A Russian who inspired artists, musicians, and dancers, Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929) took the ballet to new heights of public enjoyment.
And what, dear sir, do you do in the company?" asked King Alfonso of Spain upon meeting Sergei Diaghilev, famed impresario of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. "You don't conduct the orchestra or play an instrument. You don't design the mise en scene, and you don't dance. What do you do?" Ever charming and self-assured, Diaghilev replied, "Your Majesty, I am like you. I do no work. I do nothing, but I am indispensible."
Diaghilev's response was more than modest. He devoted his lifetime to promoting the arts—to a reverence for quality in the old and the new in music, painting, and the dance, and, eventually, to a merging of the three arts in the theatre form known as ballet.
Diaghilev was born in 1872 into an aristocratic, wealthy family on a country estate in Perm, a province of Russia. Serious conversations about poetry and literature, chamber music, and informal opera soirees were normal family activities. His studies from an early age included music and music theory. At home and at school his role as 'Young Master' was accepted as appropriate. There were those then, and later, who thought he was arrogant, but it was generally recognized that he possessed superior qualities.
His mother died at childbirth, but he was cared for and disciplined by a beloved step-mother. Throughout his life he remembered her admonition that he must never say "I cannot." Her message was, "When one wants to, one always can." He found the paths that let him do what he wanted to do and he was pleased when viewers were thrilled by his unconventional perceptions.
Diaghilev's life divides into three time units. The first and second, 18 years each, were secure preparations for the 21 years of high drama of the third.
Career Change in Second Phase
In Perm he was effectively nurtured until he was sent off to be with distinguished relatives while studying law in St. Petersburg. In that city (Peter the Great's "window to the west") the country boy was citified. He learned much, including an awareness of the richness of Russian early painting and architecture.
Diaghilev soon discovered that he had little interest in the law, certainly far less than his love for music which remained throughout his life. Through his cousin he now became a member of a circle of writers, musicians, and painters that included Alexandre Benois and Leon Baskt. These two remained important colleagues for many years. It was already clear that Diaghilev's taste in art as well as music was exquisite, and that he had a flair for discovering talent, and a talent for discerning its possibilities. He began to write essays about artists and art trends, and soon found himself, along with Benois and Baskt, opposed to existing art criticism. Neither the conservative academics nor the realism of the political left was acceptable to the three friends, and they were vehement in their objections. Non-political, they spoke for the new voice of art as the expression of the individual. From their fervor there came to life a new magazine titled Mir Isskustva (World of Art), which for five turbulent years shocked the art world.
One result was that outspoken Diaghilev was invited to join the Maryinsky Theatre, jewel of the Russian imperial theatres, to be in charge of "special missions." His first assignment was to edit the year book of the imperial theatres. He did it well and was then assigned the supervision of an opera, and after that a ballet. But his impatience and arrogance in dealing with the bureaucracy resulted in trouble, and in 1911 he left. It was at the Maryinsky that he became acquainted with Vaslav Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova, Michel Fokine, and other members of the Imperial Ballet and further developed an interest in the ballet.
Pursuing his interest in Russian art he travelled extensively through the country to collect and make possible exhibits of arts of the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1905 he was responsible for a major St. Petersburg exhibit titled Russian Historical Portraits. He took the exhibit to Paris in 1907, the first export of Russian art. From that beginning in Paris there developed the opera and ballet career that was to make the name of Diaghilev a shining light in the Western world.
Fame in His Third Phase
In 1908 Paris was receptive to new ideas. There Diaghilev presented Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunoff, with Maryinsky basso Feodor Chaliapin in the title role. The impact was ecstatic and resulted in an invitation to bring a troupe of Russian dancers to Paris. The result made history.
On October 19, 1909, the Ballets Russes presented five ballets, four of them choreographed by Fokine, who had already broken with the classical style and dared to invent dance movement appropriate to the ballet's subject. The ladies were not forever dainty, and the male dancers revealed an unprecedented energy and virtuosity. Nijinsky, Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Adolph Bolm, Mikhail Mordkin, and Ida Rubenstein were among the dancers. Fokine later wrote about opening night: " … the audience rushed and actually tore off the orchestra rail in the Chatelet Theatre. The success was absolutely unbelievable." Karsavina, in her book of recollections, Theatre Street, wrote "The atmosphere enveloping the Russian season had a subtle, light, gay intoxication. Something akin to a miracle happened every night—the stage and audience trembled in a unison of emotion."
In 1910 the ballet company returned to Paris, again on leave from the Maryinsky. But in 1911 Diaghilev decided he would set up a full-time, permanent company. With Baskt and Benois again as colleagues, he established the first privately supported company of people willing to give up pension, honors, and benefits to join Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. The company was already famous. It was soon to be augmented by other brilliant talents, men and women from countries other than Russia, attracted to collaborate in daring new ventures.
In the years between 1911 and Diaghilev's death in 1929 the company toured over and over again throughout Europe, South America, the United States. In England it inspired the beginnings of The Royal Ballet. In Boston a young Lincoln Kirstein, determined to be like Diaghilev, brought George Balanchine across the Atlantic to establish the School of American Ballet and the New York City Ballet. New Englander Lucia Chase, a ballet student of Mordkin (who had been Pavlova's concert partner as well a member of Ballets Russes), was encouraged by him to start Ballet Theatre. And many of today's ballet teachers in the United States trace their pedagogical heritage to the Russians who stayed behind to open up dance studios.
The long list of collaborators in Diaghilev's Ballets Russes included designers Bakst, Benois, and famous names from the world of art—Braque, Chagall, Cocteau, de Cherico, Derain, Laurencin, Matisse, Picasso (who designed posters, sets, and costumes and also married a company ballerina), Roerich and Utrillo. Among those who composed music for ballets were Debussy, de Falla, Milhaud, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Ravel, Satie, and Stravinsky.
In addition to Pavlova and Nijinsky, some of the company's famed dancers were Bolm, Dubrovska, Danilova, Dolin, Karsavina, Lifar, Lopokova, Markova, Mordkin, Sokolova, Spessivtzeva, Vilzak, Vladimirof, and Woizikovsky. While many of the dancers were not Russian-born, all of the choreographers were. Choreographers, and some of their ballets, were Fokine: Les Sylphides, Spectre de la Rose, Petrouchka, Firebird, and Scheherazade; Nijinsky: Afternoon of a Faun, Jeux, and Sacre du Printemps; Massine: Parade, Boutique Fantasique, and Le Tricorne; Nijinska: Les Noces and Les Biches; Balanchine: Apollo and Prodigal Son. While this is an incomplete list, it represents some of the Diaghilev ballets performed in company repertoires today, a remarkable reminder of Diaghilev "classics."
Diaghilev died of diabetes in his beloved Venice on August 19, 1929. He was the catalyst who helped open the door for the arts of the 20th century.
Further Reading on Sergei Diaghilev
Richard Buckle's Diaghilev is the most detailed of numerous biographies. In it are six pages, single spaced, of sources—books, articles, and documents relating to the life and work of the Russian impressario who created the Diaghilev Era. Of special interest is the first biography, Diaghileff, His Artistic and Private Life, by Arnold Haskell (1935; paperback, 1978); and Buckle's In Search of Diaghilev (London, 1958, New York, 1975).
Additional Biography Sources
Buckle, Richard, Diaghilev, New York: Atheneum, 1984, 1979.
Buckle, Richard, In the wake of Diaghilev, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1983, 1982.
Garafola, Lynn, Diaghilev's Ballets russes, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Diaghileff, his artistic and private life, New York: Da Capo Press, 1978, c1935.