Monday, March 01, 2010



Isabelle Fokine rehearses Petrouchka
with San Francisco Ballet dancers
©Erik Tomasson -- Photo R1P4535

At the beginning of the previous century (1900) there was a certain rigidity and satisfaction in science and culture. It was widely believed that science was almost complete. There was a solid tradition of expertise and satisfaction in music, art, literature and dance.

Just a few minor anomalies, it seemed, in science… And then came quantum mechanics: the world was at its core essentially random; and relativity: time really was the fourth dimension, mass was energy. In poetry, Ezra Pound proclaimed “Make it new” and famously edited TS Eliot’s The Waste Land (leaving it spare). In art, Picasso and others were inventing a new non-representational art. In theater, Ibsen, Stanislavsky, Chekhov, a new naturalism, and in Brecht and Pirandello, a new abstraction. In music, Stravinsky, Prokofieff and Shostakovich all of whom studied in St Petersburg, introduced new atonality, rhythmic strength and a new dynamic to music.

And in dance, Michel Fokine, born 1880, also from St Petersburg, working with the Ballets Russes in Paris was creating a new dance aesthetic, notably collaborating with Stravinsky to create The Firebird in 1910 and Petrouchka (Петрушка) in 1911.

These were the giants of modernism (see below for all links!), the upheaval in culture and science about 100 years ago. Both in its setting to the new music, and in its dramatic storytelling -- set in a Russian city with Russian characters -- Petrouchka was a milestone, a turning point in ballet. It was also great ballet.


The story of Petrouchka belongs to a long tradition of tales of inanimate objects that come to life (for example, Pinocchio, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Frankenstein, Caprica on TV, and the films Short Circuit and, most recently, Avatar).

The ballet opens in St Petersburg’s square. On a little stage are three lifeless puppets, a ballerina, a moor, and Petrouchka. As they come to life, a love triangle follows. Petrouchka loves the ballerina. The ballerina is attracted to the moor and, in a famous scene with a famous melody, she plays a saucy tune on a toy trumpet to entice the moor. Petrouchka rushes in to interrupt the seduction, but is chased away by the moor. Ah! More trouble follows…

Without detailing here the complex libretto (again, see below for links to the whole story), note that this is a powerful drama, told not through words, but through the language of dance, set in a vibrant world of Russian characters and customs.

For any new production of Fokine’s work, because of its cultural importance and the needs of a modern audience, there are two imperatives: a production should be great theater, and it should be authentic to the original principles of its creator.

Isabelle Fokine is quite literally (it’s not hyperbole in this case) the greatest expert in the world on the work of Michel Fokine. She has access to his vast archives, studied his work for years with her father, Vitale Fokine, Michel’s son, as he re-staged Fokine’s ballets around the world, and has now had about 15 years experience directly staging the works herself all around the world, after a young career first as a dancer and then as an actress.

Working with the San Francisco Ballet for many months, Isabelle has just now re-staged Petrouchka from her grandfather’s choreography. The world premiere of the San Francisco Ballet production of Petrouchka is on Tuesday March 2, 2010.

I had the opportunity to speak with Isabelle by phone about her work.

She talked with candor and emotion, and lots more humor and laughter than the text can really communicate. She speaks eloquently, with standard American speech from growing up in the US, modulated with some quite British inflections and expressions that have infiltrated her voice during the last twenty years that she has been living in London.

Her primary goal and wish for this production, for experts in ballet and new-comers to ballet alike is, “Hopefully, a moving and entertaining experience of theater!”

Petrouchka has quite a unique, broad base, because it is really a dance drama. Audience members not terribly interested in the history of the dance, or the difference between this production and another or why Petrouchka was considered a revolutionary work, can still understand its fundamental drama.”.

For balletomanes – the fans and experts – this is “a truly authentic production, based on Fokine’s original notations, and adhering to his principles.”

“What’s particularly nice about working here… There are no preconceptions about the ballet. We’re really starting fresh. It hasn’t been in the repertoire before. So everyone’s coming to it with new eyes. So there’s challenges with that as well. I think with the dancers, they weren’t accustomed to doing the Russian character work, so that was a hurdle to get over. I remember the first day of rehearsal, when I would tell them ‘You’ve got 16 counts of the Kazatzky coming downstage’, they would say, ‘What’s the Kazatzky?’ ”
(It’s a quintessentially Russian dance step with exuberant kicks from a squat.) “So that was a challenge, but 2 weeks later everyone was doing it and doing it well. So despite the fact they didn’t have a tradition doing that kind of work, they were capable of mastering it.”

“I think I’m always revisiting my grandfather’s material. It’s always going back to the original, and going back to his material, and going back to the meaning behind the gesture. Because one can often get into teaching a series of gestures, but knowing why they’re doing certain gestures and giving them back the through line -- the motivation from movement to movement -- is essential, especially in a piece like Petrouchka where you’re not getting up and doing a series of technical feats, but you’re telling a story through this movement.”

As a young girl, Isabelle was planning to be a dancer.

“When I was 16, I thought I was on the threshold of a promising dance career, and I was signed by a major company to start work with them. But then began a cascade of injuries for me. The first was quite severe. I had broken my fifth metatarsal and severed my Achilles tendon, and that meant I was going to be off for quite a while."

"But at this time my father was still re-staging the repertoire around the world and he said, ‘You know. Don’t sulk. Come with me and learn the ballets.' It was a fantastic opportunity for me... In retrospect!”

“I appreciate it much more now in maturity than I did at the time,"
she said with a laugh, “but it gave me the opportunity to learn how to decipher my grandfather’s notations, to watch my father in action, and to realize how Fokine’s principles would be put into practice when re-staging the repertoire.”

“I had begun my training with my father so I was really attuned to my grandfather’s syllabus and how he worked with movement and dance and what he thought was dutiful, and what he thought was appalling. This was a chance to put it into practice with regard to the repertoire, so it was a fantastic four years that immersed me in that kind of work."

Sadly, this work came to a conclusion with her father’s death.

"After a spiral of re-occurring injuries. I was told I had ‘bird bones’ and that they couldn’t sustain the pressure of dancing. What would happen to me is that I would always be suffering with my tendons and ligaments taking in the brunt of this problem I had. And I realized I wouldn’t be able to go on to have a career as a dancer myself."

Isabelle later spent several years acting, with studies that included work at the HB Studio in New York, where she studied with Sam Waterston and Jerry Stiller, among others. I actually knew her in New York and worked with her on scenes in Jerry Stiller’s class (she was terrific); and I happened to see her on the stage (terrific again) in Tamara– (a space-specific, interactive play that came up in the QPORIT story here about Diane Paulus). Isabelle was stylish, sharply intelligent, fun to work with, strikingly beautiful, very quick to make up her mind, kind of serious, and with a great laugh.

“I think that studying acting was very helpful for me in terms of the kind of work that my grandfather created, because a piece like Petrouchka really is a dance drama. And there are large portions with no great technical feats. The story is told through movement. And so I can use dance as a language to convey motivation and provide clarity. Because I have some background in acting, that helps me to help them achieve that kind of performance. That’s not so far afield from my grandfather’s work, because he was a good friend of Stanislavsky. And their correspondence demonstrated that they were trying to do similar things in their respective art forms.”

When she was in New York, she wanted passionately to visit Russia. Her grandfather had danced as a young man at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. He left Russia before the revolution, and “In the 1920’s when Stalin asked my grandfather to return to take over the Mariinsky,” she said with a laugh, “ he wisely refused.”

The result was that it became very dangerous for any member of the family to visit Russia. Around 1988, with the Soviet Union breaking up and exchanges with the US starting, it began to finally seem possible for her to visit Russia. (A signal moment was when Oleg Tabakov, from the Moscow Art Theater, came to the US to teach Chekhov. F Murray Abraham, Dustin Hoffman, and others were among the people who met with him during his visit. And Isabelle attended several events, meeting him while he was here.)

Shortly after, she was able to make her first trip to Russia and the Mariinsky Theater in St Petersburg. .“Well… the first time was very emotionally moving for me, because I was taking a journey that my father was unable to take and desperately wanted to his entire life. I think for those people who had to leave during the revolution, it was very painful to leave and not be able to go back. So when I went, I felt I was making a journey for him. When I initially went to the Mariinsky, it was in very bad repair, and as I was walking the corridors I thought, ‘Well, it looks very much as my grandfather would have left it.’ It was very moving for me to be there. It meant a great deal.”

Some time after, she met Andris Liepa, a Russian dancer, by chance, in a chiropractor’s office in New York.

“It actually goes back even further than when I met him there. Because I knew Andris’ father in 1968. I was dancing with the Bolshoi Ballet when they were on tour at the Metropolitan Opera. I was a child in the ballets and I spotted Maris Liepa (a very famous Russian ballet dancer of the time). I was a fan of his. When I started chatting with him and he heard my name he became very interested. My father came to the theater. They met. They became friends. And while we were sitting in his dressing room chatting, he said, ‘Oh! I have a son your age.’ And then 21 years later I met Andris in New York by chance in the chiropractor's office, and we began lengthy discussions about my grandfather’s work, and what Andris was interested in. The first project was actually to film in London, Le Spectre de la Rose. That project was with Thames television, and we went into discussions about filming many ballets of the Fokine repertoire with Andris dancing the Nijinsky roles. Then British television underwent a kind of big upheaval at that point. Thames television was demolished and the project kind of went with it. And Andris said, ‘Well, if we can’t do it here in Britain, perhaps we could do it in Russia.’ That was when things were changing in Russia and private entrepreneurs were just beginning. Andris started to find producers and people who would be able to fund the works there and that was the beginning of it.”

“That project was a specific series of revivals, because Russian audiences hadn’t seen those works of Fokine before. They had all premiered in Paris, so they were quite, quite new in Russia. I think, over the years of communism in Russia, there was a kind of ambivalence to his works. Occasionally, they would say, ‘Yes, of course, Fokine is great, and we appreciate his work,’ but they weren’t familiar enough with most of his work to incorporate it into the repertoire. Of course, his career really flourished in the West, with the premieres by the Ballet Russes in Paris. Following the revolution, he never went back, so his career went across Europe and ultimately to America.”

At first, when Isabelle began re-staging the ballets, there was some resistance.

“To be honest with you, I’m a bit dumfounded from some of the reactions… on the part of the critics, most of all… as to what they think the importance is of authenticity or the original choreography. I think it’s a mixed message sent out by some of the things they say. At one point, I think, people like Clement Crisp (a major English dance critic) are saying, ‘It’s very important to maintain authenticity and dance the original choreography.’ ”

But then, she finds, critics say it doesn’t matter when particular, important elements of the choreography and the production are completely different from the original.

“What I’ve found is that when I meet with resistance, the tradition of given productions seems to have superceded the tradition of Fokine himself. I find that very… I can’t quite get my head ‘round that to be honest with you, because I’m not sure why it’s better or preferable to stage a production with known inaccuracies in the choreography or which the choreographer himself was unhappy with. I don’t quite understand that one.”

Authenticity “either matters or it doesn’t matter. To me, of course it matters! I appreciate to some people it doesn’t matter. But I think Fokine created a series of masterpieces; and so it does matter significantly. I think for me it’s very heartbreaking when a bad production is done and critics go to review it. They don't seem to distinguish the production from the work itself. So you’ll get commentary like, ‘Oh you know perhaps Fokine's work doesn't hold up very well’ or ‘It wasn’t a very good ballet to begin with.’ No! That’s the production you’re looking at … The production isn’t showing his work. I think, from my perspective at any rate, if you see his work authentically done it does hold up. Very well!“

I asked Isabelle about her evolution from the time she started re-staging the ballets until now. And about the challenges of maintaining the quality of the ballets she has re-staged.

“I think I’m always revisiting my grandfather’s material. If anything, it’s trying to go backwards. So my evolution,” she said with a twinkle in her voice, “is in the opposite direction.”

“Change happens so rapidly within an art form like ballet. I can stage a work and be gone from it for a year and when I come back and see it, it already changes in my own re-staging. Always, I’m going back to his material. It’s kind of reining it back. Because frequently, in production, dances were learned from other dancers or ballet masters that weren’t in on my original rehearsals. So changes creep in. It’s always going back to the original, and going back to his material, and going back to the meaning behind the gesture.”

She has not tried to choreograph other kinds of dance, and other styles.

“I’d say this is my raison d’être and area of specialization. I think too, when I notice, sometimes, people work across a broad range of repertoire, sometimes there can be a little cross-fertilization there. I think by working exclusively on Fokine’s work and working from his philosophy, I can, hopefully, keep that as pure as possible.”

Although Isabelle has wanted for many years to create a filmed biography of her grandfather, and to create a filmed collection of the works, that has not yet happened.

There are some films about Fokine’s dances; but there are, in fact, both advantages and disadvantages in archiving dance on film.

“There are some lovely things in the film, Return of the Firebird. Some things look very good, like the crowd scenes. You can do different things on film than you can on stage. But whenever you transfer work to film, I think that there are compromises that are made.”

After her mother retired, Isabelle and her brother assumed the management of the Fokine Estate and “its collection of a substantial amount of material: film footage, notations, designs, scores… There was a huge volume of stuff that my mother deciphered and catalogued. She also initiated some exhibitions that showed that material over the course of many years.”

For me, interactive computer technology, together with the advent of new 3D technology, which provides an especially lifelike view of people (as demonstrated, for instance, in Avatar), provides a new opportunity for filming dance. 3D is spectacular on IMAX. It is coming to large screen TV’s, and it can be integrated with interactive technologies on the computer.

This is an excellent time to create 3D IMAX films and associated interactive content – both entertainment and documentary -- of the dances and the life of Fokine. 3D films coupled with interactive technology can provide a better-than-theatrical view of the dance, allowing an archive of film that includes an audience centric overview, and a close-up of detail. Interactivity can allow scholars, dancers, and audiences to each select how they wish to view it – whether it be theatrical entertainment watched from an audience perspective from beginning to end, or perhaps as dance research, dynamically selecting each gesture and relating it to the original notations.

Also of interest to me is the question of where theater and culture and science are going, now, roughly 100 years after the last upheaval. In 1900 a few anomalies in an almost perfect picture turned out to hold the seeds of a complete revolution in our understanding of the world. Scientifically, today, lurking in the wings, are (among other things) the perplexing anomalies of dark matter and dark energy. The universe we (sort of) understand is only (at most) 4% of the universe we think is out there. As we begin to unravel knowledge of the other 96%, how will our culture change? More generally, as we look at our culture today, what kinds of change are likely?

“People are of their period… Of their historical background… Of their dance training… Of what’s going on in a given art at the time in their culture, the country where they live…”

“I think we’ve become very accustomed to the shocking and the avant-garde. At the turn of the last century, there was a status quo in dance and things were quite formulaic, so there was a very rigid tradition to break away from.”

“It’s hard to imagine today exactly what… what choreographers would be able to do that would have the same impact, because I think audiences in some ways are quite jaded to what they see on the stage. We’re accustomed to hearing music that doesn’t sound like music, and seeing dancers do virtually any type of movement on the stage. For almost anything, there is a frame of reference, so they could say, ‘Ah, yes! Well… well, that we’ve… we’ve seen that before!’ “

“I think a direction I can imagine things going in is seeing the entire history of dance, and kind of finding a new way forward based on the old traditions. Or, I know that in some other art forms, for example. in theater, going away from realistic drama … companies like Theatre de Complicite have gone into kind of a surreal form of drama. Now perhaps that would be a movement for ballet as well. Pursuing surreal versions of reality, and story telling, which is only in ballet intermittently in the current tradition.”

What is the new direction, the exciting direction that culture can take us? Part of the answer may lie in a new eclecticism that incorporates the history of human culture. Part of the answer may lie in the possibilities of new technology which facilitate interactive, hyperlinked, and selective access to knowledge, and excellent, efficient 3D recording, extending images from a flat screen to full space; and which, together, provide a new dimension for archiving and then presenting recorded images. Part of the answer may lie in the fusion of exuberance and detail and comprehensive vision I discussed in the article about Diane Paulus, which is also explicit in Isabelle’s combination of struggling to get each detailed gesture right, while still taking the broader view of the meaning, objectives and purpose of the whole. (This idea is also addressed in the program notes to Program 4 and Petrouchka.)

It will be exciting to see the San Francisco Ballet’s new Petrouchka, which premieres on Tuesday, March 2.

The following day, March 3, Isabelle will be speaking and taking questions in the Pointes of View. She says, “I’ll be guided by what the audience would like to know… about the history of the piece… or what it’s like to re-stage the production… or the ballet in the context of dance history. I’ll be guided by what they’re most interested in discussing.”

Summing up her work, she added with deep emotion, and just a little humor:

“It’s a challenging career. I suppose the most satisfying thing is that …on that night the curtain goes up… If the production is something that I feel my grandfather would look down on and say, ‘Not bad! Not bad!’ … that’s quite… quite thrilling to me! Just to think I’m honoring his legacy.”


Isabelle's quotations -- all the italics -- are taken nearly verbatim from the transcript of the conversation, slightly rearranged, and very lightly edited.

Here are some links to items in this article:


Program 4 -- Petrouchka Premiere & More
March 2-7

Program 4 Notes, and The story of Petrouchka:

Pointes of View
Isabelle Fokine

March 3 6-7 PM
Green Room 2nd Floor

Dance Scholar and Educator Mary Wood, along with other guest presenters, hosts each program in salon-style interviews with San Francisco Ballet dancers, guest artists, choreographers, musicians, and designers.

Pointes of View Lectures are held on Wednesday evenings from 6-7pm in the Veterans Building, conveniently located across the courtyard from the War Memorial Opera House at 401 Van Ness Avenue (at McAllister Street). These lectures are free and open to the public.


Michel Fokine


The Ballets Russes


St Petersburg -- The setting of Petrouchka, and the home of Fokine and Stravinsky

The Mariinsky Theater -- Fokine danced here before he left Russia

The Mariinsky Ballet -- Resident company of the Mariinsky Theater, also known as the Kirov Ballet


There is a kindred spirit in Isabelle's work and the work of Diane Paulus described in this article from QPORIT:


Short Circuit

The Winter's Tale

Theatre de Complicite -- Their staging of a play about The Ice Man came to New York

Modernism -- This article details the cultural upheavals of the early 1900's


Maris Liepa

Oleg Tabakov


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