BOLSHOI Ooh La La!
Leonide Massine (1896 – 1979) was discovered in 1914 by Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes. Massine was in the corps de ballet of the Bolshoi, and also performing at the Maly Theatre, when Diaghilev noticed the good-looking eighteenyear- old. Massine was not a classical dancer in the true sense of the word, in that he was not very tall, and was stocky as well; this made him unsuitable for princely roles, but then Nijinsky himself – Diaghilev’s former superstar – was built in the same way.
Massine took up with Diaghilev, in all senses of the word. Diaghilev gave him leading roles in the company, and gave the youth an itinerant education in the art galleries, museums and monuments of Europe. Massine met and worked with the leading artistic figures of the day – Cocteau, Picasso, Garcia Lorca. Managed by Diaghilev, he was one of the first pop idols.
Massine had charm and a good stage presence, but the opinion of the day was that as a dancer he lacked the charisma of Nijinsky, and as a choreographer he lacked the genius. Nijinsky created just four ballets – L’Apres-midi d’un faune (1912), Le Sacre du printemps (1913), Jeux (1913), and Till Eulenspiegel (1916) – but each one of them moved ballet forward in new directions.
Massine created upwards of a hundred ballets, and today not much more than four of them survive. History is not an even-handed thing, and the circumstances of Nijinsky’s life and career have overshadowed that of Massine’s.
Now Massine is being newly discovered by the Bolshoi Ballet, with an evening of three of his ballets, staged by his son Lorca. There is much to admire in Massine’s work, but if there are moments of great talent, they are only discrete moments. Only one ballet in this evening of The Ballets of Leonide Massine comes close to being a complete work of art.
Alexei Ratmansky, the Artistic Director of the Bolshoi, has said that even if Massine worked for only a short time at the Bolshoi, he deserves to be brought back into the repertoire. Two of the ballets – Le Tricorne and Gaite Parisienne – are reconstructions of the original stagings, and they allow us to make an assessment as to how well Massine holds up in his original form. Ratmansky decided that the third ballet, Les Presages – would be given a new staging, with sets and costumes by the couturier Igor Chapurin. The very success of this ballet, however – the artistic highlight of the evening – makes it difficult to decide who deserves more credit, Massine for the original inspiration, Ratmansky for the inspired idea to rework it, or Chapurin for the inspiring way in which he refashions the past and makes it new.
Le Tricorne was first staged by the Ballets Russes in 1919 at the Alhambra in London, with music by Manuel de Falla, and sets and costumes by Pablo Picasso. Massine and Diaghilev had been travelling with de Falla in Spain, and the ballet was the result of Massine’s immersion in the traditions of flamenco. The central role of the Miller was danced by Massine himself, and then, as now, because of the weakness of the other dancing parts, it is very dependent upon the flamboyance of the hero. On this evening, at the Bolshoi, Ruslan Skortsov was unable to do anything more than show his paces. The steps were there, but not the machismo and fire.
Les Presages received its premiere in Monte Carlo in 1933. Massine was no longer with Diaghilev (who had died in 1929), and there is something much more adult and thoughtful about this second phase of his career. Massine was his own man with his own ideas, and having decided to set a ballet to Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony he wanted to give it an original look. “For the first time I dispensed with the traditional formula of male and female partnering and the usual balanced interplay between men and women dancers. I decided to avoid all symmetrical compositions and to render the flow of the music by fluctuating lines, and forms both static and mobile.” Massine achieves his aim, and the result is a ballet of ebb and flow, the perfect rendering of the music in balletic movement.
Igor Chapurin is one of only a handful of fashion designers who have worked for the Bolshoi – Pierre Cardin, Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent. Chapurin is not eclipsed by them. His understanding of Massine’s choreography goes much deeper than the exquisitely nuanced dyes he uses (he describes them as “emotional guidelines”). His costumes cling to the body; the fabrics by themselves express and enhance the ballet, and yet they never overpower the needed balance between dress and movement. Chapurin says that, “In effect, what I do, is undress, rather than dress the dancers on stage.”
Massine is at his best in this ballet. Chapurin has moments of genius greater than the choreography itself – the moment, for example, when the couple dancing the roles of “The Hero” and “Passion” come onto the stage dressed all in white, crystals shimmering (courtesy of Swarovski no less), and advance diagonally across the stage, illuminated in a single beam of blazing white light. The audience was transfixed.
With music by Offenbach, and with a storyline as substantial as a meringue, you cannot describe Gaite Parisienne (1938) as anything other than a frolic. It was Massine’s most popular ballet, and it was staged so many times that he came to hate it. Again, as with Le Tricorne, the ballet is very much dependent upon the central figure of the Peruvian, and here Morikhiro Ivata was much more successful in the role, showing both a good plastic technique and comic acting skills. The ballet ends with the girls of the Bolshoi corps de ballet dancing the cancan and they do so with as much exuberance and sauciness as if they were at the Moulin Rouge. It is a crowd pleaser, pure and simple. Ooh la la!
The Ballets of Leonide Massine
When: 15th May, 7pm
Where: New Stage of the Bolshoi