Fokine in Warsaw, 1908-1914

from Dance Chronicle by Janina Pudelek


[...]It is impossible to say now whose idea it was to invite Michel Fokine. At twenty-eight, he was still a beginning choreographer, but already known as an innovator and artistic rebel. It was arranged, however, that he would stage two ballets recently produced in St. Petersburg: Eunice, with music by Nikolai Shcherbachev, and the second version of Chopiniana [(later called Les Sylphides)]. Fokine's arrival went unnoticed in the press until shortly before the premiere, which was on December 6, 1908.

[...]The choice of works was very clever: both had a special interest for the Polish audience. In Chopiniana this lay, of course, in Chopin's music. As for Eunice, the plot was derived from the internationally successful novel Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz, who had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature only three years earlier. The new ballets, however, were awarded a rather mixed reception. It was generally conceded that they marked a real change from traditional repertory, but there was some disagreement about the importance of these changes, even though ballet was otherwise clearly in a decline throughout Russia and in the rest of Europe, not just in Poland.

Eunice was much the more warmly received. Its form, although new, was still close enough to traditional ballet to be understood and accepted. And far from objecting to Fokine deriving his inspiration from Sienkiewicz's novel, the public took this as more evidence of the work's widespread popularity and importance. Indeed, everyone was pleased with everything - the choreography, the dancing, the decor, and the costumes - except Shcherbachev's score. The critic for Przeglad Porąnny (The Morning Review) for December 7 was typical:

Mr. Shcherbachev is a clever student of Rimsky-Korsakov. His composition has graceful and well-orchestrated ideas. The whole is a bit loosely connected and sometimes is lacking the rhythmic expression so essential to ballet. The orchestra was conducted by Henryk Opienski, who splendidly conformed to the subtle changes in the phrasing of the dances. The content of the ballet Eunice, called "a plastique drama," is Sienkiewicz's slave Eunice's love for Petronius.... The difficult title role was excellently performed by Miss [Anna] Gaszewska, who was dancing the leading role for the first time. Only the dance among the swords did not raise any dread fo the bristling knives or admiration for the dancer's snake-like agility and flexibility in beats. Miss [Waleria] Gnatowska, in the role of Actea, looked lovely and danced beautifully. Mr. [Aleksander] Gillert [as Petronius] walked around stage with dignity and Mr. [Michal] Kulesza in the role of the amorous sculptor [Claudius] looked rather like Ursus [the novel's Christian slave-athlete] posing as Hamlet. The ensemble dances were exceptionally well executed. The crowd of feasting patricians was enlivened by Mr. [Józef] Paszkowski.

In 1913, however, for the three-hundredth anniversary of th ascension to the throne of the Romanov dynasty, the Warsaw imperial government decided to celebrate the jubilee on March 6. Among the planned festivities was a gala performance at the Wielki Theatre, which according to longstanding tradition would include the three main companies of the Warsaw State Theatres: drama, opera, and ballet. But the ballet repertory contained nothing worthy of such an occasion. Nor was there a choreographer to produce something new. Providence, however, provided one, when Piotr Zajlich returned to Warsaw for a short holiday.

Zajlich had left Warsaw in 1911 with the first wave of ballet emigrants, spending a short time in Diaghilev's Ballets Russes before making his home in the Pavlova company as a soloist and choreographer under both his own name and the pseudonym Shouvalov. In the so-called "Daily Order," published each morning for its companies by the management of the State Theatres, section 11 of the one dated January 15 (Old Style; 28, New Style), 1913 stated that "Mr. Piotr Zajlich, a member of the ballet company, was ordered - on the authority of the balletmaster - to produce the ballet Schéhérazade and Divertissement, proposed to be shown during the solemn performance February 21 [O.S.; March 6, N.S.] of this year."


The critic for the Kurier Porąnny (Morning Courier) for April 4 found the ballet

full of sensuality and a drama of Eastern cruelty that starts to unfold before our eyes.... Everything here happens without a word. Everything is said by pose, gesture, movement, a smile and a glance of an eye.... And this gesture and pose, this movement, smile and frown of an eyebrow flow directly to the guiding reins of the poetic rhytm as a poem is put in irons by feet and lines [by rhythm and meter]....Schéhérazade is the best performance that has been presented by any of the State Theatres this season.

The critics praised with equal enthusiasm the presentation of the leading characters, prizing above all the expressiveness of Valeria Gratowska as Zobeïde and the welcome gift of a talented debutant, Zdzisław Nelle, as the Golden Slave.

Schéhérazade remained a favorite of the Warsaw public for many years and several generations of dancers found it a marvelous vehicle for displaying their talents.[...]