Today, Sergey Diaghilev is thought of primarily as the man who founded and directed the most glamorous dance troupe in history, the Ballets Russes (1909-29). But he did more: he saved ballet from certain death. By the time his company made its début, in Paris, in 1909, European classical dance, one of the glories of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century stage, had become a decadent, frivolous business—a pantie parade. With few exceptions, no one seriously interested in the arts would show his face at the ballet. When Diaghilev came, that changed.
The last English-language biography of Diaghilev, by the English dance critic and historian Richard Buckle, was published in 1979. Anyone studying the Ballets Russes in the past three decades has kept Buckle’s “Diaghilev” close at hand; it is crammed with information. But for that very reason I doubt that many lay readers have ever got to the end of it. It is all trees, no forest. In practice, this means no generalization, no thinking. Now comes a new entry, “Diaghilev: A Life” (Oxford; $39.95), by Sjeng Scheijen, a young Dutchman who has never written a book before. (Until recently, he was the cultural attaché of the Dutch Embassy in Moscow. His book was translated from the Dutch by Jane Hedley-Prôle and S. J. Leinbach.) Scheijen reads Russian, as Buckle did not, and he has looked at many crucial sources that Buckle—and others—either didn’t bother with or didn’t have access to, including writings by Diaghilev, his friends, his family, and his commentators. These new documents enable Scheijen to sweep out many cobwebbed corners in the Diaghilev story. For instance, it is always said that Diaghilev’s mother died giving birth to him, on account of his outsized head. This is a satisfyingly symbolic tale and, according to Scheijen’s sources, a false one. Yevgeniya Diaghileva expired, from childbed fever, three months after Sergey’s birth.
The leading edge of Scheijen’s revisionism, however, is not his fact-correcting but his reinterpretations—for example, of Diaghilev’s relationship with Vaslav Nijinsky, the most notorious of his many love affairs with the young men in his employ. Almost always, the story has been that the imperious Diaghilev scooped up Nijinsky when he was a nineteen-year-old boy in St. Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet, made him an international star, oversaw his brief and tumultuous career as a choreographer, and then—when Nijinsky, after their five-year affair had cooled, went off and got married—heartlessly fired him, thus exacerbating his psychological fragility. (He was institutionalized, with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, at the age of twenty-nine.) Diaghilev is the cruel seigneur, Nijinsky the poor little lamb.
Nothing could be further from the truth, Scheijen says. It is not Diaghilev who went after Nijinsky but the other way around: Nijinsky, in his inclinations, was heterosexual (there is considerable evidence for this), but he knew that Diaghilev could advance his career, and therefore he pursued and finally bagged him. The young dancer also had the upper hand in their relationship, Scheijen writes. He quotes several people describing how Nijinsky made Diaghilev suffer. Here is Lady Juliet Duff, a great friend of Diaghilev’s and a supporter of the company: “I remember a day at my mother’s house . . . when he had had a disagreement with Nijinsky, who had refused to come, and he sat in the garden with tears dripping down his face and would not be comforted.”
Another cherry bomb set off by Scheijen is his account of the reception of Nijinsky’s famous ballet “The Rite of Spring” (1913). As is widely known, this ballet caused a riot at its première, in Paris, a fact that has usually been explained as the response of fuddy-duddies to the arrival of brutality, of “ugliness”—that is, of modernism—in early-twentieth-century art. Scheijen says pretty much the opposite: that the people who hissed were not conservatives but avant-gardists—the “snobs,” he calls them—who, on seeing this barbaric spectacle, felt that they had been pushed out of the vanguard by something larger than they. Wait till the French get wind of this! The riot at the “Rite” is one of the most beloved chapters in their history of what they regard as their unique artistic daring.
All of Scheijen’s revisions are iconoclastic. You can almost see him rubbing his hands together as he reveals the errors of Buckle and other biographers, and dismisses their ideas. At times, his skepticism leads him into errors of his own—for example, his assertion that Nijinsky’s first ballet, “The Afternoon of a Faun” (1912), was “a mere flash in the pan.” “Faun” is the only one of Nijinsky’s four ballets that has survived. It was the first modernist ballet and one of the most influential dance works of the twentieth century. To call it a flash in the pan is just silly.
Still, this is an admirable book. Apart from its revisionism, its most striking quality is its avoidance of clutter, and hence its rhetorical force. Scheijen has left out many things, notably, dance criticism. (Which is fine. He’s not a dance critic, and there’s no reason he should have to fake it.) When he wants to paint a picture of something, he limits himself to just a few details—compelling ones, such as Diaghilev weeping in the garden. This doesn’t mean that the book is short (it’s five hundred and fifty-two pages), but, by his economy, Scheijen has given himself space for thinking, analyzing. Above all, he has tried to provide a deep and unified account of Diaghilev’s personality. It’s not a soul laid bare—Diaghilev was secretive—but something closer than we’ve seen before.
Diaghilev (1872-1929) grew up in a happy and cultured family of landed nobility. His father, Pavel Pavlovich, was a colonel in the Russian cavalry, but the money came mostly from the family’s vodka distilleries. Two years after the death of Diaghilev’s mother, Pavel Pavlovich took a second wife, Yelena Valerianovna Panayeva, an artistic girl from a prosperous family. Yelena adored Sergey, and he loved her back. When, in his youth, he was away from her, he wrote her long letters, filled with information and gossip and affection. (These are the most important source of Scheijen’s chapters on Diaghilev’s youth.) In one, which Diaghilev wrote as a child, he talks about how many kisses the other members of the family send her. As for him, “I kiss you only once but a trillion times harder.” He signs the letter, “Your black-eyed piglet, the son of your heart, your 11-year-old grandfather, your little friend, Seryozha.” Diaghilev had many difficulties as an adult, and it was no doubt good for him, when the trouble came, to remember that he had once been someone’s black-eyed piglet.
Yelena and Pavel Pavlovich produced two boys of their own, Valentin and Yury, and many relatives seem to have lived with these openhearted people at various times. The Diaghilevs had a twenty-room house in Perm, a provincial town at the foot of the Urals. This was their home base, but they also had an apartment in St. Petersburg, where they lived for several years. Then, there was a country estate in Bikbarda, in the Perm region. This house, too, was large. Yelena says that the table on the porch seated fifty for dinner. That was just one end of the porch. At the other was a cupola under which this mob took tea in the afternoon and watched the sun go down.
Pavel Pavlovich disliked work and rarely did any. “Only Germans worry about their careers,” he said. He preferred playing music, which, indeed, was the reigning passion of the entire family. They organized orchestras and choruses—some members professional, others amateur—and held regular musical soirées. Sergey took singing and piano lessons, and these were happiness to him, not a chore. He did not bother much about school—he copied his classmates’ homework—but it is said that the teachers went easy on him, because they wanted to be invited to the Diaghilevs’ house.
In preparation for university, Diaghilev was sent on a grand tour of Europe. He glutted himself on opera, but what is interesting in his letters is a new love. Before this trip, Diaghilev had barely been to an art museum. (Perm didn’t have one.) Now he began the self-education that would make him one of the premier arbiters of the visual arts in turn-of-the-century Russia. He was thrilled to the bones by what he saw in Europe. In Venice, he wrote to Yelena, “All that is real and can be sensed is in constant contact with magic and mystery; one loses the consciousness of reality.”
Two other events occurred at this time. On his grand tour, Diaghilev had a companion, his first cousin Dmitry Filosofov, who was the same age as he. Filosofov was refined and jaded—a man of few words, and English tweeds—in contrast to his jolly country cousin. The two reportedly became lovers during or just after their trip. This was probably Diaghilev’s first homosexual experience.
The other important circumstance, unmentioned in previous biographies, is that his parents went bankrupt, having lived beyond their income for many years. In 1890, the Diaghilevs were forced to turn over to their creditors everything they owned—the houses, the furniture, the pianos they had so gladly played. Diaghilev had a small income of his own, an inheritance from his mother, and so he was able, in the fall, to go to university in St. Petersburg. He did not go alone, however. His old nanny, having lost her job in the bankruptcy, moved in with him. He also covered part of his half brothers’ expenses and sent money to his parents. From the age of nineteen, he had a family to support.
In Petersburg, as before, Diaghilev got his education outside school. Filosofov belonged to a group of sophisticated young men who, with endearing pomposity, called themselves the Society for Self-Improvement. They met regularly and delivered lectures to one another. This cénacle included two painters who later became central to the Ballets Russes: Léon Bakst, the set designer who in large measure defined the company’s prewar look; and Alexandre Benois, another of the troupe’s early designers and its art-historical conscience. (He was immensely learned.) Filosofov insisted that the members of the Society accept Diaghilev, which they did reluctantly, because he seemed to them—above all, to Benois—such a yokel. As the years passed, the axis of power shifted, and when it came time to create the ballet company Diaghilev was the boss. This pained Benois terribly. On the other hand, he understood that Diaghilev outstripped him and all the others in energy, determination, and administrative skill. “It is the Seryozhas in life that make the world go round,” he wrote. Scheijen deserves credit for narrating Benois’s grievances without making him seem a whiner. He is equally fair to the other main characters—for example, Diaghilev. No one has catalogued the man’s sins more unflinchingly and at the same time made him more lovable.
Diaghilev wanted to be a composer, and he worked hard at this. In 1894, he wangled an introduction to Rimsky-Korsakov, and he played his compositions for the old master. Rimsky told him that they were ridiculous. Rimsky’s memoirist, Vasily Yastrebtsev, reports that, on leaving, Diaghilev “declared arrogantly that nevertheless he believes in himself and his gifts; that he will never forget this day and that some day Rimsky-Korsakov’s opinion will occupy a shameful place in his (Rimsky-Korsakov’s) biography and make him regret his rash words, but then it will be too late.” It will be too late! God bless him! At that time, he was a college boy, and Rimsky was the most honored composer in Russia. Soon afterward, however, he wrote to Yelena that he had decided that he would not be an artist but a presenter of artists—an impresario. And so it began, the great career.
Shortly after Diaghilev graduated from university, his manner and appearance underwent a change. He became arrogant, ostentatious. He had always been tall, and also fat. (The weight somehow just made him look more imposing, at least until his later years.) Now he began dressing with a showy elegance. He wore a golden silk dressing gown, Benois recorded with disgust. Soon, he had the famous off-center white stripe in his black hair. This princely display was in preparation for a new goal, a series of artistic ventures—art exhibitions, books, concerts—which, with funding both from the government (at one point, from the tsar personally) and from Russia’s new merchant princes, he piggybacked, one on the other, for the next twelve years, until they culminated in the Ballets Russes.
In 1897, he organized an exhibition society, the World of Art, which ultimately presented six shows. Some of the art was European, and some was Russian, but the Russian art had a tinge of the European. Since the early nineteenth century, Russian culture had been divided into two camps. The Westernizers called for Russian art to heed European trends, of which the most important at the turn of the century was Symbolism, a dreamy, moody, often neurotic-seeming style. Opposing the Westernizers were the much more powerful Slavophiles, who demanded realism, reformism, and, above all, nationalism. Russia, the Slavophiles believed, had a unique and holy mission, and its art should not be sullied by contact with the corrupt West.
Diaghilev was a firm Westernizer, as could be seen in the content of the World of Art shows, which tended toward the ambiguous, the idealized—that is, toward Symbolism. In 1898, he founded an arts journal, also called The World of Art, which had the same program: subjectivity and art for art’s sake. In an essay in the first issue, Diaghilev said that he did not reject nationalism but that it could not be faked or forced. The only nationalism useful to an artist was “the unconscious nationalism of the blood,” the love of country which one could not help having.
No one had it more than he did. It grieved him that the West knew so little of Russian culture, and so, after a decade of showing European art to the Russians, he turned around and started showing Russian art to the Europeans. In the space of three years, from 1906 to 1908, he staged in Paris a huge art exhibition, a series of concerts, and a production of “Boris Godunov”—all gorgeously mounted, all Russian. These shows received a lot of attention. One of the concerts even provoked a little riot. After the great Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin had finished singing an aria from “Prince Igor,” the audience refused to stop applauding, which meant that the next item on the program, Glinka’s “Kamarinskaya,” could not begin. Finally, the conductor, Arthur Nikisch, threw down his baton and walked offstage. At that point, as Diaghilev later recalled with pleasure (he loved a scandal), the shouting began: “A booming Russian bass rang out from the top of the theatre through the whole auditorium, ‘F*** your “Kamarinskaya”!’ Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, who was sitting next to me in the box, got up and said to his wife, ‘Well, Princess, I think it’s time for us to be going home.’ ”
Then, in 1909, Diaghilev brought to Paris a troupe of classical dancers which he later called the Ballets Russes. Why did he turn to ballet? There are many likely reasons, but one was simply the taste of the time, which was also his taste. Ballet had much in common with fin-de-siècle Symbolism. It, too, was somewhat realistic—its medium was the human body—and somewhat abstract. (The basic ballet steps point to nothing beyond themselves.) And because it was intermediate it could carry a heavy cargo of intense but unspecified emotion. Walter Nouvel, the World of Art’s music expert and a dear friend of Diaghilev’s, wrote that ballet was the natural ally of their group’s sensibility: “We must make it the exponent of our tender, refined, morbid feelings, sensations and aspirations. . . . That vague, inexpressible, elusive feeling, to which modern literature is trying to give voice, obeying the clamorous demands of the modern spirit, must find, and in all likelihood will find, its realization in ballet.” Nouvel’s “tender, refined, morbid feelings” are not far from what Diaghilev had written to his stepmother about Venice: “All that is real . . . is in constant contact with magic and mystery.” Not just Nouvel and Diaghilev but many people at this time craved strange and piercing emotions. The Ballets Russes provided them. The fact that the company achieved the Wagnerian ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the synthesis of the arts, made it seem more spiritual.
At the same time, it offered a little sex—never a bad idea. The premier example was the 1910 “Scheherazade,” in which a harem queen, Zobeida, and her colleagues enjoy an orgy with some black slaves and are then butchered by Zobeida’s husband, the shah. With a backdrop of throbbing color by Bakst, and with the company’s two most glamorous stars, Ida Rubinstein (Zobeida) and Nijinsky (the Golden Slave, her orgy partner), oozing around, this was something rather close to soft-core pornography. “Scheherazade,” Scheijen writes, “did what orientalist art had been doing since Delacroix and Ingres: rendering erotic tableaux socially acceptable by placing them in an Eastern context.”
Around the time of the First World War, Diaghilev made an enormous change in the company, abandoning the exoticism and eroticism, all Russian-inflected, that had made the name of the Ballets Russes, and converting his enterprise to international modernism: clean, dry, and angular. Now, in addition to Stravinsky, whom he had introduced to the West, with the 1910 “Firebird,” and who wrote most of the company’s finest scores, he started using composers—Poulenc, Auric, Milhaud—from the young Parisian group called Les Six. Even more strikingly, he hired modernists to design his sets and costumes: Matisse, Braque, Utrillo, Miró, Derain, de Chirico, Rouault, Juan Gris, Marie Laurencin, Max Ernst. Almost all these painters were tapped by Diaghilev only once, which suggests that he didn’t care that much about them. The situation was different, however, with one painter, Picasso, who designed six ballets for the company. Picasso changed the Ballets Russes. If only because of the attention commanded by his bold designs, he helped switch the troupe’s emphasis from dance to spectacle. In turn, he received much from Diaghilev, notably, the chance to work on a proscenium-wide scale. (The central panel of his curtain for “The Three-Cornered Hat,” of 1919, hangs today in the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, still looking witty and elegant.) Picasso also acquired a wife, Olga Khokhlova, from among the company’s dancers, and this surely confirmed his interest in ballet. Diaghilev wanted to work with vanguardists from his homeland as well. He got the Russian Constructivists Naum Gabo and Anton Pevsner to design the marvellous set, all plastic and metal, for the 1927 “La Chatte.” He was friends with Mayakovsky and Meyerhold, and tried to persuade Meyerhold to direct a ballet for him.
Like many people who get things done, Diaghilev was a hustler. Wooing the rich and the well-connected seems at times to have been his chief occupation as director of the troupe. When he was about to present “Firebird,” whose score he thought might be difficult for Parisians, he invited Robert Brussel, the highly influential music critic of Le Figaro, to Petersburg for his very own, private recital, and no doubt some excellent dinners as well.
Diaghilev’s way was eased by the fact that he was not overdelicate in moral matters. Those of his collaborators who could not follow him in his conversion to modernism were simply got rid of. The most notorious case was his dropping of Bakst, one of his oldest friends. More than anyone else in Diaghilev’s employ (including Nijinsky), Bakst, with his ravishing sets, made the prewar Ballets Russes a hit. After the war, however, Diaghilev decided that Bakst was passé. He had promised his friend the job of designing Stravinsky’s opera “Mavra” (1922). At the last minute, on some pretext, he replaced Bakst with a Russian modernist, Léopold Survage. This wasn’t the first time Diaghilev had done such a thing to Bakst. (Bakst was already referring to him, in letters, as “that fat spider.”) But after the “Mavra” episode the painter took Diaghilev to court. The two men never spoke again.
As regarded money, Diaghilev was even more untrustworthy. In contracts, he repeatedly promised to bring a star dancer whom he had yet to ask about the engagement, and he often paid old debts with money he had been advanced for a new ballet. Or he just put the old debts out of his mind. The dancers were paid little and late—sometimes not at all. Nijinsky was supported by Diaghilev, but he seldom received a salary. (He, too, sued.) Diaghilev always stayed in luxury hotels, and he walked out on the bill if he had to.
With sex, as with money, he was unafraid. Scheijen tells us that as a youth Diaghilev was often to be seen, with his friends, in St. Petersburg’s Tauride Garden, a favorite cruising spot, where he would pick up students and cadets. Scheijen points out, as others have in recent years, that upper-class Russians of this time did not especially disapprove of homosexuality, as long as the young man eventually married. But Diaghilev did not intend to marry, and in Europe (where he lived for the last two decades of his life) homosexuality was not looked upon kindly after the Oscar Wilde trials of 1895. Yet Diaghilev never concealed his way of life. In his first few years with Nijinsky, they shared a hotel room. They went to parties together; they were a couple. Scheijen spends the better part of a chapter on Diaghilev’s homosexuality, but he discusses the subject without coyness or salaciousness. Furthermore, this material is not just gossip. Diaghilev’s sexual preference affected the ballets. More than one of his male dancers—above all, his first male star, Nijinsky, and his last, Serge Lifar—appeared in costumes and choreography that made them seem androgynous, a trend that was to affect ballet and the ballet audience for many years, and which added to the purported strangeness of this art, its metaphysical ache. Scheijen does not make this point. He should have.
When Diaghilev died, in 1929, the company instantly folded, as was unavoidable—he more or less was the company—and also historically fortunate. Most of his ballets vanished, but his ballet masters didn’t, and they needed jobs. Soon, the major companies of England, France, and the United States, plus the hugely popular Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, among others, had Diaghilev’s former employees as their directors or house choreographers: Michel Fokine, Léonide Massine, Bronislava Nijinska, Anton Dolin, Serge Lifar, George Balanchine. So Diaghilev didn’t just jump-start Western ballet; he staffed it. He also proclaimed its mission. Sleek modern ballets, he insisted, were not a break with the classical tradition of the past. Modernism, too, could and should be classical. Look at the New York skyline, he said:
The skyscrapers have their own kind of classicism, i.e. our kind. Their lines, scale, proportions are the formula of our classical achievements, they are the true palaces of the modern age. It’s the same with choreography. . . . It too has to be well proportioned and harmonious, but that doesn’t mean propounding a compulsory “cult” of classicism in the creative work of the modern choreographer. Classicism is a means, not an end.
This has been the credo of the greatest ballet choreographers of the post-Diaghilev period.
Scheijen concludes his book on a note of quiet sorrow. Diaghilev, in his last years, may have tired of ballet. He began collecting old Russian books and letters. Scheijen thinks that this new passion of Diaghilev’s was partly an expression of nostalgia for his homeland, so beset at that time. Russia called to him, also, because his family was in trouble. His half brother Valentin had been arrested and sent to a prison camp. Through contacts, Diaghilev got the French Ambassador in Moscow to make inquiries. Presumably as a result, Valentin was not killed, though he was not released.
To add to Diaghilev’s difficulties, he was in love again, this time with a sixteen-year-old: Igor Markevitch, a piano prodigy. (Markevitch became a celebrated conductor.) With this boy, Diaghilev did what he had done with all his protégés: he educated him. In the summer of 1929, he took Markevitch on a trip through Austria and Germany, where they saw every opera they could find. This was a real act of devotion on Diaghilev’s part, for he was terribly sick. Years before, he had been told that he had diabetes, but he more or less ignored the doctors’ orders. Now, in addition, he had furunculosis, outbreaks of boils, which then became abscesses, creating infection and fever. Sometimes the boils would break open and leak through his clothes. It is doubtful that there was any physical intimacy between Diaghilev and Markevitch.
At the end of the summer, Markevitch returned to his family in Switzerland. Diaghilev went to his beloved Venice and, as usual, checked into a plush hotel. Ten days later, he died of blood poisoning. After a few weeks, the Soviets, apparently no longer worried about interference from the French Embassy, shot Valentin. ♦
In the tangled narrative of 20th century art, there is no more colourful or influential figure than Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev. The son of a bankrupt Russian vodka distiller, Diaghilev would reinvent himself as the greatest impresario of all time, conquering first Europe and then the world with the Ballets Russes. This was more than just a dance company; it was a creative movement which, from its inception, drew to itself the greatest musical, theatrical and artistic talents of the day.
The adventure began in 1909, when Diaghilev arrived in Paris with a troupe of dancers recruited on their summer break from the imperial ballet of St Petersburg. At 37 years of age, Diaghilev was a significant figure in the Russian cultural sphere, having launched a well-received art review, organised a major exhibition of historical portraits, and taken parties of opera singers to Paris.
The troupe took up residence at the city's Châtelet theatre. The pieces they danced were all new. They had been choreographed by an iconoclastic young dancer named Mikhail Fokine, and set among ravishing designs by Leon Bakst and other artists. But it was the season's star performers who really captivated Paris: Vaslav Nijinsky with his phenomenal virtuosity, Anna Pavlova with her ethereal delicacy, Tamara Karsavina with her refined, sensuous beauty. To the Parisians, Diaghilev's troupe combined the lyrical and the exotic in perfect measure, and the four-week season was a vast succès d'estime.
A year later, Diaghilev's second Paris season outdid the first. In Fokine's Carnaval Nijinsky was an enigmatic Harlequin opposite Karsavina's Columbine, and in the violent, sexually charged Scheherazade, which he danced, according to one witness, "with horrifying virtuosity", he was the exotic Golden Slave. But it was Fokine's third ballet of the season, L'oiseau de feu (The Firebird), which was perhaps the most significant, introducing as it did the music of Igor Stravinsky, a blazingly innovative young composer. Stravinsky would produce a second masterly score for the 1911 season when Fokine choreographed Petrushka, the sad, sinister tale of a puppet which provided yet another vehicle for the uncanny talents of Nijinsky. This was the year in which Diaghilev severed his links with St Petersburg, and the Ballets Russes became a permanent, itinerant European company, enjoying hugely successful seasons in London, Berlin and Monte Carlo as well as in Paris.
1912 would see Nijinsky's emergence as a choreographer, with one of the strangest, most haunting ballets of all time: L'après-midi d'un faune (Afternoon of a Faun). In this work, set to the dreamily impressionistic music of Claude Debussy, the male dancer enacts the role of a half-human, half-animal figure who happens on a party of nymphs. The piece courted controversy when Nijinsky appeared to shudder in orgasm over a scarf abandoned by one of the nymphs, but the outcry was far exceeded the following year at the premiere of Nijinsky's account of human sacrifice Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), set to Stravinsky's brutal, elemental score. The event turned into a riot, with different factions of Parisian society hurling insults at one another. The press, predictably, had a field day. "Exactly what I wanted," Diaghilev confided to Stravinsky in a restaurant afterwards.
As time passed, Diaghilev involved himself increasingly with the avant-garde, drawing into his orbit artists as diverse as Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, and the composer Erik Satie, who all collaborated on the 1917 ballet Parade. The result is a masterpiece of the bizarre, with Satie's score involving gunshots and clacking typewriter keys. Over the years André Derain, Juan Gris, Joan Miró, Marie Laurencin, Georges Braque, Georges Rouault, Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico would all design for the Ballets Russes, just as Stravinsky, Debussy, Richard Strauss, Manuel de Falla, Satie and Sergei Prokofiev would compose for them. Great careers would be launched, of which the most influential were those of George Balanchine, who would create New York City Ballet, Ninette de Valois, who would found the Royal Ballet, and Serge Lifar, who would oversee the resurrection of the Paris Opera Ballet.
The consummate achievement, however, was Diaghilev's. Over the two decades between that first Paris season and his death in 1929, he kept the venture afloat, sometimes on more than one continent at once, against almost impossible odds. The war of 1914-1918 saw the company scattered to the four corners of the globe, while infighting and professional rivalries all took their toll. From their first performance to Diaghilev's death, the Ballets Russes were in a state of acute financial crisis, and neither the company nor its director ever had a permanent home.
The strategies with which Diaghilev addressed these obstacles are astonishingly modern in their scope. He was a master of spin with a sophisticated understanding of the nature of celebrity and power, a consummate networker, and he knew exactly how to manipulate the press. In 1913, for example, when Faun opened in London and the critics failed to be shocked, Diaghilev ensured that the ballet was publicised by leaking a private exchange of telegrams between Nijinsky and Debussy to the Daily Mail.
Diaghilev was also homosexual, which by the early 20th century opened as many doors as it closed. In St Petersburg he had been a member of an artistically inclined gay clique who socialised together, swapped boyfriends and cruised for sex in the city's parks. Having come to terms with his sexuality at an early age, he made no attempt to pretend that his tastes lay elsewhere, and according to the composer Nicolas Nabokov, "he was perhaps the first grand homosexual who asserted himself and was accepted as such by society". By 1909 he had become the lover of the bisexual Nijinsky, who had been passed on to him by Prince Lvov, a gay St Petersburg dilettante. That Diaghilev didn't bother to conceal the affair infuriated socially conservative elements in the city, and in 1911 led to the withdrawal of the tsar's financial support of the Ballets Russes, and Diaghilev's permanent departure from Russia.
But by then he was well established in Europe. In Paris, several years earlier, he had cultivated the poet Robert de Montesquiou, who introduced him to an influential gay network which included Marcel Proust and the young Jean Cocteau. Montesquiou also introduced Diaghilev to his cousin, the Comtesse Greffulhe, who served as the model for the Duchesse de Guermantes in Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu (the Baron de Charlus was based on Montesquiou) and would provide him with invaluable access to the highest echelon of Parisian society.
These upper-crust contacts were activated by Diaghilev when the Ballet Russes first arrived in Paris, and did much to ensure the company's word-of-mouth success, as well as providing a useful source of funds when cash was short. In return for loans, admirers were granted social access to the dancers, who usually played along courteously enough, although Karsavina drew the line at encouraging the lesbian attentions of one Madame Ephrussi, the wife of a prominent backer.
Everywhere he went, Diaghilev was careful to cultivate those who might be of assistance. In London the artistically inclined Marchioness of Ripon helped him out of more than one tight spot, and when Nijinsky was interned in Hungary during the first world war, his release was engineered by diplomatic efforts involving Queen Alexandra of England, the dowager empress of Russia, the king of Spain, the Austrian emperor and the pope.
Perhaps the most valuable of Diaghilev's aristocratic angels was the Princesse Edmond de Polignac, who came to his rescue after he had bankrupted the company in 1921; not only did her serene highness place funds at his disposal, she also arranged, through family connections to the royal family of Monaco, that the Ballets Russes should have an annual residency at the Grand Théâtre de Monte Carlo.
Diaghilev's fascination with the privileged classes would lead to crisis. In 1911 a young woman from a prominent Hungarian family, Romola de Pulszky, saw Nijinsky dance in Budapest. De Pulszky fell in love with Nijinsky and managed to talk Diaghilev into allowing her to travel with the company and take ballet classes with them. Suspecting nothing, Diaghilev permitted the young Hungarian to accompany the dancers on their first visit to south America in 1913, while he remained behind in Europe. When he learned that, following a shipboard romance, his star dancer and de Pulszky had got married in Buenos Aires, he was incandescent with rage, and ordered that Nijinsky be sacked. Tragically, Nijinsky would soon succumb to schizophrenia, and spend the rest of his life in a series of institutions, watched over to the end by his wife.
Over the years, Diaghilev would take several of his leading men as lovers, and Nijinsky would be followed by Leonide Massine, Serge Lifar and Anton Dolin. Most seem to have approached the arrangement pragmatically, with Massine commenting that sex with Diaghilev "was like going to bed with a nice fat old lady". If the impresario suspected a repetition of the Nijinsky debacle, however, he could turn vindictive, as happened in 1920 when Massine took up with Vera Savina, one of the company's ballerinas. According to legend Diaghilev got Savina drunk, stripped her and threw her at Massine with the words: "Behold your beau idéal!" before firing him.
For Diaghilev this was more than a personal betrayal, it was an artistic one. And art, in the closed circle of the Ballets Russes (Stravinsky, who was not gay, once commented that Diaghilev was surrounded by "a kind of homosexual Swiss Guard"), was akin to religion. A religion which conferred power on its priesthood, and demanded loyalty and self-sacrifice from its servants. Diaghilev's physical relationships with his dancers, which to outsiders might have appeared scandalous, were thus given a metaphysical sense of purpose. The world of the Ballets Russes is brilliantly mirrored in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 1948 film The Red Shoes. Essentially a study of gay tyranny, the film shows how a Diaghilev-like figure named Lermontov (Anton Walbrook, himself openly gay) forces the ballerina Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) to choose between love and art, thus destroying her.
In fact, Diaghilev treated his ballerinas more or less benevolently. In 1911, when Nijinsky's sister Bronislava married another dancer, Diaghilev gave her an expensive sapphire ring, although he didn't fail to inform her that it was to "wed her to her art". He gave similar rings to Nijinsky and Massine, and in their case the message was clear: they were to remain faithful to him and to ballet. But then art, for the exiled Diaghilev, was a homeland. He had lost his religion early in life, he feared death, and he longed for the transcendent. Of all the wonders that the world had to offer, only art promised immortality.
Diaghilev died as he had lived, on credit. His last days were spent in Venice, and after his death, friends had to pay his hotel bill. He left behind him, however, a heritage so rich that we are only now beginning to get its measure. As Prokoviev presciently observed, Diaghilev is "a giant, undoubtedly the only one whose dimensions increase the more he recedes into the distance".