05 April 2010

Sergei Diaghilev: impresario, genius and tyrant

It was inevitable that I would get involved in anything to do with The Ballets Russes. Firstly my own family was Russian. Secondly I learned ballet throughout primary and high school with the Borovansky Ballet Company. And finally Leon Bakst warmed the heart of art historians with his costumes which came to Melbourne not long ago.

Fire bird, costume by Bakst

But now something new; Diaghilev: A Life by Sjeng Scheijen was published by Profile Books late last year. This is a major new biography of Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929) who revolutionised ballet by founding the Ballets Russes. He may have had to finagle his way into St Petersburg's rather snooty cultural elite but from there he launched himself into the gasping world. Via the Ballets Russes, Diaghilev made managerial and aesthetic decisions about who to work with: composers like Igor Stravinsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Sergei Prokofiev, and dancers and choreographers like Vaslav Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova, Mikhail Fokine, Leonide Massine, Alicia Markova and George Balanchine. Finally there were the costumers and set designers like Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Alexandre Benois and of course the incomparable Leon Bakst.

Little Augury showed how cultural icons were introduced to each other. Madame Eugenia Errázuriz (1860-1951), of Basque descent, was a style leader of modernist Paris from 1880 on. She was said to have refined the bohemian Pablo Picasso, invited Igor Stravinsky, WR Sickert, Cecil Beaton and Jean Cocteau to her Paris home, and introduced Diaghilev to her protégés. Paris was where it was all happening!

He may not have been a brilliant dancer or artist himself, but Diaghilev was hugely successful in marketing his vision of Russian arts. Luckily no nation on earth has produced such a roll call of brilliant talent for the impresario to draw upon.

Nijinsky as a faun, by Bakst, 1912

At the heart of The Ballets Russes’ success lies sex - Diaghilev’s and everyone else’s. Nijinsky looked as if he was having sex on stage, which must have shocked the good burghers of Paris and points west. See { feuilleton } for some interesting images of the young dancer. Bakst’s costumes were colourful, bejewelled and half naked. In fact before the Ballets Russes, theatre goers may not have even realised that the visual arts and sexuality had such important roles to play. Stravinsky's music for The Rite of Spring caused a near-riot by the audience, stunned by its depictions of fertility rites. Diaghilev himself slept with all the men in the company although not, presumably, on stage.

I don’t suppose it was pleasant working for Diaghilev. The Guardian reviewer said that Scheijen's real interest is in the complex and often antagonistic web of male relationships surrounding the director. Ambitious and celebrity-struck from the start, he had made it his business early on to meet Tolstoy, Zola, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Verdi and Borodin. And within his Company, he drove the women to exhaustion and exploited the men emotionally and physically. A charming and hugely successful control freak is still, in the end, a tyrant.

Diaghilev, Nijinsky and Stravinsky on tour, 1912

Alexandre Benois (1870-1960), who I mentioned in passing in this article, was the subject of a more thoughtful examination by The Blue Lantern blog. Benois' greatest triumph, as a set and costume designer, was Stravinsky's Petrushka in 1911.

At the same time that Sjeng Scheijen's book was first published in 2009, many institutions were planning tributes to Diaghilev on the centennial of the founding of Ballets Russes in 1909. The blog Objects Not Paintings has the most comprehensive list of lectures, exhibitions, music and costume/set displays I have seen. They ranged from the Museum of Decorative, Applied and Popular Art in Moscow to The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts to The National Gallery of Art in Canberra.


John hopper said...

Sounds like an interesting book. I have read some biographies of Diaghilev before, but there seems no harm in reading another, especially as it sounds a little grittier than most. Thanks!

Kiwi Riverman's Blogesphere said...

Extremely interesting again.


P. M. Doolan said...

I have always been interested in Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Paris and that period in the arts in general. Now you have whetted my appetite even more, so I am going to order that book. Thanks for this.

Brian Hughes said...

Now me...I'm not a huge dance fan myself, although I can put up with about fifteen minutes of Riverdance (if I've had a drink first) and five minutes of Stomp. (It's all a bit energetic for my tastes.)

Hels said...

John, Kiwi and PM Doolan,

I am coming back to the topic of Diaghilev and the Balles Russes in January 2011. Called "Ballets Russes: Russian, French and Spanish collaboration", the post will deal with the ballet Le Train Bleu. It is a very seductive topic!

Hels said...

oh...Brian Brian Brian

You don't have to love ballet. You just have to admire how Russian dancers got together with musicians and artists from other European nations to knock the knickers off Paris from 1909 on.

Imagine the good burghers of Paris who had never seen such talent before, nor such modernity.