Born in Moscow in 1895, Léonide Massine received his ballet training
at the renowned Imperial Theatre School. While he performed in character roles
in ballets at the Bolshoi Theatre, he simultaneously was developing a passion
for acting and appeared in plays at the Maly Theatre. He considered a career
as an actor but in 1913 Serge Diaghilev saw him dance. As Diaghilev was seeking
to replace Nijinsky, he invited Massine to join the Ballets Russes.
After performing the role of Joseph in Fokine's "Legend of Joseph"
in Paris in 1914 and choreographing his first work ["Soleil de Nuit"]
a year later, he became a principal dancer and choreographer of the Ballets
Russes. In 1917, in collaboration with Erik Satie, Pablo Picasso and Jean
Cocteau, he created "Parade" a seminal work imbued with Cubist and
Futurist ideas that would establish his prominence as a modern choreographer
[and that of Picasso as an avant - garde set designer]. In "Parade",
the joining of music, décor, costumes and choreography expresses a
form of fantastical realism. Apollinaire's enthusiastic attribution of the
term "sur-realism" to the work emphasized "Parade's" significance
to modern and future art movements-Dadaism, Surrealism and its foreshadowing
of Pop Art.
Massine embraced Diaghilev's pioneering vision of a synthesis in the arts,
choreographing numerous works with major artists and composers of the time,
including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Andre Derain, Leon
Bakst, Natalia Gontcharova, Michel Larionov, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Manuel
de Falla, Erik Satie, Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokovief, to name but a
few. Between 1917 and 1920, during the chaos and aftermath of World War I,
these extraordinary collaborations with leading artists of the twentieth century
produced a series of groundbreaking works that propelled dance into the realm
of modernity: "The Good Humoured Ladies" [Scarlatti-Tommasini/Bakst,
1917], "La Boutique Fantasque" [Rossini-Respighi/Derain,1919], "Le
Tricorne" [de Falla/Picasso, 1919], "Pulcinella" [Stravinsky/Picasso,
1920] and "Le Sacre du Printemps" [Stravinsky/Roerich, 1920]. In
many of these works, Massine was the electrifying lead dancer.
In 1920 Massine left the Ballets Russes. Following the urge to develop creatively
on his own, he started a small company in London touring South America where
both new works and revivals were a tremendous success. Returning to London
the company performed at the Royal Opera House of Covent Garden and toured
In 1923, in a welcome return to working in the theatre, Massine choreographed
dances for a play, followed later on by work for Charles Cochran and Noel
Coward. In 1924 he joined Etienne de Beaumont's "Soirees de Paris"
for which he created, among other works, "Salade" [Milhaud/Braque,
1924], "Mercure" [Satie/Picasso, 1924] and the immensely popular
"Le Beau Danube" [Strauss, the Younger/de Beaumont/Guys, 1924].
Accepting Diaghilev's invitation to return to the Ballets Russes, he staged
several new works for the company-"Zephire et Flore" [Dukelsky/Braque,
1925], "Les Matelots" [Auric/Pruna, 1925], "Ode" [Nabokov/Tchelichev-Charbonnier,
1928]. In 1928 he again left the Ballets Russes shortly before Diaghilev's
death and travelled to the United States to explore creative opportunities.
In a challenging transition period, over two years he choreographed one ballet
each week at the Roxy Theatre in New York City, periodically returning to
Europe to create new works. He staged an acclaimed revival of his "Sacre
du Printemps" in Philadelphia and at the Metropolitan Opera in 1930 with
Martha Graham dancing the role of the Chosen Maiden. He continued his peripatetic
creative life, moving back and forth between two continents until he was invited
by the newly founded Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo to choreograph "Jeux
D'Enfants" [Bizet/Miro, 1932], his first much lauded venture into visualizing
The Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, through the vitality and variety of its
repertoire and the appeal of its brilliant young dancers, engendered a new
Ballets Russes era, fostering an enthusiastic appreciation of ballet [until
then the privilege of an elite] amongst a vast international audience.
At the creative helm of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, Massine pursued
his interest in abstract, symphonic works, leading in 1933 to the creation
of "Les Presages". Choreographed to Tchaikovsky´s 5th Symphony,
this was the first time in the West that a symphony was used for a ballet.
Initially controversial for this very reason, the ballet rapidly became a
sensation. In a departure from narrative works, in "Les Presages"
Massine visualizes the music in his dynamic use of sculptural groupings and
fluid, lyrical adagios. This innovative work would be followed later by other
choreographers' use of symphonies for their ballets.
Massine continued to elaborate his interpretations of musical structure with
a succession of symphonic ballets-"Choreartium" [Brahms/Terechkovitch-Lourie,
1933], "Symphonie Fantastique" [Berlioz/Berard, 1936], "Seventh
Symphony" [Beethoven/Berard, 1938], "Noblissima Visione" [Hindemith/Tchelichev,
1938], and finally, "Le Rouge et Le Noir" [Shostakovitch/Matisse,
1939] wherein he achieved the fullest abstraction.
His other creations for the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo include "Scuola
di Ballo" [Boccherini-Francaix/de Beaumont, 1933], "Union Pacific"
[Nabokov/Sharaff, 1934], "Jardin Public" [Dukelsky/Lurcat, 1936],
"Gaiete Parisienne" [Offenbach-Rosenthal/de Beaumont, 1938], "Capriccio
Espagnol" [Rimsy Korsakov/Andreu, 1939], "Bacchanale" [Wagner/Dali,
1939], "The New Yorker" [Gershwin Brothers/Irwin, 1940], "Labyrinth"
[Schubert/Dali, 1941] and "Saratoga" [Weinberger/Smith, 1941].
From 1933 to 1939, whether touring the United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe
or performing at their home, the Royal Opera House of Covent Garden, the Ballets
Russes de Monte Carlo gained tremendous international fame and Massine's career
as a dancer and choreographer was at its pinnacle.
Following the outbreak of World War II, the company left for the United
States where for three years they toured the country in grueling one-night
stands, performing Massine repertory favorites that then had become a rage
with audiences, along with several of his new works. At this stage of his
creative life, Massine's primary interest lay in choreographing to symphonic
music. However, changes in the administration of the Ballets Russes de Monte
Carlo foreclosed such a possibility. Massine's attempts at creating management
sponsored works were dissonant with his creative goals and the ballets did
not meet with success. In 1942, Massine and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo
ended their association and Massine began an extensive international career
as a guest choreographer and dancer.
He staged works for opera and ballet companies [amongst them, American Ballet
Theatre, The Sadler's Wells Ballet, The Royal Danish Ballet,The Cologne State
Opera Ballet, The Vienna Opera Ballet, La Scala in Milan, The Paris Opera,
the Opera Comique, the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, the Teatro Municipal
in Rio de Janeiro and Joffrey Ballet] plays, musicals and both choreographed
and performed in several films ["The Red Shoes", 1948, "The
Tales of Hoffmann, 1951 and "Carosello Napoletano", 1953], the latter
film having won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival of 1955.
In 1952, Massine realized a longstanding dream-choreographing Christ's passion
as a narration in stylized movement in the spirit of Byzantine mosaics and
Italian primitive painting. It was a work that he had originally choreographed
in 1916 ["Liturgie"] for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, but which was
never performed. Set to thirteenth century Gregorian chants orchestrated by
Valentino Bucchi, "Laudes Evangelii" was performed in European churches
[Nantes, 1951; Perugia, 1952] at La Scala in Milan  and hailed as a
monumental artistic achievement. The work was also produced for television
and aired in Europe and in the United States [April, 1962].
While in the last phase of his life Massine was active in staging revivals,
he devoted much of his time to developing and teaching a theory of choreography.
Following the structure of musical notation, he crafted a choreographic "score"
wherein the harmonic elements of movement were observable. "Seeing"
and experimenting with movement in this novel way was the last, exhilarating
challenge of his rich creative life.