Grandfather's footsteps

Mikhail Fokine was a legendary choreographer, his work synonymous with the triumphs of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Nearly a century on, his granddaughter Isabelle is keeping his name alive. By Jenny Gilbert
Everyone inherits genes from their grandparents, but some get landed with a lot more. The American Isabelle Fokine found herself owning the copyright to some of the world's most famous Russian ballets - among them Petrushka, The Firebird, Scheherazade, Spectre de la Rose, and The Dying Swan. A gorgeous legacy, you might think, until you consider what a classic ballet consists of. Is it just the basic steps? If so, in the absence of documentary evidence, who decides what they are? Does it mean reproducing the original sets and costumes?

In the case of Mikhail Fokine, whose chief innovation was to present choreography, music and design as an interdependent whole, historical accuracy is paramount. But who's to say what's authentic? A ballet company which has been doing the piece for decades? A dancer taught by a dancer taught by one of the original troupe? A centenarian who was in the audience in 1911? Or a sometime actress with a mission to put things right?

Fortunately for Fokine (born St Petersburg 1880, died New York 1942), his gracious and elegant granddaughter also inherited his relish for a fight. "There's a terrible tradition in dance of people doing basically what they want with other people's choreography," she exclaims, incredulous despite her own years spent in ballet shoes. "It's just what's been passed down through someone's memory! Can you imagine passing on Hamlet that way, or Beethoven's Choral Symphony? 'I've heard it a few times ... I can hum it for you!' That has been our tradition with ballet."

No more, if she has anything to do with it. Not only has Isabelle Fokine devoted herself full-time to advising (and often reprimanding) companies around the world on their interpretations of Fokine, she also owns, or has access to, information that makes her word irrefutable. Vintage film, for instance. In an era when most attempts at dance notation were sketchy or non-existent, Mikhail Fokine was experimenting with 16mm film in the rehearsal studio. It's a dangerously fragile document, because the ancient celluloid melts when fed through modern equipment, but it has offered Isabelle a flickering insight into dance practice of 90 years ago.

And then there's The Dying Swan book. It's almost as if the choreographer foresaw that this most concentrated of solos (at two-and-a-half minutes, the world's shortest complete ballet) would become the most corrupted - an outcome that's unsurprising given that the much-imitated Pavlova touted it round for 20 years. But the hard copy survives. Using his wife, the ballerina Vera Fokina, as a model, Fokine photographed each pose, mounting the prints in a book, and annotating each one with the bar of music, the note on which the position changed, and poetic explanations of the expression of each movement. According to Isabelle, it's as close as you can get to the real thing.

The Dying Swan (a solo that bears no relation whatsoever to Swan Lake - a prime example of erroneous mythology) has been staged by Fokine petite- fille as part of the Fokine bill to be danced by the Kirov in London this week. Bizarrely, it is only the second time the great classical company of St Petersburg has attempted works by its one-time teacher and choreographer, who jumped ship to join Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1908. Its first Fokine bill was in 1995, when Isabelle mounted Les Sylphides, The Firebird and Scheherazade in London and New York, a programme so popular it's having a second run here. The new group also includes the erotic Spectre de la Rose, and the exotic Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor. Modern stuff, by Kirov standards. While other companies worry about how their repertoires will respond to the 21st century, the Kirov, direct descendant of the Russian Imperial Ballet, is only now beginning to drag itself into the early 20th.

Wasn't it difficult to recreate the sense of extreme novelty these ballets enjoyed when they first burst on Paris and London in the 1910s and 20s? Hardly, says Isabelle. For dancers accustomed to performing only 19th- century classics, the demands of Fokine come as quite a shock. "It's such a contradiction to the way they think it's 'correct' to dance," she says. "That is, spine completely erect, hips rotated outwards, and arms permanently in a classical port de bras. My grandfather broke all these rules. His inspiration was Renaissance sculpture, standing in the S-curve. He thought that was the most natural and graceful stance for the human form. At first when I'd try to get the Kirov dancers to pose in this position they simply couldn't do it. It was very hard to free them of their classical plastique."

The technique may break new ground for the dancers, but it's hard to imagine the worldly wise audiences of today swooning over the scimitar- waving warriors and half-clad harem girls of Scheherazade as their predecessors did. "It's hard to say what modern-day sensibilities have dulled us to," Fokine says. "Probably a great deal more than exoticism. I think what happens to ballet today is that too much attention is given to physique and technique, and not enough to emotional and physical detail. These works are really dance dramas, and it's the details that make them work. Without them they can look ludicrous and dated. With the detail in place, I think they're as extraordinary as when they were first created."

Intriguing, then, to note that the Imperial Ballet's last brush with a Fokine ballet, in 1907, just before he left for the West, was characterised by a rejection of such niceties of detail. Inspired by Greek vase-painting, the choreographer wanted the dancers to perform barefoot. Far too risque, said the powers-that-be (can a modern audience ever understand the indecency of an unshod foot?) Instead the dancers were costumed in tights ... painted with toes.

! Coliseum, WC2 (0171 632 8300). Fokine Programme I: Thurs-Sat. Programme II: 7-9 Aug.