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Leonide Massine and the 20th Century Ballet

By Leslie Norton

Gone but not forgotten

Book review by Leland Windreich

August 2004

In a year that features centennial celebrations for George Balanchine and Frederick Ashton, Leslie Norton pays homage to their nearly forgotten peer, Leonide Massine, in a lively and well-researched study of his life, career and works of choreography. Massine was the most popular and revered of the 20th century ballet makers for nearly three decades following the First World War, thriving in an era in which Balanchine and Ashton were struggling novices. Today he is all but forgotten, with only a few of his hundreds of creations still being performed.

Norton, a professor in the Theatre and Dance Department at Hamilton College, tells us, among other things, why he is now a stranger and what caused his decline.
She is one of many Americans of her generation who was taught ballet by associates or disciples of Massine, falling under the spell of those who regarded the Russian choreographer with reverence. Dancing in his works convinced her of the significance of his unique creative powers. In devoting the last several years of her professional life to research in the materials on Massine in libraries in Europe and America, she has produced a vivid paean to a genius, one that is surely likely to spark enthusiasm for restorations of his ballets.

Massine, born in 1895, was a product of the Moscow school of ballet. As a pupil of Alexander Gorsky he received training in both ballet and acting. He never aspired to be a classical dancer but began appearing in children’s parts and character roles in the operas and ballets of the era. In 1914 Serge Diaghilev, visiting Moscow as a talent scout for a new principal male dancer for his Paris-based troupe, saw the teen-ager in the Neapolitan dance in Swan Lake and was smitten by his vitality and physical beauty.

As a member of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Massine was nurtured by his mentor from whom he received an ongoing education in the arts. The ballets of the era were collaborations achieved through the association with the world’s most celebrated composers and painters. Over the years Massine would create works in cooperation with composers such as Falla, Stravinsky, Respighi, Prokofiev, and Hindemith and with the painters Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Tchelichev and Chagall.

His early works for Diaghilev — "Le Tricorne" and "La Boutique fantasque" became standard classics in ballet repertoires all over the world and were influential in establishing the “character ballet” as a valid genre for many young choreographers who emulated his work. In the 1930s he was associated with the various Ballets Russes companies originating in Monte Carlo and he introduced the then controversial “symphonic ballets,” musical visualizations of great symphonies by Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Berlioz and Shostakovich. Pointe work was rarely used in his ethnic romps, and elements of German expressionistic dance were introduced in his abstract ballets. His groupings of performers on stage and the movement of massed dancers were complex, invariably defying symmetry in their development.

Massine was not only the chief choreographer of the Ballet Russe troupe which Sol Hurok introduced to American in 1933 but its most popular dancer. He created special roles for himself in many of his ballets, and his interpretations have never been equalled. He devised three daring productions in collaboration with the Spanish surrealist painter, Salvador Dali, and while the works were of dubious merit artistically, they were great box-office draws from coast to coast. He made several excursions into Americana, attempting to deal with a genre that proved to be outside of his artistic capabilities despite sincere and extensive research into current and historical American dance forms.

Occasional legal battles with his management over the rights to his ballets made him a threatening employee, and his prolific output of new works (he frequently created up to six novelties a year) often contained hastily assembled ballets rehearsed during arduous tours which were inferior in quality, many not surviving the season of their premieres. Moreover, the emergence of an American establishment in the ballet and modern dance movements was the cause of his loss of face in a country where he lived as an exile during the years of World War II. American critics began to deprecate the shallow character of his Americana and the European aesthetics in his creative activities.

Surrealism, symbolism and expressionism were being replaced in the United States by the squeaky-clean lines and Euclidian symmetries of George Balanchine’s work, and young Americans such as Jerome Robbins and Michael Kidd (both, incidentally, performers in Massine ballets during his reign) were finding their own means for achieving a national statement for ballet. Elaborate décor became replaced by a cyclorama and practice togs in times of mounting production costs, and the use of established concert music—much of it in public domain—saved the fee commanded by a comissioned composer. Touring companies were no longer able to maintain his ballets in repertoire due to the economics involved in union labor costs for hanging four or five sets for a single ballet and in the expense required for rehearsals of often complex scores to be played by pick-up musicians.

When his ballet "Aleko" was restored in 1968 for American Ballet Theatre 25 years after its debut, a new generation of ballet critics were both astounded and perplexed by his style, so outside the then current choreographic mainstream that one described watching it as “an exercise in seeing.”

Massine returned to Europe after World War II, where he continued to free-lance for the rest of his days, returning only to the U.S.A. for the rare restoration of one of his ballets or for assignments in smaller regional ballet troupes. He revived several of his most popular creations for the Royal Ballet and other major European troupes. He appeared in two British films — "The Red Shoes" and "Tales of Hoffman" — and was director of the Italian musical extravaganza movie, "Carosello Napolitano." These films exist to convey the artistry of his unique style of performance.

Norton refers in passing to Massine’s romantic relationship with Diaghilev, but her later accounts of his four marriages, frequent clandestine trysts, and numerous affairs with women who became his acolytes makes it clear that his orientation was basically heterosexual and that his amorous attachments were compulsive right up to the years of his dotage. Her revelation of his many affairs supports a conviction that he was a man incapable of intimacy. Dancers and peers found him generally aloof, often inconsiderate. His partner of many years, Alexandra Danilova, is mentioned only in passing in his autobiography, "My Life in Ballet" (1968), a superficial account of a vivid and productive life that Leslie Norton has now nailed down in writing. Her work is rendered even more valuable with the detailed descriptions of most of his major ballets, with full data on his collaborators and accounts of each work’s critical reception. Her enthusiasm for them becomes contagious as the reader shares her conviction that these unique creations should be seen again.

Leonide Massine and the 20th Century Ballet, by Leslie Norton. McFarland & Co., 2004. 374 pp. illus. $45.00. ISBN: 0-7864-1752-8.

Edited by Jeff.

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