Fokine marvellous

The Russian choreographer Michel Fokine revolutionised the art of dancing, and then he was eclipsed

News comes of the escalating spat between the violinist Nigel Kennedy and the impresario Sir John Drummond. Kennedy has played Berg's funereal Violin Concerto dressed in a black cape; Drummond hates the cape as a gesture of pandering to the masses - although I haven't seen too many black capes in my local supermarket lately. Kennedy accuses Drummond of "elitism".

In one way, this is no more than another round of Britain's favourite sport, class warfare. Kennedy has lost this round, because that black cape is, in fact, a little gesture of contempt. It betokens the assumption that difficult or demanding art can't be served to the general public straight; high art needs to be "presented", "explained" or, in this case, dressed up.

The black cape has sharpened my memories of the season given this summer by St Petersburg's Kirov Ballet at Covent Garden in London. There were, indeed, few representatives of the great unwashed or the young in the lower reaches of the house - ticket prices of up to £70 a seat ensured that. But the Kirov programmes, especially those devoted to the choreographer Michel Fokine, presented to us work that once sought, and succeeded in, speaking of new and strange things directly to a large public.

Michel Fokine (although Russian, he preferred the French spelling of his first name) was trained as a dancer in the strict rules that governed St Petersburg's Imperial Ballet at the end of the 19th century. By the age of 24, in 1904, he had set about revolutionising the art of dancing. Nineteenth-century choreographers focused on the movements of the legs, whereas Fokine used the whole body. Fokine's predecessors trained the dancer's legs to turn out; he turned them in or folded them. Before Fokine, choreographer, set designer, costumer and composer each worked in isolation on a dance; Fokine set about bringing these arts together. He aimed, with painterly collaborators such as Alexandre Benois and Leon Bakst, and eventually under the presiding genius of the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, at total dance theatre - just as Richard Wagner aimed single-handedly in Bayreuth to create total opera theatre.

The first collaboration between Fokine and Benois, the one-act ballet Le Pavillon d'Armide of 1907, made use of new music by Nikolai Tcherepnin; Benois co-ordinated costumes with the stage sets; and the choreography daringly makes the dancers' shoulders as expressive as their toes. A year later, Les Sylphides was a dance work that managed to look backward and forward at once: backward to the era of the great ballerina Maria Taglioni in the middle of the 19th century; forward in giving the corps de ballet a new unity of movement tying the piece together as a whole.

These early works provided a foretaste of the revolution in dance that Fokine and his collaborators would launch at the Ballets Russes in Paris. Fokine's story, once he allied himself to Diaghilev's troupe in 1909, is, however, both glorious and sad. In four years, he created a spate of masterpieces - Scheherazade, Firebird, Le Spectre de la Rose, Petrouchka, Daphnis et Chloe. How he did so has been recovered for us by Drummond (whom history will remember as a dance researcher, rather than a class warrior). In Speaking of Diaghilev (Faber and Faber, £14.99), Drummond drew out, for instance, the aged ballerina Tamara Karsavina, who recalled Fokine as a man of "terrific tempers", but no disciplinarian: instead, "he was like a sculptor. Sometimes he wanted a pose, he wouldn't explain very much, he would show it and then come and arrange it . . ." All the Paris ballets show traces of that working method, the hard work of composition subsumed in art's greatest illusions: spontaneity and simplicity.

Vaslav Nijinsky is a large part of what went wrong for Fokine. The young dancer dislodged Fokine's place as premier choreographer when he undertook L'Apres-midi d'un Faune in 1912 and, more famously, Sacre du Printemps in 1913. At 34, Fokine was suddenly, and mys-teriously, a spent force. He broke with Diaghilev and returned to Russia, only to begin wandering the world, a man restaging the triumphs of his youth, but adding nothing substantially new.

My teacher Pierre Monteux, who conducted the premiere of Petrouchka in 1911, said that Fokine, after the rupture with the Ballets Russes, was "homeless in his soul". He died in 1942.

In its time, Fokine's work had all the marks of avant-garde modernism; a theory even lay behind it - a concept of bodily "signs", which Fokine eventually wrote out in the Russian journal Argus in 1916. The work should have shocked, disoriented and disturbed audiences - here was an "elite" project hewing to the highest standards, a new concept of dance theatre presented straight out. If the rules of the game in modern Britain had prevailed a century ago, Fokine might been obliged to come out in front of the fire curtain before a performance in order to "prepare" the audience for what they were about to see. But the artist had a better, more honest relation to his public.

He struck an immediately enthusiastic response. Sophisticated audiences in St Petersburg knew they were watching an art changing before their eyes. Jaded Parisians knew something radical was afoot, if not quite what was happening. Even Britain, so deficient in dancers and so starved of dance at the time, took in the work of Fokine and of the Ballets Russes enthusiastically and intelligently. The first performance in London, in 1911, of Le Pavillon d'Armide, for instance, was greeted by the Morning Post as "fresh and attractive [in] character"; the British public, who had seen nothing like it, only wanted to see more.

If this connection across the footlights surprises us, it is because, I think, we understand quite badly the reception of the performing arts in the past. In part, our models are too literary. The genius unrecognised in his or her garret - Chatterton dying alone, Melville toiling as a clerk, Rimbaud remembered by only a few cognoscenti - is a literary model that cannot serve in the performing arts: a singer or dancer nurturing his or her genius in secret is merely rehearsing. Before the age of the university artist, or the grants-funded artist, performing had an all-or-nothing urgency for the stage artist; equally, it elicited an intensity and concentration of attention in the spectators. Nineteenth-century audiences lacked our technology of familiarity, of recording and television; live art was all they knew. The immediacy of performance shaped their taste; they wanted more than to be reminded of what they had already seen or heard. Certainly, audiences a century ago could be conservative, but "conservative" did not translate to "indifferent". Fokine's gift was to make this involvement with the stage total, coherent and so compelling.

How could this lost world be recreated, if at all, a century later?

The Kirov lets us see almost all Fokine's great works. The company can trace its own origins back 250 years in St Petersburg. Its character was defined for modern times by the arrival of the dancing master Marius Petipa in 1847; the troupe was installed in the Maryinsky Theatre, which is still its home, in 1886. Even in the darkest moments of communism, the Kirov remained a treasure house of dancing, although the authorities confined its modern repertoire to Soviet schlock.

The Kirov's past decade forms a shaming contrast to Convent Garden's. The London house, awash with cash, nearly sank due to the incompetence of the fat-cat contributors controlling it. The leader who most recently might have saved it, the American Michael Kaiser, quietly but quickly announced his departure once he had seen the lay of the land. The Russian house, on a much leaner diet, has performed miracles. The great conductor Valery Gergiev unified the artistic direction of the Kirov Opera and Kirov Ballet in 1996; the ballet master Mahar Vaziev built on the foundations established by the unfairly maligned Oleg Vinogradov, who began to open the repertoire up to the west in the Brezhnev years of Soviet decadence.

The company we saw in London has no star dancers to equal Natalia Makarova or Rudolf Nureyev, who fled Russia in the bad old days. Indeed, the Royal Ballet, which has managed to survive the chaos of its Covent Garden masters better than the Royal Opera, dances some of the Ballets Russes repertoire as well or better than the Kirov - our home-grown Firebird is a marvel. The Russian company glories still, however, in the unity of its execution. In Petrouchka, the co-operation between musicians in the pit and dancers on stage was total; Scheherazade, a work that hovers on the edge of erotic kitsch, did not fall into that abyss, thanks to the disciplined restraint of the corps de ballet. The company is Fokine's company in its spirit, its parts welded into one solid, expressive whole.

Although, with the passage of time, the shock of unity inevitably fades, still the Kirov managed to command the public. The Covent Garden audience has become accustomed to applauding every star turn; as these evenings from the past unfolded, however, that habit fell away. The purity of the Kirov performances, their uncompromising character, exerted a different power. No black capes and no explanations were necessary. The Kirov trusted in Fokine's art, and so, again, did we.

This article first appeared in the 18 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Let the poor seek a place in the sun