Léonide Massine, one of the great 20th century ballet choreographers and the creator of “Parade”
and “Gaîté Parisienne,” died at the age of 83. Page 24 The New York Times, March 17, 1979
Léonide Massine Dies
By DON MCDONAGH
NEW YORK TIMES
Léonide Massine, one of the great choreographers of ballet in the 20th century, died yesterday
(March 15, 1979) in a hospital in Cologne, West Germany, after a brief illness. He was 83 years old.
Although, with his flashing dark eyes and his mercurial intensity, he was the outstanding character
dancer in the years between the World Wars, Massine's enormous reputation rests most securely on
the distinctively expressive style of his choreographic contributions to the ballet stage. His humor
bubbled up in “La Boutique Fantasque,” “Jeux d'Enfants,” “Gaîté Parisienne” and “Le Beau Danube”
to the delight of audiences in Europe and the United States, while his more philosophic side was
shown clearly in the four abstract symphonic ballets he designed in the middle and late 30's.
Of the five choreographers nurtured by the impresario Serge Diaghilev during the existence of his
Ballets Russes company (1909‐29), it was Massine who most thoroughly absorbed the Diaghilev
esthetic and made it the guiding principle of his own career. Throughout his life, following Diaghilev's
prescription, he sought creative collaborations with such exciting contemporary composers as
Stravinsky, Hindemith, de Falla and Honegger, and noted easel painters like ‐Picasso, Dali and
Tchelichev, to realize his choreographic intentions.
With his dedication to this esthetic, Massine set the tone for ballet in the 30's in general. No other
choreographer remained allied to Diaghilev's Ballets Russes for as long or worked more intimately
with him. The dedication of Massine's autobiography, “My Life in Ballet,” was “To the memory of
From Theatrical Family
Leonid Fedorovitch Myassin was born Aug. 8, 1895, one of four sons of a theatrical family in Moscow.
His father was a French horn player in the Bolshoi Opera Orchestra, and his mother sang in the
chorus. It was at the suggestion of one of his mother's fellow singers that he was encouraged to take
up dance at the Moscow Theater School.
There was little in his early career that would indicate the dominance he would later exercise in the
world of ballet, and he himself was as much taken with dramatics as he was with classical dancing. At
18, however, he was invited by Diaghilev to become a member of the Ballets Russes and shortly after
appeared in the lead role in Michel Fokine's “The Legend of Joseph.”
The experience was overwhelming for Massine, who realized that there was much that he had to learn
to maintain himself in the exciting intellectual atmosphere that surrounded the Ballets Russes. With
Diaghilev's encouragement, he visited art museums, listened to music, discussed art and was exposed
to Western European culture in general. His performance as Joseph was praised more for its
dramatic quality than its technical dance proficiency. To improve his skill, he began taking lessons
with Enrico Cecchetti, a great exponent of the Italian school and a longtime collaborator with Diaghilev.
First Enormous Success
A year later, Massine began his career as a choreographer with the creation of “Soleil de Nuit,” in
which he also danced the leading role. Its decor was designed by the young avant‐garde Russian
artist Mikhail Larionov, with whom Massine worked on several productions having Russian folk
themes in the next few years. In 1917, he had his first enormous success with “Parade,” created in
collaboration with Erik Satie, Picasso and can Cocteau. It marked a new period of development in the
Ballets Russes, which until then had been dominated by the works of Fokine and Nijinsky.
The new development was a bold turn toward modernism and away from the classically influenced
works of the earliest seasons. By 1920, Massine had created “La Boutique Fantasque,” “Le Tricorne"
and “Pulcinella,” and the new direction of the company was firmly established. Artistic disagreements,
however, led to his departure from the company a year later.
He married Vera Savina and organized a small company for a South American tour. Afterward, the
couple opened studio in London. Among the first pupils was a young, inexperienced dancer named
Frederick Ashton, who was later knighted for his contributions to British ballet. Writing about Massine
in 1930, Sir Frederick observed: “Léonide Massine might be called the painter of the ballet. In his
work we find all the decorative qualities and the feeling for proportion and design that form a good
picture. He has a true painter's sense and an absolutely sure delicacy of touch; expressing these
qualities, he has given the dancing world a series of unforgettable works, and his unfailing instinct for
expressive gesture is responsible for the most moving moments in ballet.”
Massine continued to teach and choreograph, in the popular theater for C.B. Cochran, the producer,
in London, as well as classical ballet. In 1924, he created one of his most popular ballets, “Le Beau
Danube,” for a series of performances called “Les Soirees Paris,” presented by Count Etienne de
Beaumont. After his divorce from Miss Savina, he returned to work for the Ballets Russes in 1925,
presenting “Zephire et Flore,” “Mercure,” “Les Facheux” and “Ode.” Relations with Diaghilev were
partly restored, but their former closeness had been lost after the initial rupture.
In 1928, Massine married Eugenia Delarova. With her, he moved to the United States, where he was
engaged by S.L. (Roxy) Rothafel to create a new ballet each week for his stage shows in the Roxy
Theater, as well as to dance four times a day during the week and five times on Sunday. He took a
brief leave to work for Ida Rubinstein's ballet in Paris but returned to the Roxy in 1929. There, in
1930, he staged his own version of Stravinsky's “Rite of Spring,” with Martha Graham as the Chosen
Virgin, and Leopold Stokowski conducting.
With Diaghilev's death, the focus of the ballet world was lost, and several European companies
sprang up in an attempt to fill the void. Massine worked first for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo as
chief choreographer and later organized his own company. Despite legal battles that eventually
reached the courts of two continents, Massine continued to create ballets and enhance his already
considerable reputation. In the symphonic ballets “Les Presages,” “Choreartium,” “Symphonie
Fantastique” and “Seventh Symphony,” he explored abstract and allegorical matter, but his typical wit
also was expressed in his 1938 “Gaîté Parisienne.”
During the 40's, the war prevented him from working in Europe, but he attracted large crowds in the
United States, and played before 17,000 people at Lewisohn Stadium in New York. After World War
II, he began to work in movies and staged the dances for “Carnival in Costa Rica” in Hollywood and
scored a notable success as a performer in “The Red Shoes,” a film based on the career of Diaghilev
and the Ballets Russes. He was also in the film “Tales of Hoffmann.”
“Aleko,” with scenery and costumes by Marc Chagall, and his frothy “Mademoiselle Angot” followed in
1942 and 1943, both choreographed for the American Ballet Theater. During the remainder of his
career, Massine spent much time creating dances for operatic companies and continued to restage
his ballets for companies all over the world up to the time of his final illness.
After a divorce from Miss Delarova, Massine married for the third time in 1938. His wife, Tatiana
Orlova, from whom he was divorced, was the mother of two of his children, a daughter, Tatiana, born
in 1941, and a son, Léonide, later known as Lorca, in 1944. Massine appeared with his daughter in
1958 in “Le Tricorne” at the Holland Festival and later created a lecture‐demonstration on American
Indian dances, which he gave with his son.
Interested in Notation
Throughout his career he had been interested in the notation of choreography. He himself carried a
choreographic notebook in which he recorded movements and developed his own system of notation.
Work on this material consumed his interest in the later years of his life. Before the development of
the system, he had taken the precaution of filming as many of his dances as possible and transferring
that archive to the Dance Collection of the Library and Museum of the Performing Arts at Lincoln
To those who saw him dance, Massine was irreplaceable in the roles that he had himself created, and
through “The Red Shoes” he achieved an enormous popular recognition outside the ballet going
world. His performing career spanned 60 years, and his choreographic career only slightly less.
Throughout, he held fast to the idea of ballet as a collaborative mix of choreography, music and
design by first rank artists such as he had observed with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and to which he
added most tellingly in his own time.
Surviving are three sons, a daughter and five grandchildren. Funeral arrangements will be announced.
| Léonide Massine