March 31, 1872 – Sergei Diaghilev:
”Of all the wonders that the world had to offer, only art promised immortality.”
Oh, to have lived in Paris in the 1920s, to have seen those performances with collaborations between Claude Debussy, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso and Igor Stravinsky.
Sergei Diaghilev was a great Russian impresario, art patron and founder of the famed Ballet Russes.
Heir to a vodka fortune, Diaghilev was raised in Perm, Russia, by his cavalry officer father and stepmother. The stepmother was an affectionate and key influence on his life, encouraging his early love of music.
His family went bankrupt when he turned 18-years-old and the young Diaghilev was forced to support them on an inheritance willed to him by his late mother. He had planned on law degree at Saint Petersburg University, although he soon abandoned the law to pursue his true passion, studing music at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory.
Graduating in 1892, Diaghilev ended up abandoning a music career on the advice of his professor who told him frankly that he lacked real talent. Determined to prove the professor wrong, Diaghilev wrote to his stepmother in 1894 declaring his intention to pursue a more practical line of work promoting other musicians.
In 1897, Diaghilev and his artistic circle of friends founded the World Of Art (not to be confused with World Of Wonder), an innovative, modern magazine backed by the director of the Russian Private Opera Company and the wealthy Princess Maria Tenisheva. Two years later, the ever-industrious Diaghilev took a job as a special assistant to Prince Sergei Mikhaylovich Volkonsky, owner of the Imperial Theatre chain, where he imagined and then produced a series of popular productions.
Around this time, Diaghilev began embracing a flamboyant sense of style and quietly, had a love affair with his first cousin, Dmitry Filosofov, later a famous journalist.
Diaghilev developed a reputation in the art world that took him to the cultural capital of the world, Paris, a city he fell in love with while visiting while on a tour with a Russian folk-dance company. In 1909, he founded the legendary Ballet Russes in Paris.
The company became a sensation, celebrated for scrapping the starched traditions of ballet and introducing original musical scores and wild new choreography, plus costumes, lighting and sets designed by the most creative members of the belle époque avant-garde: Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Coco Chanel. They contributed to his ground-breaking presentations: Parade, Le Tricorne, and Le Train Bleau.
The Ballet Russes drew attention by using the most striking dancers, with principles Vaslav Nijinsky, Ida Rubenstein and Anna Pavlova.
Diaghilev had a talent for attracting the most exciting European musical talents to work with the Ballet Russes, even his nemesis Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov provided a score, plus works by Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie, Richard Strauss, Sergei Prokofiev, and Francis Poulenc were all staged for the company.
Ballet Russes had a run for two decades and was truly international in its staff and dancers, having toured Europe, North America, and South America. Ballet Russes brought something new, and defied the convention that female dancers should be delicate and gave male dancers more of the spotlight.
Diaghilev enjoyed several creative relationships throughout his life. There was his lover Nijinsky, of course, yet perhaps the most important was fellow Russian Stravinsky. Diaghilev commissioned Stravinsky to compose The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite Of Spring, with original choreography by Nijinsky, which famously provoked riots at its premiere at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in May 1913. Its outrageous costumes, unusual choreography and bizarre story of pagan sacrifice caused Parisian audiences to lose their shit. Backstage at the premiere, Nijinsky shouted at the dancers while Diaghilev tried to control the riot by flashing the house lights. Stravinsky fumed at the audience’s response to his music. Yet, the ballet’s premiere managed to instill in the audience the true spirit of the music, with pagans onstage making pagans of the audience.
The Ballet Russes closed down production briefly at the start of WW I, but sprung to life again in 1915 with a tour of North and South America. They played at the Metropolitan Opera in NYC in 1916. At the same time, the Russian Revolution prevented Diaghilev from ever returning to his homeland again.
Diaghilev was openly gay in an era where such a thing was quite dangerous. He had affairs with several Ballet Russes dancers, Nijinsky, of course, but also Anton Dolin, Léonide Massine and Serge Lifar, and possibly Stravinsky. He fired both Nijinsky and Massine, after both men married women.
While on tour in South America, Nijinsky, in a rash, reckless and ruinous moment, had married a Romanian countess, Romola Pulsky, who had taken up ballet in order to pursue the young dancer across Europe and beyond. The incensed and injurious Diaghilev fired him.
Nijinsky tried to start his own dance company. But, bad choices and ill-conceived projects brought the celebrated star from luster, laurels, and lavish gifts, to needing to support a wife and child with no funds and no dance company.
Nijinsky went to Hungary to recover from nervous exhaustion. When WW I broke out, he was considered an enemy because he was a Russian citizen and he was jailed. In 1916, Diaghilev rescued him and took the entire family to NYC, so that Nijinsky could re-join Ballets Russes. Diaghilev and Nijinsky rekindled their love affair, but the wife did all she could to come between them.
Nijinsky’s mental state declined. The dancer became paranoid and obsessive. He became frightened of performing on stage. With Diaghilev back in Europe, Nijinsky was left in charge of Ballet Russes. But, his mental problems became more apparent to members of the company. He suffered a nervous breakdown in 1919 and his mercurial career ended.
Nijinsky was diagnosed with schizophrenia and taken to Switzerland by his wife. Later Diaghilev attempted to reconcile, and again his wife kept her husband from him, preventing any more reunions. Nijinsky he was just 29-years-old. For the next three decades he was in and out of institutions until he took that final curtain call in London in 1950. He left a diary where he wrote of his love for Diaghilev.
A 1921 London production of Petr Ilich Tchaikovsky‘s Sleeping Beauty, renamed The Sleeping Princess, with new orchestrations by Stravinsky and sets and costumes by Léon Bakst, nearly bankrupted Ballet Russes. Described by a critic as a ”gorgeous calamity”, The Sleeping Princess ran for 115 performances, but to finance the lavish production, Diaghilev had taken a large advance against box-office receipts and then could not pay back the borrowed sum. The sets and costumes were impounded, and Diaghilev was sued. The Ballets Russes was barred from performing in England until 1925.
When Nijinsky’s sister married another dancer, Diaghilev gave her an expensive sapphire ring, yet he also informed her that it was to “wed her to her art”. He gave similar rings to Nijinsky and Massine, a strong message that they were to remain faithful to him and to ballet.
Diaghilev suffered from diabetes, and he became ill and lapsed into a coma while visiting Venice, a tragically ironic place to die for a man with a chronic fear of water. He took his final bow there in August 1929. He died as he had lived, on credit. After his passing, friends had to pay his hotel bill.
His work had a major influence on how the art and performance worlds come together. Many dance companies and arts organizations are still based on the Ballets Russes concept.
Ballets Russes is brilliantly reflected in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s film The Red Shoes (1948). The film is a story of gay tyranny. The thinly disguised Diaghilev stand-in named Lermontov, portrayed by Anton Walbrook, himself openly gay, forces a dancer played by Moira Shearer to choose between love and art.
If you should want to learn more, try Diaghilev: A Life (2010) by Sjeng Scheijen.
In 1970, a long-planned film about Nijinsky and Diaghilev was to start filming, with a screenplay by Edward Albee, to be directed by Tony Richardson, starring Rudolf Nureyev as Nijinsky and Paul Scofield as Diaghilev, but the project never happened.
A decade later a film was finally made. Nijinsky (1980) is directed by Herbert Ross, and stars dancers George de la Peña as Nijinsky, Leslie Browne as Romola, with Alan Bates as Diaghilev. The real Romola Nijinsky has a writing credit for the film. The filmmakers got the attitude right, but the history all wrong. It is available on something called VHS, I have no idea what this is. I believe the story is ripe for the right team to take another shot at it. My suggestion: John Cameron Mitchell writing and directing, with Daniel Radcliffe as Nijinsky, Natalie Portman as Romola and Stephen Rutledge as Diaghilev.
“Diaghilev is a giant, undoubtedly the only one whose dimensions increase the more he recedes into the distance”.