Born in Moscow in 1895, Leonide 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 principal dancer and choreographer of the Ballets Russes. 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, Michail Larionov, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Manuel de Falla, Erik Satie, Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev, to name but a few. Between 1917 and 1920, during the chaos and aftermath of World War I, these extraordinary collaborations produced a series of groundbreaking works that propelled dance into the realm of modernity: Parade (Satie/Picasso/Cocteau,1917), The Good Humoured Ladies (Scarlatti-Tommasini /Bakst, 1917), La Boutique Fantasque (Rossini-Respighi/Derain, 1919), Le Tricorne (De Falla/Picasso, 1919), Pulcinella (Stravinsky/Roerich, 1920). In many of these works, Massine was the electrifying lead dancer.
In 1920, following the urge to develop creatively on his own, he started a small company in London, touring Britain and South America where both new works and revivals were a tremendous success. In 1924, he joined Etienne de Beaumont’s Soirees de Paris for which he created Salade (Milhaud/Braque1924), Mercure (Satie/Picasso,1924) and the immensely popular Le Beau Danube (Strauss, the Younger/de Beaumont/Guys, 1924). He returned to the Ballets Russes to stage several new works - Zephyre et Flore (Dukelsky/Braque, 1925), Les Matelots (Auric/Pruna,1925), Ode (Nabokov/Tchelitchev-Charbonnier, 1928.)
In 1928 he traveled to the United States to explore creative opportunities. Over two years, he created one ballet each week at the Roxy Theatre in New York City. 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 returned to Europe in 1932 to join the newly founded Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo as ballet master and choreographer and then as artistic director.
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, in 1933, Massine realized his aspiration to use a well-known symphony as a choreographic score. This was the first time in the West that a symphony was used for a ballet. Amidst much controversy around this use of music, he created Les Presages to Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, and later that year Choreartium, to Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. While in Les Presages Massine followed the symbolic theme of man’s struggle with destiny, he designed Choreartium as a completely abstract work that was essentially a visualization of the music. Both ballets became landmarks in the history of dance. He continued to elaborate his interpretations of musical structure with a succession of symphonic ballets: Symphonie Fantastique (Berlioz/Berard-Lourie,1933), Seventh Symphony (Beethoven/Berard,1938), Nobilissima Visione (Hindemith/Tchelitchev, 1938), and finally, Le Rouge et le Noir (Shostakovitch/Matisse,1939). His many other creations for the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo include Jeux d’Enfants (Bizet/Miro, 1932), Gaiete Parisienne (Offenbach-Rosenthal/de Beaumont, 1938), Capriccio Espanol (Rimsky Korsakov/Andreau, 1939), Bacchanale (Wagner/Dali, 1939) and Labyrinth (Schubert/Dali, 1941). From 1933 to 1939, whether touring the United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe or performing at their home, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London, 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. In 1942, Massine and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo ended their association and Massine began an extensive international career as choreographer, staging works for major ballet companies around the world.
In 1952, he realized a long-standing 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 cathedrals (Nantes, 1951; Perugia, 1952) and at La Scala in Milan (1959) and hailed as a monumental artistic achievement. The work was also produced for television and aired in Europe and the United States (April, 1962). In the last part of his life Massine was active in staging revivals, while devoting much of his time to developing and teaching theory of choreography.