25 May, 2000
The Influential Impresario
Sergey Diaghilev literally
shocked the artistic world into a new experience. As the 20th
century took hold of Paris, Diaghilev took the art world by
storm and transformed classical ballet into a modern art form.
He took tutus and turned them into golden costumes and metamorphosed
sentimental swan songs into rhythms of passion.
Natalie Wheen takes a look at the impresario who brought a touch
of Russia to Europe.
Although born the son of a major general
and a noblewoman, Diaghilev came from nowhere. He was born in
Russia in 1872 and was first introduced to music in school piano
lessons, where he showed a gift for composition.
In 1890, whilst studying law at the University of St Petersburg,
he became friends with fellow students who shared an interest
in social sciences, music and the arts and by the time he graduated
in 1896 he had decided to follow a musical career. With no private
income and a reputation for being homosexual, establishing a
career was to be an uphill struggle, however Diaghilev quickly
realised that he could use his charm to his advantage.
From very early on he took on the role of an artistic editor.
In 1899 he became editor in chief of a monthly magazine entitled
Mir Iskusstva (World Of Art). By 1905 he was organising
unprecedented exhibitions of Russian art treasures in St Petersburg.
Diaghilev Goes To Paris
The turning point in his career came in 1906
when he left Russia for Paris. Author John Drummond, explains
why Diaghilev's move to Paris was so successful:
'Diaghilev was terribly lucky in the talent that surrounded
him. There was a young choreographer called Michel Fokine who
was the key to his success. He choreographed all of those successful
ballets that we know like The Firebird. Fokine had been influenced
by Isadora Duncan and he had gone for a style of classical dance
that was still formally classical dance, but much more lyrical.
Diaghilev picked that up and teamed it with the kind of painters
and designers that he had worked with in his exhibitions. People
like Alexander Benois, who was rather traditional. Most excitingly
he worked with the great Léon Bakst, who was a brilliant artist
who understood colour.'
At this time ballet had fallen from fashion in Paris and had
become something of a choreographed cliché, with pale pink point
shoes and white net tutus. Diaghilev used bold set designs combined
with golden theatrical costumes, inspired by traditional costumes,
and mixed them with action dances and musical compositions which
transformed old art forms into musical fantasies. Before long
The Ballets Russes was dazzling Paris audiences and had
become something of a cult, inspiring couture and influencing
Rite Of Spring
Diaghilev reached the height of his popularity early in his
career. He produced, perhaps,his best known works in quick succession
- The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911) and The
Rite Of Spring (1913). In each of the ballets he commissioned
composers who developed music at an exceptional rate, whether
it be new or whether an adaptation of an existing score.
As a protégé of the great Russian composer Rimsky Korsakov,
Igor Stravinsky was at that time relatively unknown. Working
closely with Diaghilev, Stravinsky transformed a piano concerto
into a mimed ballet In The Firebird and in The Rite
Of Spring he produced an explosive orchestral score.
So dissonant was the sound that when The Rite Of Spring
was first performed in a Paris theatre, the fashionable audience
rioted. The dancers were unable to hear the orchestra over the
sounds of screams and were encouraged to continue the performance
by the choreographer, Vaslav Nijinsky, who stood on a chair
in the wings and mimed the rhythm.
transformed old art forms
into musical fantasies'
Diaghilev The Man
Diaghilev had a strong sense of public relations and was well
aware that scandal fuelled the popularity fire. He was undoubtedly
a forceful personality and stories of his affairs with colleagues
(their contracts rarely outlasting their love affairs) were
In the 1960s Drummond spoke to many that had actually known
'He was very authoritarian, he knew exactly what he wanted and
there was no arguing. But he was also tremendously charming
and could therefore get his way by charm. The company were mostly
rather frightened of him, but the accounts of his social life
showed him to be someone who was enormously amusing and intelligent
because that was how he raised the money. He had no subventions,
there was no arts council and no government grants, the money
all came form the box office or from rich friends. He would
go out to dinner night after night with wealthy Parisians, Americans
or Brits and get money out of them.'
Diaghilev was meticulous in detail. He attended every performance
and was quick to notice if a mistake was made. From his 1960
research Drummond was told how:
'If dancers made one small mistake the following morning
they would get a note. But he also rewarded them. He lent on
them hard, but if they did well he would reward them. He had
a sort of family feel for those who were with him for a long
period, provided he believed in the talent. If he thought people
weren't working hard enough then they were out.'
As fashions changed, so did Diaghilev's productions. From the
exotic, primitive idea of Russia in the first season, to the
trend for all things Greek and into modernism, he was always
at the cutting edge of the current trend. Diaghilev was not
just a trend-setter but an impresario who paid tribute to tradition,
whilst being ahead of his time.
of Diaghilev's dancers became superstars. The Russian
women in particular often seemed a rare breed to
the Parisian audiences.
One such dancer was Ida Rubenstein. She enhanced
her image by keeping a pet black tiger cub and claimed
to drink champagne from a Madonna lilies.
1912 L'Apres-midi d'un Faune premiered. The
press berated the performance, led by Le Figaro's
claim that it demonstrated "bestial eroticism".