De Basil was born Vassily Grigorievich Voskresensky in Kaunas, Lithuania. His year of birth is given variously as 1880 or 1886. He is said to have been a colonel in the Cossack army although his claim to the title "Colonel" is disputed. De Basil was demobilised from the army in 1919, and worked as an entrepreneur in Paris.
Following the death of Sergei Diaghilev in 1929, the members of his Ballets Russes went in many directions. De Basil and René Blum, ballet director at the Monte Carlo Opera, founded the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1931 The ballet gave its first performance in Monte Carlo in 1932. Blum and de Basil did not agree artistically, leading to a split, after which de Basil formed the Original Ballet Russe.
De Basil brought the Original Ballet Russe on a tour of Australia in 1939-1940. He had earlier organised tours to Australia by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (1936-1937) and the Covent Garden Russian Ballet (1938-1939), although he did not travel with them. During his visit to Australia, de Basil commissioned work from Australians, especially from designers, who included Sidney Nolan and Kathleen and Florence Martin. He also instigated a design competition for an original Australian ballet, which was won by Donald Friend with designs for a ballet based on a fictitious event in the life of Ned Kelly.
He directed Ballets Russes companies, which performed under a variety of different names, until his death.