The Ephemeral Art

How a Russian impresario revolutionized dance

Ballets Russes rehearsal in New York City, 1916 (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)
Ballets Russes rehearsal in New York City, 1916 (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

Diaghilev’s Empire: How the Ballets Russes Enthralled the World by Rupert Christiansen; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 384 pp., $35

“Your Majesty,” Sergei Diaghilev told King Alfonso of Spain at a reception in Madrid in 1916, “I am like you. I don’t work, I do nothing. But I am indispensable.” In Diaghilev’s Empire: How the Ballets Russes Enthralled the World, Rupert Christiansen, dance critic of The Spectator, vividly highlights how the Russian impresario Diaghilev was both indispensable and undeterrable as he pursued his dream of showcasing Russian art and music and commissioning groundbreaking collaborations.

The Ballets Russes, which Diaghilev founded in 1909, never actually performed in Russia. Many artists fled the country during the Bolshevik Revolution, after which a homesick Diaghilev was in permanent exile in Europe. Christiansen’s book, which commemorates the 150th anniversary of Diaghilev’s birth, also happens to coincide with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and withdrawal from the international cultural stage. Prominent Russian artists such as the soprano Anna Netrebko and the conductor Valery Gergiev have themselves been exiled from many Western theaters for their refusal to condemn Vladimir Putin, while Russian touring ensembles have seen concerts canceled. Prominent Ukrainian dancer Artem Datsyshyn was killed in the fighting, and Russian performers, including the Bolshoi ballerina Olga Smirnova, have emigrated.

Christiansen, of course, could never have predicted any of this when he began work on the book, which outlines the history of ballet in Russia and the conservatism that initially propelled Diaghilev abroad. Like opera, ballet had its origins in French and Italian Renaissance court culture but declined in 19th-century Europe, where it had “neither intellectual content nor aesthetic dignity” and served primarily to entertain lecherous old men. In Russia, meanwhile, the Mariinsky and Bolshoi ballets were controlled by the tsar. Although less gimmicky than its Western counterpart, the art form, writes Christiansen, “was preserved in aspic and constrained by protocol.” When Diaghilev tried to stage a bold new production of Léo Delibes’s Sylvia in St. Petersburg, he ran afoul of the establishment, then dominated by the Frenchman Marius Petipa.

Diaghilev grew up in a wealthy, close-knit family of vodka distillers in the western Russian town of Perm, where his parents hosted regular musical soirees. He was well educated, and during his youth his stepmother encouraged a can-do attitude that later served him well as an impresario. An avid opera and painting aficionado, he had hoped to become a composer but gave up when Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov bluntly dismissed his musical ambitions. Instead, Diaghilev studied law in St. Petersburg, where he edited an arts journal and curated exhibitions. He often felt stymied by the Russian art world’s conservatism.

An avid opera aficionado, Diaghilev had hoped to become a composer but gave up when Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov bluntly dismissed his musical ambitions.

Diaghilev, who spoke good French, looked to Europe to realize his ambitions. He curated a successful exhibition of Russian art in Paris in 1906 and, the following year, organized a series of orchestral concerts featuring music by Russian composers and the superb Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin. In 1908, Diaghilev staged a highly successful production of Modest Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov in Paris. Ballet wasn’t one of his primary passions, but he sensed an opportunity and used his deep knowledge of both the music and art worlds to commission collaborations with Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Claude Debussy, Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Jean Cocteau, Max Ernst, and Coco Chanel. These remarkable artistic partnerships enabled Diaghilev (a Wagnerian) to achieve the German composer’s philosophy of the Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”).

Diaghilev, who had admired the free-flowing movements of the barefoot American dancer Isadora Duncan, was eager to move beyond pretty tutus and sensed that Parisians were aesthetically adventurous. Michel Fokine’s tantalizingly “primitive” choreography for Alexander Borodin’s Polovtsian dances was a hit. Audiences also gravitated to other works of Russian folklore choreographed by Fokine, including Stravinsky’s Firebird and Petrushka. Léon Bakst’s lavish sets and costumes for Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade dazzled Parisian audiences.

It was all a buildup for Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, its dissonant, polyrhythmic score flummoxing the dancers during chaotic rehearsals. Diaghilev, always a savvy PR man, invited A-listers to the opening night and put out a press release declaiming “truly a new sensation which will undoubtedly provoke heated discussion.” At the riotous premiere in 1913, critics derided the music’s dissonance and what they saw as ugly, inelegant choreography, but subsequent performances in Paris and London took place without incident.

Another of Diaghilev’s aims in Paris was to shift the spotlight from female to male dancers—always prominent in Russia, unlike in Western Europe. He recruited the handsome, dark-eyed Vaslav Nijinsky, a sullen and unsociable man with immense talent who, in 1912, choreographed Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun and scandalized Parisians with a blush-inducing, highly suggestive dance. Diaghilev loved and actively courted scandal and was thrilled when Nijinsky was fired from the Mariinsky after refusing to wear shorts over his tights and subsequently shocking the tsar’s mother with his bulges. According to one of Nijinsky’s friends, “There may be other dancers who actually jumped higher, but … Nijinsky came nearer the stars and made you forget the earth altogether.”

Diaghilev was openly homosexual and had endless affairs with his young male dancers, some of whom were heterosexual. The dancer Léonide Massine compared his own sexual encounters with Diaghilev to embracing “a nice fat old lady.” Diaghilev, extremely competitive and often vengeful, was outraged when Nijinsky and Massine dared to marry women. He fired them both. Nijinksy had a breakdown and was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1919. Diaghilev also had a keen eye for female talent, promoting Tamara Karsavina, Anna Pavlova, and Alicia Markova, among others.

A terrible businessman, Diaghilev mixed his personal finances with the company’s. The Ballets Russes was always in dire financial straits, often bailed out by superrich patrons. After Diaghilev died in Venice in 1929 from complications of diabetes (following a final fling with a 16-year-old émigré composer), the company’s sets and costumes were sold to an American impresario to reduce its enormous debts.

Before the Great War, the Ballets Russes had few competitors, and after Diaghilev’s death, pundits declared that ballet itself would die without its energetic impresario. Yet the Ballets Russes was resurrected as two companies with confusingly similar names. Christiansen briefly outlines the post-Diaghilev era, including the “baby ballerinas” promoted by George Balanchine (who emerged as one of the Ballets Russes’s few level-headed characters), Sadler’s Wells Ballet (now the Royal Ballet), and Balanchine’s School of American Ballet in New York. He also addresses the representation of ballet in popular culture, as depicted in such works as Noel Streatfeild’s 1936 book, Ballet Shoes, and Disney’s cartoon Fantasia (1940).

Opera, classical music, and ballet have long been deemed to be on their deathbeds. As early as 1864, Charles Dickens declared that “ballet is dead and gone.” Ballet didn’t die, of course, but as Christiansen writes, it is certainly ephemeral: “Carved through the air, great dancing evanesces like perfume. It has a short uncertain life once its progenitors have passed on: very little choreography has the eternal force of poetry or painting.” But in his gripping account of Diaghilev’s life and art, Christiansen has given something that will last.

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Vivien Schweitzer, a frequent contributor to The Economist and The New York Times, is a pianist and the author of A Mad Love: An Introduction to Opera.


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