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.
Rosamond Lehmann with her brother John and Lytton Strachey
Early on in his career, Alexis Rassine formed a deep friendship with the eminent editor and author John Lehmann, with whom he lived until Lehmann died in 1987. Christopher Isherwood recorded in his Diaries that when he visited Lehmann in 1947 they were already together and in the Lehmann Family Papers held at Princeton University, Rassine's name appears the first time in 1940. In his last years Rassine became somewhat remote, living a solitary life in the Sussex cottage left to him by Lehmann.
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. (Not sure when Lehmann met Rassine, but Christopher Isherwood recorded in his Diaries that when he visited Lehmann in 1947 they were already together and in the Lehmann Family Papers held at Princeton University, Rassine's name appears the first time in 1940). 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.
Rudolf John Frederick Lehmann (born Bourne End, Buckinghamshire, 2 June 1907; died London, 7 April 1987) was an English poet and man of letters, and one of the foremost literary editors of the twentieth century, founding the periodicals New Writing and The London Magazine.
The fourth child of journalist Rudolph Lehmann, and brother of Helen Lehmann, novelist Rosamond Lehmann and actress Beatrix Lehmann, he was educated at Eton and read English at Trinity College, Cambridge. He considered his time at both as "lost years".
After a spell as a journalist in Vienna, he returned to England to found the popular periodical New Writing (1936–1940) in book format, which proved a great influence on literature of the period and an outlet for writers such as Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden. Lehmann included many of these authors in his anthology Poems for Spain which he edited with Stephen Spender. With the onset of the Second World War and paper rationing, New Writing's future was uncertain and so Lehmann wrote New Writing in Europe for Pelican Books, one of the first critical summaries of the writers of the 1930s in which he championed the authors who had been the stars of New Writing - Auden and Spender - and also his close friend Tom Wintringham and Wintringham's ally, the emerging George Orwell. Wintringham reintroduced Lehmann to Allen Lane of Penguin Books, who secured paper for The Penguin New Writing a monthly book-magazine, this time in paperback. The first issue featured Orwell's essay Shooting an Elephant. Occasional hardback editions combined with the magazine Daylight appeared sporadically, but it was as Penguin New Writing that the magazine survived until 1950.
After joining Leonard and Virginia Woolf as managing director of Hogarth Press between 1938 and 1946 he established his own publishing company, John Lehmann Limited, with his novelist sister Rosamond Lehmann (who had a nine-year affair with one of Lehmann's contributing poets, Cecil Day Lewis). They published new works by authors such as Sartre and Stendhal, and discovered talents like Thom Gunn and Laurie Lee. He also published the first two books by the cookery writer Elizabeth David, A Book of Mediterranean Food and French Country Cooking.
In 1954 he founded The London Magazine, remaining as editor until 1961, following which he was a frequent lecturer and completed his three-volume autobiography, Whispering Gallery (1955), I Am My Brother (1960) and The Ample Proposition (1966). In The Purely Pagan Sense (1976) is an autobiographical record of his homosexual life in England and pre-war Germany, discreetly written in the form of a novel. He also wrote the biographies Edith Sitwell (1952), Virginia Woolf and her World (1975), Thrown to the Woolfs (1978) and Rupert Brooke (1980).
In 1974 Lehmann published a book of poems, The Reader at Night, hand-printed on hand-made paper and hand-bound in an edition of 250 signed copies (Toronto, Basilike, 1974). An essay by Paul Davies about the creation of this book is included in Professor A.T. Tolley's collection, John Lehmann: a Tribute (Ottawa, Carleton University Press, 1987), which also includes pieces by Roy Fuller, Thom Gunn, Charles Osborne, Christopher Levenson, Jeremy Reed, George Woodcock, and others.
John Lehmann and Leonard Woolf
John Lehmann and Virginia Woolf
Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time by Elisa Rolle
Paperback: 760 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1 edition (July 1, 2014)
Amazon: Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time
Days of Love chronicles more than 700 LGBT couples throughout history, spanning 2000 years from Alexander the Great to the most recent winner of a Lambda Literary Award. Many of the contemporary couples share their stories on how they met and fell in love, as well as photos from when they married or of their families. Included are professional portraits by Robert Giard and Stathis Orphanos, paintings by John Singer Sargent and Giovanni Boldini, and photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnson, Arnold Genthe, and Carl Van Vechten among others. “It's wonderful. Laying it out chronologically is inspired, offering a solid GLBT history. I kept learning things. I love the decision to include couples broken by death. It makes clear how important love is, as well as showing what people have been through. The layout and photos look terrific.” Christopher Bram “I couldn’t resist clicking through every page. I never realized the scope of the book would cover centuries! I know that it will be hugely validating to young, newly-emerging LGBT kids and be reassured that they really can have a secure, respected place in the world as their futures unfold.” Howard Cruse “This international history-and-photo book, featuring 100s of detailed bios of some of the most forward-moving gay persons in history, is sure to be one of those bestsellers that gay folk will enjoy for years to come as reference and research that is filled with facts and fun.” Jack Fritscher
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