Obituary: Alexis Rassine

Alexis Rays (Alexis Rassine), dancer, born Kaunas Lithuania 26 July 1919, died 25 July 1992.

ALEXIS RASSINE was a classical dancer of no mean ability, whose destiny was to help prop up the Sadler's Wells Ballet in London at a time when all life and particularly the arts was in grave peril.

Born Alexis Rayes in 1919 in Kaunas, Lithuania, his beginnings are obscure. When still a child it would appear his parents migrated to Cape Town, where he grew up, studied ballet, and inherited a South African passport. In the late Thirties, still a teenager he contrived to arrive in Paris, where he became a pupil of the renowned Olga Preobrajenska. While studying he made his stage debut at the Bal Tabarin, the spectacular Paris night-club. Unable to obtain entrance to the Paris Opera Ballet he set his sights on London, arriving penniless like an orphan. Because he was talented and boys were scarce in the ballet world, he found teachers who would give him free tuition, and he would go from one studio to another: in the mornings to Stanislas Idzikowsky, in the evenings to Igor Schwezoff, earning a crust wherever he might. He seemed to have no roots and little hope for the future.

He offered himself to Madam Rambert but stayed briefly - at that time the company existed precariously with dancers earning pin money. He then joined a touring ensemble known as the Trois Arts Ballet, with whom he gained stage experience and learned fragments of the classical repertoire.

His real chance came when the wartime company the Anglo-Polish Ballet was formed by a group of refugees in late 1940. This company began with a strong direction and patriotic backing, and specialised in Polish folk dances. Rassine became the lead classical dancer, performing in Les Sylphides and Le Spectre de la Rose with Natalia Rossowska. He was noticed by John Masefield who presented him with a copy of his tribute to ballet and considered his rendering of Spectre 'worth seeing more than once'.

With his natural physical ability Rassine began to develop into a gifted lyrical dancer but with success he became a little flamboyant - perhaps to conceal an inferiority complex. His colleagues in the Anglo-Polish nicknamed him 'Cockadoodle', because he possessed a beaky nose, and often spoke in a quick, rather high-pitched voice with a mid-European accent offset with South African overtones.

When Ninette de Valois came to see the Anglo-Polish Ballet, in search of dancers to replace losses in her war-ravaged company (so many of her males were called to the colours), Rassine felt his hour had come; but to everyone's surprise and to his chagrin de Valois chose the diminutive Gordon Hamilton, a brilliant character dancer and mime from Australia. Hamilton, however, spoke up for the merits of his friend Alex, and a few months later Rassine was appeased when de Valois offered him a principal dancer's contract.

Rassine was a considerable asset to the Sadler's Wells Ballet at a time when male dancers were as scarce as gold dust and during the remainder of the war years he and the hypnotic Robert Helpmann danced most of the major roles. There was no friction between them. They were so very different in style and personality, that they were able to work in close proximity without rivalry. As a danseur noble, Rassine was too egotisticial and insufficiently dexterous to excel at the pas de deux; yet he became a regular partner and friend of the scintillating Nadia Nerina, a fellow South African.

In addition to the classical repertoire, Rassine created roles in Ashton's The Quest (1943), Les Sirenes (1946) and Homage to the Queen (1953); in Helpmann's Hamlet (1942), Miracle in the Gorbals (1944) and Adam Zero (1946), and in de Valois's Promenade (1943) and Don Quixote (1950); but his metier was the purely classical. He danced Albrecht to Fonteyn's Giselle and again Spectre de la Rose with Fonteyn - this time coached by Tamara Karsavina. He danced in The Sleeping Beauty with Nerina and Giselle and Coppelia with Pauline Clayden, and Blue Bird with Pamela May.

During the decade and more that Rassine was with the Sadler's Wells Ballet, the company moved from the intimate New Theatre in St Martin's Lane to the larger stage of Covent Garden, developing its personnel, building an international repertoire, and undertaking tours abroad, thus becoming a major company and demanding considerable adjustment from its dancers.

After the war Rassine faced competition with the return of such heroes as Michael Somes, Harold Turner, John Field, John Hart and others, but he held his own until the early Fifties when his radiance became overshadowed. By 1952 a new generation of male dancers had taken the stage led by the handsome and physically powerful David Blair. The technical brilliance and youth of the new boys outshone the more gentle elan and sobriety of the old wartime veterans - and Rassine's privileged position became insecure. He found himself left out or neglected to second and third casts.

Helpmann wisely left the ballet to pursue a remarkable acting and film career, eventually becoming artistic director and principal choreographer of the Australian ballet which earned for him a knighthood. Rassine was not so resourceful, or shall we say 'lucky'. He fell from the firmament in 1954, just before the company became 'Royal'. He found himself in the wings, soon to be neglected and forgotten.

It should be recorded, however, that as a classical dancer in his time he made a major contribution to British ballet, and helped to keep the flag flying when all about was chaos and disaster. His record went unrecognised and unrewarded.

It was a pity that at the height of his most successful years he decided to have an operation to change the shape of his aquiline nose, which to some extent diminished his personality. He became a very private person. Early on he formed a deep friendship with the eminent editor and author John Lehmann, with whom he lived until Lehmann died in 1987. Rassine was much admired by elderly ladies, some of whom mothered him, but he remained withdrawn and lonely. Undoubtedly his outstanding role was Blue Bird for which he seemed made, with his fluid bird-like line, but he liked most the Nijnsky role of Spectre, which suited his plastic grace, though his jump was not phenomenal.

After slipping out of the Sadler's Wells Ballet he guested for a number of years with Walter Gore's London Ballet and abroad and appeared in galas with Nerina; but gradually he withdrew from the dance world - the new age of pyrotechnics and gymnastics had taken over.

In his last years Rassine became somewhat remote, living a solitary life in the Sussex cottage left to him by Lehmann. Occasionally he travelled to Kensington to teach a few private pupils and then disappeared again into the peace of the country.

(Photograph omitted)

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Management Trainer

£30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Exciting career opportunity to join East...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Scientist / Research Assistant

£18000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious start-up company b...

Reach Volunteering: Chair of Trustees

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Do you love the Engl...

Ashdown Group: Compensation and Benefits Manager - Brentwood - Circa £60,000

£60000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Compensation and Benefits Manager - Compensat...

Day In a Page

US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

You know that headache you’ve got?

Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

Paul Scholes column

England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

Frank Warren column

Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines