Spotlight: Leonide Massine

This week's Spotlight Saturday features Russian choreographer and dancer Leonide Massine.

Leonid Fyodorovich Myasin, better known in the French transliteration Leonide Massine, was born in Moscow, Russia, on August 9 1895. His mother was a soprano in the Bolshoi Theatre Chorus and his father played the French Horn in the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra. Massine had three brothers, Mikhail, Gregori, and Konstantin, and one sister, Raissa. In 1904, Massine auditioned for the Moscow Imperial Theatre School and began his study of dance there. A year later, Alexander Gorsky, director of the Imperial Theatres, selected Massine to play the small boy in the ballet Russlan and Ludmilla. Massine later credited this experience as igniting his passion for acting. Massine was subsequently chosen for three more roles at the Bolshoi and Maly Theatres in the 1908-1909 season. In late 1909, Massine's brother Konstantin, with whom he was extremely close, was killed in a hunting accident. Massine never fully recovered from the shock.

Massine in 'The Legend of Joseph', with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, 1914

Massine graduated from school in August 1913, and immediately joined the Bolshoi Ballet. That December, Sergei Diaghilev came to Russia looking for a new male dancer for his production of The Legend of Joseph. Originally Vaslav Nijinsky was to play the role, but had had his contract terminated on the occasion of his marriage. Diaghilev selected Massine to replace him. After an audition in St. Petersburg, during which Massine received the approval of Diaghilev's resident choreographer Mikhail Fokine, he joined the Ballets Russes. Massine became the company's lead male dancer and took over al of Nijinsky's roles.

Massine (front left) and Enrico Cecchetti (front) with dancers of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes

Massine also began his career as a choreographer. From 1915 to 1921, he was the Ballets Russes principal choreographer. His first ballet was Le Soleil de Nuit (1915), based on Russian folklore. This was followed by Parade (1917), choreographed to a libretto by John Cocteau. The set and costumes were designed by artist Pablo Picasso in the Cubist style. Le Tricorn, or The Three Cornered Hat, premiered in London in 1919, with a score by Manuel de Falla and costumes again designed by Picasso. Massine had carefully studied the style of Spanish dance to ensure that his ballet would be as authentic as possible, and it was a great success.

Massine with artist Pablo Picasso in Pompeii, 1917

Massine with Sergei Diaghilev

Massine with artist Henri Matisse, 1920

After the collapse of the Ballets Russes on Diaghilev's death, Massine took work where he could. When George Balanchine left Colonel de Basil's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1933, Massine replaced him as the resident choreographer. Massine now started to use symphonies as the basis for his ballet, which caused some controversy among musical purists, who objected to the pieces being used for ballet. Massine's first symphonic work was Les Presages (1933), to Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5. This was followed by Choreartium (1933), to Brahms' Fourth Symphony, and Symphonie Fantastique (1936), to Berlioz's piece of the same name. This last was a great success, premiering in London with Massine and Tamara Toumanova in the lead roles.

Massine with Tamara Karsavina in 'La Boutique Fantastique', 1919

Massine was closely involved in the bitter and drawn-out split of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Massine and Rene Blum, a former partner of Colonel de Basil, sought and received funding to found their own ballet company. Massine soon discovered that, by contract, Colonel de Basil's company owned all the ballets he had created for them. In London, Massine sued Colonel de Basil to reclaim the intellectual rights to his works and also for the right to use the name Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. The judge ruled that Colonel de Basil's company did own all ballets created by Massine between 1933 and 1937, but not any works created prior to 1933; and that only Massine and Blum could use the name Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Colonel de Basil renamed his company The Original Ballet Russe, but the company's dancers had also split, and some of Basil's best dancers went with Massine.

Above: Massine with Alexandra Danilova in 'Le Pas d'acier'; Below: Massine with Tamara Toumanova

The new Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo debuted in 1938, and its first season included Massine's celebrated Gaite Parisienne. Massine later revived the work for the American Ballet Theatre in 1970. Also in 1938, Massine premiered Seventh Symphony, to music by Beethoven. The work starred Alicia Markova, Nini Theilade, Frederic Franklin, and Igor Youskevitch. Even after all the legal battles, Massine only stayed with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo for five years, leaving in 1943.

Above: Massine with Alexandra Danilova in 'La Boutique Fantastique'; Below: Massine with Irina Baronova

He tried his hand at film. He appeared in The Red Shoes (1948) and The Tales of Hoffman (1951), both by the British directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. He also appeared in Powell's Honeymoon (1959). He appeared in several short ballet films: the Warner Brothers film Capriccio Espagnol, or Spanish Fiesta (1942), with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo; for 20th Century Fox, he choreographed and danced in both Carnival in Costa Rica and Carosello Napoletano. In 1941, Warner Brothers attempted to make a film version of Gaite Parisienne, titled The Gay Parisien, but the film was ill-received, most likely because Alexandra Danilova had been replaced in her famous role by a lesser dancer, Milada Mladova.

Massine in 'Gaite Parisienne' with dancers of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo

In 1977, Massine moved to San Francisco, where he started a series of choreographic workshops. He also revived his Le Bleu Denube for the Marin Ballet. He had published an autiobiography, My Life in Ballet, in 1968. He also began work on Parisina, which was to be performed by Natalia Makarova. However, the dancer suspected that the choreography was not original to her and pulled out of the project. Massine was appointed resident choreographer of the Marin Ballet, and began work on a version of The Nutcracker which was never seen outside of rehearsals. He died in Borken, West Germany, on March 15 1979, aged 82.

Portrait of Massine by Leon Bakst, 1914

Thanks for reading! Next week the Spotlight will be on Jenny Hasselqvist.

- Selene

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