The Ballets Russes: Polovtsian Dances and Scheherazade
by Nina Pinzarrone
Diaghilev knew Paris audiences considered Russia and the Ballets Russes exotic, so in 1909 and 1910 he commissioned Fokine to create two ballets depicting the Far East: Polovtsian Dances and Scheherazade. Parisians were ecstatic, and the ballets’ scenery and costumes inspired a wave of new fashions, textiles, and furnishings.
Fokine’s goal in Polovtsian Dances was to create a series of exciting dances showcasing the corps de ballet. The pulsating rhythms, continuous melodic flow, and folk-like melodies of Borodin’s music—from Act 2 of his opera Prince Igor—provided a perfect backdrop for the choreography’s vitality and expressive movement, inspired by Fokine’s study of Caucasian and Eastern Russian folk dance.
In the 1950s, composer-lyricists Robert Wright and George Forrest adapted many of these pieces for their musical Kismet; for example, the lilting 4/4 “Gliding Dance of the Maidens” became “Stranger in Paradise.” I like to use this piece for a barre or center fondu, stretch, port de bras, or adagio, or for a lilting women’s dance in character class.
For Scheherazade, Fokine used Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, op. 35—an 1888 suite based on stories from The Arabian Nights—but with cuts and rearrangements (of which the composer’s widow did not approve). This suite contains wonderful material for creative movement and character classes. Listen for the two obvious leitmotifs: an angular, strong motif for both King Shahryar and the Golden Slave and a sinuous, tender violin solo with harp accompaniment for Scheherazade, the story’s narrator. Fokine’s ballet (which originally starred Nijinsky) employs sensuous upper body movements, deep back bends, and high explosive jumps as well as classical technique. The Mariinsky (formerly Kirov) Ballet’s version, starring Svetlana Zakharova as Zobeide and Farukh Ruzimatov as the Golden Slave, is available on YouTube.
Nina Pinzarrone, pianist at San Francisco Ballet since 1992, has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from the University of Illinois and has recorded nine CDs for ballet class.