumes. The second piece, a nocturne, was turned into a scene from the life of Frédéric Chopin Chopin, Frédéric in which the composer (portrayed by Alexei Bulgakov) was shown working at a piano in a deserted monastery. Ill and assailed by vague fears, Chopin was suddenly tormented by the ghosts of dead monks. Recoiling in terror and then collapsing in a half faint, he was rescued by his muse, a dancer in white who appeared out of the darkness to drive away the haunting visions and ease him back to his piano, where he resumed his composition. The third piece, a mazurka, portrayed the interruption of a young peasant girl’s wedding to an old man and her flight from the scene with her former lover. The waltz, a classical pas de deux, followed. The final piece, a tarantella, was an ensemble dance set in a square somewhere in Naples, with Mount Vesuvius looming in the distance.

On April 6, 1908, Fokine presented a new version of the ballet, titled Second Chopiniana, Second Chopiniana (ballet) at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Glazunov’s waltz was retained in the new production, but the rest was now orchestrated by Maurice Keller. Keller, Maurice Part of a double bill with a ballet that showcased the dancers’ use of profile positions, angular lines, and flat palms throughout, Second Chopiniana was deliberately different in style. Dissatisfied with irrelevant acrobatic feats and toe dance in ballet, Fokine sought to create a romantic mood piece that was plotless but at the same time infused with emotion. He also wanted to show that he was not destroying the old ballet styles but was, rather, interpreting them differently from his contemporaries—one of whom, Marius Petipa, Petipa, Marius had succeeded in creating a dominant fashion. Sergei Diaghilev, creator and manager of the Ballets Russes, rechristened the work Les Sylphides in homage to La Sylphide (1832), the first of the great Romantic ballets, and he chose it to be part of the repertory for his first Ballets Russes Ballets Russes Ballet companies;Ballets Russes season in Paris.

In its final form—which took Fokine only three days to choreograph—Les Sylphides premiered in Paris on June 2, 1909. A plotless, abstract piece with a delicate suite of music, the ballet looked deceptively simple, although this was primarily because of the exceptionally talented leads—Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, Tamara Platonovna Karsavina, and Olga Preobrajenska—whose innate musicality, lightness of foot, and soft arm movements created an elegiac, wistful poetry. Scenarist Alexandre Benois had designed a mournful, romantic setting, a deserted, ruined place. The nocturnal darkness was relieved by a glowing dark green hue and quivering patches of simulated moonlight.

The ballet’s dominant mood was set by the overture, which evoked a haunting tenderness. The ballet proper began with a nocturne danced by the whole company, their hair adorned with white flowers and their chests decorated with small bunches of forget-me-nots. This female corps de ballet looked like soft white anemones or like snowflakes gathering into cool masses of deliquescent beauty. Next came a valse executed by Karsavina with a rare romanticism and beautiful extensions.

Pavlova flew across the stage in the first mazurka, and although her leaps were not particularly high, her slim body and midair positions created the impression of light, lyrical flight. Nijinsky, the sole male dancer, shone next in his mazurka. Clothed in black and white and wearing a blond wig that hung down to his shoulders, he seemed to be almost weightless, and he demonstrated his extraordinary ability to seem to pause in midflight. With exceptional speed, yet enviable lightness, he moved from the front of the stage to the back at a single bound, and he fused pauses and successive movements into a vibrant whole. His dancing had a continuous, weaving rhythm, and although his technique was meticulously worked out, his dance instinct and imagination made the choreography seem beautifully natural.

The prelude was danced by the diminutive Preobrajenska, who demonstrated an exceptional sense of balance. Her dancing on point was virtually ethereal—especially her ability to freeze on the toes of one foot—and although she was a champion of the style of dancing extolled by Petipa, she put her sense of traditionalism at Fokine’s revolutionary service.

The waltz’s pas de deux, performed by Nijinsky and Pavlova, ended with Pavlova performing a pas de bourrée, a running step on her toes. The ballet concluded with a final waltz danced by the entire company in an expressive play of configurations.

The huge ovation that greeted the conclusion of Les Sylphides was a tribute to Fokine’s pure vision and to his dancers’ creation of a fantastic atmosphere. The dancers were not simply exhibiting themselves; they were, instead, expressing a spiritual mood that grew out of Chopin’s pieces.


Les Sylphides crowned the 1909 season of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. It was close enough to the tradition of French ballet so as not to surprise the Parisians, and its exceptional execution delighted critics and audiences alike. The production also offered a series of revelations. For instance, audiences discovered that a ballet did not have to be more than one act in length. Moreover, the work demonstrated that ballet’s subject matter could be abstract so long as a dancer’s whole body (rather than merely legs or torso) moved to convey emotion or sensation. The corps de ballet was part of the plastic sequence of movements, and their varied groupings were more than simply decorative. Audiences also discovered that music could have a more intimate relationship to dance than had ever before been demonstrated.

The participation of Nijinsky as a soloist was another novelty and a revelation all its own, for he created a new image for the male ballet dancer: No longer merely a partner for a woman, he could display his own acrobatic and athletic virtuosity without feeling apart from the thrilling whole.

Les Sylphides quickly lent justification to Fokine’s new tenets of ballet. A dancer in his own right who had partnered Pavlova, Karsavina, and other noted dancers, Fokine sought to have dance keep up with the changing tenor of the times. Classical dance was far too static for his liking; he believed that dance tradition subjugated all periods, styles, and characters to its own imperious decrees. As he complained in his memoirs, “Everything was sacrificed for one form, one style, so that the artists might display the dance, the technique, in the manner in which it had been prepared—once and for all.” In such old-style performances, everything was focused on the dancer’s personal appearance and technique instead of on the dancer’s ability to express emotion.

In short, Fokine viewed many traditional ballets of the time as marked by stale self-exhibitionism instead of by creative energy. He also decried the fact that such ballets had no real unity of action, for performances could be interrupted by applause and a dancer’s grateful bows. Moreover, Fokine complained about prevailing techniques of dance expression (some dancers would interpret stories with their hands, others with their feet) and about lapses in costume style; some ballets used historically correct costumes, whereas others employed special ballet attire.

Taking advantage of his position as a teacher at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg, Fokine was gradually able to introduce his views of ballet to those who would create the Russian ballet’s future. It was really as a choreographer, however, that he was most successful in promulgating his views. Fokine’s ideas met with contempt from the conservative Mariinsky Theatre authorities; his views received their proper due only after he joined forces with Diaghilev in 1909. Through a series of classic productions with the Ballets Russes, Fokine demonstrated his principles in action. Dance steps and movements corresponded to the periods and characters presented. Dancing and mimetic gesture expressed the dramatic action and were directly connected to theme. The whole body was used as an instrument of expression, and this expression extended from the individual to the ensemble. Every element on the stage—decor, costuming, lighting, choreography, mime, music—harmonized into an integral whole.

Les Sylphides quickly became part of every major ballet company’s repertoire, yet it did not always have successful presentations. The ballet displays dance for its own sake, and it requires delicate, precise dance; it cannot be successful if the performing ensemble is not tremendously skilled. Only the very greatest ballet companies with the greatest stars (such as Margot Fonteyn, Lynn Seymour, Rudolf Nureyev, and Mikhail Baryshnikov) are able to evoke the beauty of the work.

Fokine was not the first to use Chopin’s music for ballet; Isadora Duncan had danced to Chopin in 1904 during her Russian tour. Ever since Fokine, however, other choreographers and dancers have exploited Chopin. Pavlova used Chopin’s music in 1918 for her Autumn Leaves. Nineteen years later, Bronislawa Nijinska created a performance to a Chopin concerto. Fokine continued to inspire American and English choreographers well into the second half of the twentieth century. Jerome Robbins used Chopin for several ballets, particularly for Dances at a Gathering (1969), a suite of plotless dances growing out of eighteen piano pieces that is directly linked to Les Sylphides. Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country (1976), a supremely bittersweet drama about the foibles of the human heart, used John Lanchbery’s arrangements of Chopin. John Neumeier’s full-length Lady of the Camellias (1978) also used Chopin’s music.

Les Sylphides was not the last word on the subject of abstract dance. Future choreographers carried forward the innovations of Fokine’s work and added their own, and by the late twentieth century, many of the elements that had seemed revolutionary in Fokine’s time had begun to seem almost quaint. There is no denying the powerful effect of Les Sylphides on modern ballet, however, and the work has assumed an honored place in the classical repertory alongside the other masterworks of twentieth century choreography. Ballet;abstract Dance;ballet Sylphides, Les (ballet) Music;ballet Ballet;Les Sylphides[Sylphides] Choreography;ballet

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Balanchine, George, and Francis Mason. Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets. Rev. ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977. Standard, classic reference contains the stories of more than four hundred ballets. Also presents Balanchine’s personal thoughts on dancing, careers in ballet, and ballet for children. Includes a brief history of ballet, a chronology of outstanding events from 1469 to 1976, an illustrated glossary, and more than seventy-five photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beaumont, Cyril W. Complete Book of Ballets: A Guide to the Principal Ballets of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1938. Contains a very brief biographical sketch of Fokine’s career, a list of his productions all over the world, and synopses of his major ballets, along with cast lists and brief commentaries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fokine, Michel. Fokine: Memoirs of a Ballet Master. Translated by Vitale Fokine, edited by Anatole Chujoy. Boston: Little, Brown, 1961. An account of Fokine’s early years, his training at the Imperial Ballet School, and his own sense of his awakening genius. Translated from his journals.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garafola, Lynn. Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. 1989. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Examines the entire enterprise of the Ballets Russes, including Fokine’s work, and analyzes the concurrent artistic, social, and cultural trends and conditions that influenced and were influenced by Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. Scholarly, well written, and thorough.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Legacies of Twentieth-Century Dance. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2005. A selection of essays and reviews by one of the most influential scholars of the history of dance. Covers the transformation of dance, especially ballet, since the early twentieth century. Includes many photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robertson, Allen, and Donald Hutera. The Dance Handbook. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2006. Practical guide consists of entries on influential works, choreographers, dancers, and companies along with essential facts and critiques. Includes illustrations, references, glossary, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sokolova, Lydia. Dancing for Diaghilev: The Memoirs of Lydia Sokolova. Edited by Richard Buckle. New York: Macmillan, 1961. A fascinating record of the Ballets Russes written by the company’s principal character dancer. Offers vignettes of Nijinsky, Karsavina, Léonide Massine, Fokine, and many other famous ballet figures.

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Categories: History