Alexis Rassine was born Alec Raysman (originally Reisman) in Kaunas, Lithuania, to Jewish Russian parents Israel, an engraver and silversmith at the Faberge workshop, and Sara. His earliest years there involved the family moving around variously between St Petersburg and Lithuania, due to the political situation at the time. Alec Raysman was the youngest of three brothers.
Initially he spoke Russian with his parents and brothers but in 1929, when he was 10, his family moved to Cape Town, South Africa, where he learned to speak English and gained a new nationality. (In later life, he spoke in a distinctive, high-pitched voice with a mid-European accent offset with South African overtones.
As a youth of 14, he began his dance training with Helen Webb and Maude Lloyd, who soon recognized his unusual talent. Encouraged by them, he left South Africa in 1937, when he was 18, and went to Paris, where he continued his studies with the Russian émigré teachers Olga Preobrajenska and Alexandre Volinine. While still a student, he made his professional stage debut dancing in a ballet at the Bal Tabarin, a glamorous cabaret not far from the Palais Garnier, home of the Ballet de l'Opéra de Paris.
Upon failing to win a place in the Paris Opera Ballet, Rassine set his sights on London. Arriving there penniless but talented, at a time when male dancers were in short supply, he found teachers willing to give him free tuition, going to Stanislas Idzikowski in the mornings and to Igor Schwezoff in the evenings. He also studied with Vera Volkova at the Sadler's Wells Ballet School. After a brief stint with Ballet Rambert in 1938, he joined a touring ensemble known as the Trois Arts Ballet, where he gained stage experience and learned fragments of the classical repertory.
On the first of September 1939, while Rassine was still a member of the Trois Arts company, German troops invaded Poland, whereupon England and France declared war on Germany, an event that was to have a dramatic effect on Rassine's burgeoning career. In late 1940, a group of Polish refugees formed the Anglo-Polish Ballet, specializing in Polish folk dances, and Rassine was invited to join.
He soon became the leading classical dancer of the company, performing in Michel Fokine's Les Sylphides and Le Spectre de la Rose with Natalia Rossowska. When Ninette de Valois, director of the Sadler's Wells Ballet, came looking for male dancers to replace losses in her war-ravaged company, she offered Rassine a contract.
In 1942, Rassine joined the Sadler's Wells Ballet, where he would remain until 1955. He was soon promoted to premier danseur The Sleeping Beauty . Rassine was also appreciated in his home country. He returned to Cape Town first in 1947, when he was invited to produce and dance in act 2 of Giselle for the South African National Ballet, then under the direction of Cecily Robinson, with whom he had danced as a student in his youth.
He subsequently formed an important partnership with his close friend Nadia Nerina, a South African dancer who had become prima ballerina at the Sadler's Wells Ballet. Together, they toured South Africa and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1952, presenting recital programs of pas de deux and solo variations.
After the war in Europe ended in 1945, Rassine faced competition for roleswith the return of such excellent dancers, but he managed to hold his own until the early 1950s. By 1952, a new generation of male dancers had taken the spotlight on stage at Covent Garden. Rassine was gradually relegated to second or third casts or was left out of new works altogether.
Early in his career in England, Rassine formed a deep friendship with John Lehmann, poet and man of letters, recognized today as one of the foremost literary editors of the twentieth century. They were loving companions for many years, from around 1940 until Lehmann's death in 1987. He lived a solitary life in Crawley, a town in West Sussex, in the cottage left to him by Lehmann.
Occasionally, he traveled to the busy Kensington district in west London to teach a few private pupils before returning again to the peace of the countryside. He died at home, at age 83.