Léonide Massine: Reflections on Artistic Identity in 1924

What intrigues me the most about Leonide Massine is the conflict between the image of the gifted dancer and choreographer and the somewhat inapproachable, certainly difficult to get along with man. The son of two musicians at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, Massine grew up inundated with art and music. His own training in dance and acting began at the Moscow Theatre School, then the Maly and Bolshoi Theatres, until he joined Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1914.

Portrait of Russian dancer Léonide Massine (Leonid Fyodorovich Myasin, 1895-1979), 1914.

Leon Bakst, Portrait of Russian dancer Léonide Massine, c. 1914.

He remained with the company, as dancer and later as choreographer, until 1921. By that time, his attachment to another female dancer had caused a rift in his relationship with Diaghilev, who fired him out of jealousy. As luck would have it, Massine was able to find contracts that took him on successful tours to South America and London until 1924, when he returned to Paris on a commission from the Comte Etienne de Beaumont.

His career continued long after that, of course, but for our purposes his activities as choreographer and lead dancer in the Soirées de Paris, 1924 are the most interesting. Above all, despite his prominent position he exhibited a kind of fascinating insecurity. Vicente García-Màrquez cites the dancer Lydia Lopokova in his biography of Massine on how

“Massine does everything to shadow” his partner and “considered the other dancers as mud.”[1]

Within the context of the twenties, and their other by-now infamous characters, Massine’s need to outshine his colleagues when he already occupied the most visible role emphasizes a larger trend in the artistic community. Based on his contemporaries’ observations, Massine was brilliant but often impossible to work with unless one practically worshiped him. Similar arguments could be made for the other great names of 1924 and beyond – Picasso, Stravinsky, Diaghilev…

Moreover, in Massine’s behavior exists a kind of desperate individualism that embodies the avant-garde. For the most part, it seems fair to assume that Massine was honestly pursuing artistry rather than a kind of flagrant social statement, although the same cannot necessarily be said of his fellows. Nevertheless, this individual desire to distinguish oneself, even from one’s closest peers in order to become somehow acceptable to them appears to be a quintessential characteristic of the era. Consequently, Massine’s tension with his fellow dancer – to which could be added his many, generally brief liaisons and paradoxical desires for solitude and companionship – highlights his quest for individual integrity and establishes his career as a vignette into the mind of the artist in 1924.


[1] García-Màrquez, Vicente. Massine: a Biography. New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. Print.

Bakst, Leon. “Leonide Massine.” Rittrato da Leon Bakst. 1914. Wikipedia.org. accessed 11 June, 2015. Web. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c4/Massine,_Leonide_(1895-1979)_-_1914_-_Ritratto_da_Leon_Bakst.jpg.