Leonide Massine (1895-1979)
You may remember one of Diaghilev's most famous dancers, Leonide Massine (1895-1979), because of his portrayal of the ballet master and shoemaker in the 1948 film The Red Shoes. Massine studied at the Moscow Bolshoi School, graduated in 1912 and joined the Bolshoi Ballet.
When Diaghilev fired Nijinsky after his marriage a void was left both in the ballet company, and Diaghilev's life. Mikhail Fokine was working on a new ballet, The Legend of Joseph. While visiting in Moscow Diaghilev saw the Bolshoi Ballet, and noticed in Don Quixote and Swan Lake a handsome young man with big dark eyes who reminded him of St. George in an ikon. This was Leonide Massine not a particularly good dancer (with poorly shaped legs), but who had stage presence that would make him into a great star. Diaghilev became infatuated with Massine and persuaded him to leave the Bolshoi and join his company. It was understood that he would replace Nijinsky on and off the stage. Massine immediately began to work with the Ballets Russes' teacher Enrico Cecchetti and was soon ready to star in Fokine's new ballet.
Massine became an outstanding-actor dancer. Before joining the Ballets Russes, Massine had considered giving up dance and becoming an actor. He had even been offered the role of Romeo in Shakespeare's play at the Maly Theatre in Moscow.
Massine joined the company in 1914 and by 1915 he had choreographed his first ballet for the Ballets Russes. To Diaghilev's dismay Massine followed the same path as his predecessor and got married to the first of four wives in 1921. Diaghilev called him an ingrate, saying, "Nothing but a good-looking face and poor legs." Massine continued to choreograph for every major company including three years as lead dancer and choreographer for the Roxy Theatre in New York City. In 1945 and 46 he formed his own company called Ballet Russe Highlights.
He was a prolific choreographer -- he created 50 ballets. His greatest achievement is considered by many to be the development of the symphonic ballet as a separate art form.
To list all his ballets would take a whole page. A few are: The Good-Humored Ladies, La Boutique Fantasque, The Three Cornered Hat, Les Presages, Jeux d'enfants, and Gaîte Parisienne.
Massine was for twenty years considered the Western world's greatest choreographer, but in later life he was overshadowed by George Balanchine.
There is a biography about this great dancer by Vicente Garcia-Mârquez. I would like to add that everyone I have written about could have a book written about them. I said years ago, "To be remembered someone must write about you." It is a shame that many dancers will be forgotten if someone doesn't pick up a pen and continue to educate young dancers about their past.
(First published November 1995)
The curse for my students is: one day they will have to teach students just like them.
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