Léonide Massine

Leonid Fyodorovich Miassin

1896 (Moscow) – 1979 (Köln)

Diaghilev took Massine on as Nijinsky’s replacement (as lover too). As choreographer for the Ballets Russes, among his many collaborators were Picasso, Léger, Chagall, Matisse, Delaunay, Satie, Falla, Cocteau, Masson, Stravinsky, Miró, Milhaud, Goncharova and Dufy. Diaghilev encouraged his choreographic talents, and introduced him to Larionov and Stravinsky. A planned collaboration with Léger fizzled out. He taught Ashton, and got Graham to dance lead in his American revival of ‘The Rite of Spring.’ He featured in ‘The Red Shoes’, but was mistreated by Powell. He said sex with Diaghilev was like sleeping with a nice fat old lady.

Serge Lifar

1905 (Kyiv) – 1986 (Lausanne, Switzerland)

Lifar is less important for his role in Ballets Russes than thereafter, as a significant figure in French ballet. He was not universally liked, with an ego to compensate for any shortfalls. Rejected as a private pupil by Nijinska, he took her state ballet school classes instead. Diaghilev took him on, as dancer (Cecchetti honing his skills) then as lover. Picasso said his body was ideally proportioned. Collaborators included Milhaud, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Honegger, Ibert, Léger, Chagall, Cocteau and (most inappropriately) Dalí. He posed on a beach with Baker and for sketches by Maillol, and duelled with Massine. Nureyev detested him.

Serge Lifar knew…

Vaslav Nijinsky

1890 (Kiev, now Kyiv, Ukraine) – 1950 (London)

In a public career of only 12 years, Nijinsky revolutionised ballet-dancing and choreography. Always a controversial figure, he was Diaghilev’s star and lover. They visited Debussy in Paris, who hated Nijinsky’s subsequent choreographing of his music (Diaghilev used their exchange of telegrams to publicise the performances). Stravinsky was also unimpressed by Nijinsky’s response to his music. Nijinsky had shared a studio with Chagall in Russia, went to the Louvre with Bakst, sat at the piano with Ravel, modelled for Rodin (who had supported him), danced with Duncan, and was treated by Adler in his decline into mental illness.

Vaslav Nijinsky knew…

Merce Cunningham

1919 (Centralia, Wash.) – 2009 (New York)

Cunningham was one of the most influential twentieth-century choreographers: Baryshnikov said he reinvented dance. Graham took him on as a soloist, Ashton admired the poetry of his work, Beck and Malina shared a building, while Lichtenstein competed for taxis. Copland was a supporter, Guston a good friend. Albers, the de Koonings, Fuller and Olson were all Black Mountain acquaintances. Cage was his great collaborator, life partner, and a key influence. Other long-term collaborators and friends included Rauschenberg and Johns; he also worked with a panoply of talent from Dodds to Vanderbeek, Bryars to Warhol, Brown to Young.

Merce Cunningham knew…

Roland Petit

1924 (Villemomble, France) – 2011 (Geneva)

Petit studied under Lifar. Laurencin, Larionov and Goncharova were regulars at his parents’ café. Brassaï (brought along by Prévert) described the young choreographer as champing at the bit. He filmed Nureyev and had a fling with Fonteyn (though he married Jeanmaire). Gainsbourg, and the Nouveaux réalistes artists Tinguely and Saint Phalle, collaborated with him. Petit liked the feeling of Dutilleux’s music, and worked on a ballet with him, based on a story Anouilh had recounted. Messiaën was decidedly reserved about Petit’s ballet Turangalîla (sets by Ernst). Other collaborators, likely and unlikely, included Kosma, Cocteau, Simenon, and (after a chance meeting) Welles.