Monday Ballet Monday: Massine
Leonide Massine was one of the more famous Russian dancers of the early 20th century, this biography has some information. I'm reading Choura: the Memoirs of Alexandra Danilova (NY Times review) and in 1937 she joined his Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. She attended the same school with George Balachine, was briefly married to him, and later taught at the School of American Ballet. Here, she discusses some of the differences between Massine and Balachine:
Massine was, I think, a genius, but not as great a genius as Balachine. Massine loved, he hated, he did everything in the extreme. By nature, he was a real artist, with volcanic emotions. He was like a monk in his dedication, ascetic and rather violent. Working with him, we were dancing for the Grand Inquistor, who tortured people in the name of God. He had no understanding or forgiveness for dancers who couldn't do what he asked. Every dancer has his or her own best movement -- one is better on the toes, another in allegro, another in adagio. Balachine, if he wanted to make a fast variation, would cast a fast dancer. The choreography, the actual steps, depended on how you could interpret what he showed you. But Massine didn't care who you were or what you could do. If he thought you should dance adagio, you had to do it, regardless. If you turned best to the right, he would give you pirouettes to the left. When he made Zephyr et Flore, he decided that Zephyr had to jump. Zephyr was Lifar, who didn't have a particularly good jump, but Massine made him jump anyway. In Les Matelots, I had to dance so much on the toes, more than we ever had danced on the toes in Russia...If he had an idea, he would absolutely break the dancer before he would change the step.
The result was that in Balachine's ballets, everybody was at his best, while Massine's ballets sometimes suffered because they were miscast.[...]
When he was making a ballet, Balachine was inspired by the dancers, but not Massine -- his inspiration was his own. He refused to explain to us what a ballet was about. "What am I?" I would ask, but would ignore my question. Once, he said in an interview that he didn't tell his dancers the story of the ballet they were working on because if they didn't know the story, they would bring to it their own interpretations, and he didn't want that. I found his attitude insulting. [...]
After Massine studied music composition, I could see that he improved tremendously. He found more phrases in the music to choreograph in his way, for three or four people. Massine's choreography was musical, but not to perfection the way Balachine's was. Balanchine heard everything; he he didn't miss a note. Certainly, Massine heard the music correctly, but I don't think he heard all the parts. Balanchine's steps sometimes made a counterpoint to the music, but not Massine's. Dancing Balanchine's ballets, one has to count, to be right on the music. But in Massine's ballets one could go by ear. I wouldn't say that Massine's choreography was less musical, but it was less musically detailed.
His steps were strange and sometimes awkward. What made Massine's choreography interesting was its fascinating rhythm. The rhythm was all in the feet, the way it is in Spanish dancing, which fascinated him. Where Balanchine would create a rhythm with beats and pointe work, all kinds of pas de bourrees, Massine would use heel work instead. His steps came from character dancing: the farruca, the tarantella -- always ticky-ticky footwork, the talking feet.
Massine himself was not a truly classical dancer. His dancing was demi-caractere, and that was his style as a choreographer, too. But Balanchine's choreography was always classical: he borrowed steps character dancing and applied them to classical ballet. Massine did just the reverse: he took classical ballet techniques and applied it to character dancing. Today, Jerome Robbins does what Massine did.
And can you copyright dance steps?
The steps in danced in Massine's ballets, to his way of thinking, belonged to him. Years after we had both left the Ballet Russe, I appeared on the "The Jack Paar Show," dancing a little piece of my variation from Le Beau Danube. The next morning, I received a telephone call from Massine. "You are dancing my Danube," he said, "so I expect a payment."
"For goodness sake," I told him, "it is such a small amount they paid me" -- three hundred dollars, I think -- "and I need the money."
"I don't care," he said. "Danube belongs to me."
I said "All right, I will think about it."
A few days later, he telephoned a second time. "So, how about Danube?"
"I'm still thinking," I said. After that, he never bothered me again.
part 1 of an unfinished documentary
From the Red Shoes. Massine plays the demented cobbler, dressed in yellow.