Lev Ivanov (1834-1901) was born in Moscow. He began his dance training there before moving to the Imperial Theatre School in St Petersburg, where, after his first year, he was supported by the state and where his teachers included Émile Gredlu and Jean Petipa, Marius Petipa's father.

Ivanov started dancing for the Imperial Theatres while still a student, joining the company's corps de ballet officially on graduating in 1852. He soon became a leading dancer and mime and in 1869 became premier danseur, a position he eventually relinquished to Pavel Gerdt. Ivanov's repertory included Ulrich (The Hungarian Hat), Hans (Saint-Léon's La Vivandière), Phoebus (Perrot's Esmeralda) Basil (Marius Petipa's Don Quixote Faust), Conrad (Petipa's Le Corsaire, after Perrot) and roles in Petipa's Catarina (after Perrot), Perrot's Esmeralda, Petipa's Le Diable à quatre (after Mazilier), Saint-Léon's Fiammetta and The Little Humpbacked Horse and Petipa's Zoraya. He created many roles in works by Petipa, including Fisherman (Pharoah's Daughter), Guges (King Candaule), Comte de Melun (La Camargo), Solor (La Bayadère) and Ali-Ben-Tamarat (Zoroya, or The Lady Moor in Spain).

Ivanov began teaching early in his career and in 1882 he succeeded Alexey Bogdanov as Régisseur at the Maryinski Theatre. In 1885, when Marius Petipa was appointed chief ballet-master of the Imperial Theatres, Ivanov became second ballet-master. Most of his work was in creating ballets for the different stages of the Imperial Theatres. One of his earliest was a new version of La Fille mal gardée, created the year he became ballet-master. His other works include The Enchanted Forest (1887), La Belle de Séville (1881), Polovtsian Dances for Borodin's Prince Igor (1890), dances for Rimsky-Korsakov's Mlada (1892), Cinderella (with Petipa and Cecchetti, 1893), Acis and Galatea (1896), The Daughter of the Mikado (1897), Marco Bombaand Graziella (both after Saint-Léon, 1899).

Ivanov is probably best remembered for three works he created during the 1890s. The first, The Nutcracker (1892), was originally intended for Petipa, but when he fell ill Ivanov assumed responsibility. The following year Ivanov created the one-act ballet The Magic Flute, which became familiar to audiences round the world as part of Pavlova's company's repertory. The third work, Swan Lake, started as one act created for a performance in honour of Tchaikovsky, who had died the previous year, 1893. The success of Ivanov's choreography for Act II led the company to stage a complete new production in 1895, under Petipa's artistic direction, in which Ivanov created the choreography for Acts II and IV and Petipa for Acts I and III.

At the time of his death at the age of 67, Ivanov was collaborating with Pavel Gerdt on a production of Delibes' Sylvia, which was completed posthumously by Gerdt.