One of the most distinguished dancers and choreographers of the first half of the 20th century. Also known by the name Michel. He was born on 5 May 1880 in St Petersburg. Having graduated from the Imperial Ballet School, he joined the Mariinsky Theatre, becoming principal dancer in 1904. Two years later he took up a teaching post at his alma mater.
The first ballet he created was Acis and Galatea (1905) set to music by Kadlec and performed by his students, followed by The Dying Swan, the famous solo piece for legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova, set to music by Saint-Saëns (1907). At the Mariinsky he also staged Le Pavillon d’Armide (1907) and Chopiniana (1907–08), known internationally as Les Sylphides.
He was one of the reformers of classical ballet. Under the influence of Isadora Duncan and new currents in Russian art, he formulated his own programme of reviving traditional ballet. Without forsaking the classical technique, he called for more choreographic freedom to create new poses and movements depending on the task ahead. He brought male dance back into limelight: it was in his choreographies that Vaslav Nijinsky shot to fame. His objective was to replace traditional ballet miming with expression of the dancing body. He would include the corps de ballet in the action, treating it as a collection of individualities. He put strong emphasis on dramaturgy, treating music, dance and scenery as equally subjected to action. Fokine realised his theoretical programme most fully with the Sergei Dagilev’s Ballets Russes. The collaboration gave fruit in the form of his famous Polovtsian Dances, Le Carnaval, Scheherazade, The Firebird, Le Spectre de la Rose, Petrushka, Daphnis et Chloe and Josephslegende.
In 1914–18 he again worked in Russia, then Sweden, to finally settle in the USA in 1920. There, he taught dance in New York City together with his wife, former dancer Vera Fokina (1886–1958), and collaborated as choreographer with different US dance companies over the years. He frequently returned to Europe to work as choreographer with the Paris Opera, His Majesty’s Theatre in London, Ida Rubinstein’s company in Paris and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo led by René Blum. In 1941–42 he was the chief choreographer of the newly opened Ballet Theatre (currently the ABT) in New York.
He created over 80 ballets, the most important of which were later restaged by various companies across the world, including Poland, where his work was promoted by his former colleagues and associates: Piotr Zajlich and Maksymilian Statkiewicz in the 1920s and 1930s, and Leon Wójcikowski and Raissa Kuznietsova after WWII. Fokine died on 22 August 1942 in New York City.
The family’s dance traditions were continued by his only son, the dancer and ballet master Vitale Fokine (1905–1977), his niece Irine Fokina (1922–2010) and Vitale’s daughter Isabelle Fokine, who currently heads the Fokine Estate Archive which is in charge of Mikhail’s legacy.