The ballet Paganini emerged from a close collaboration between choreographer Michel Fokine and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, who together co-wrote the libretto. Created for de Basil's Ballets Russes, the ballet was set to Rachmaninoff's 1934 work Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Scenery and costumes were designed by Serge Soudeikine.
The libretto evoked the legend surrounding the virtuosic violinist Niccolo Paganini, whose playing was so extraordinary that he was rumoured to have sold his soul to the devil in return for perfection in art. Fokine is said to have personally identified with Paganini as an artist who displayed genius, yet was heavily criticised.
The ballet is in three scenes. In the first the gaunt figure of Paganini performs on stage. As he plays, the allegorical figures of Guile, Scandal, Gossip and Envy weave through the audience and an evil spirit seems to guide his hand. Scene two is set in a Florentine landscape where a young girl is bewitched by Paganini's playing and dances as though possessed. In scene three Paganini is tormented by enemies who appear in his likeness. At the conclusion a Divine Genius guides his spirit to heaven and his talent is vindicated at last. A significant component of the choreography is mime, particularly in the role of Paganini, while the roles of Guile, The Florentine Beauty and The Divine Genius execute highly technical episodes of pure dance.
Fokine choreographed and rehearsed Paganini while touring Australia between September 1938 and April 1939 with de Basil's Covent Garden Russian Ballet. Theatrical entrepreneurs, the Taits, arranged a stage rehearsal of the work in Melbourne and hoped to also stage the world premiere however this did not eventuate. In correspondence to Rachmaninoff, Fokine elaborates:
'The dances and scenes are being rehearsed. The ballet was completely choreographed and very well performed in Australia. There was such a demonstration of interest that the management evolved the mad idea of presenting the ballet without costumes and scenery! ... in this particular ballet, many dances, if given without the necessary masks and props, without lighting effects, without the platform, and so on, could not possibly be understood. Therefore I declined this suggestion ...'
Paganini premiered at Covent Garden Opera House in London a few months later on 30 June 1939, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Fokine's theatrical debut. Dimitri Rostoff featured as Paganini alongside Irina Baronova as The Divine Genius and Tatiana Riabouchinska as The Florentine Beauty. Rachmaninoff was not able to attend the premiere and Fokine reported on its success to him:
'Congratulations on the newborn! Our first ballet met with an enthusiastic reception. There were endless curtain calls, which were acknowledged in most colourful combinations of evening clothes, angels and devils ...'
The work was first performed in Australia on 30 December 1939 by the Original Ballet Russe at Sydney's Theatre Royal. The original cast reprised their roles, with the exception of The Divine Genius, which was danced by Alexandra Denisova. A review in The Courier Mail described the ballet thus:
'It is on a tremendous scale, grandiose in conception, of great vitality in the quality of dancing. It represents a new development in Fokine's art ... One feels that the theme was chosen not because of its dramatic possibilities in the story itself but because it was a suitable framework for his own meditations ... The second act in which Paganini enters a group of Italian peasants is one of the most electrifying pieces of theatre in all ballets. The appearance of the so-called Divine Spirits in the last act is surely one of the greatest moments on the stage.'
Paganini was the last ballet Fokine created for de Basil's Ballets Russes. It remained in the company's repertory until it disbanded in 1952. It was restaged by the Tulsa Ballet Theatre in 1986.
Michel Fokine, Fokine: memoirs of a ballet master, (London: Constable & Company, 1961) ; Kathrine Sorley Walker, De Basil's Ballets Russes (London: Hutchinson, 1982) ; Vicente Garcia-Marquez, The Ballets Russes: Colonel de Basil's Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo 1932-1952 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990) ; 'Paganini new phase of Fokine's art', The Courier Mail, 2 July 1940, p. 6
For a more detailed discussion of the development and reception of Paganini in Australia see the website 'Michelle Potter on dancing'.
Showing: 1 - 8 of 8