“I Don’t Work, I Don’t Do Anything, But I am Indispensable“, is how Russian art critic, patron, and ballet impresario, Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev, described himself. Sergei Diaghilev was born on 19 March, 1872, in Selishchi. His mother died soon after his birth. Diaghilev entered the St Petersburg Imperial University, and took private music lessons from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Diaghilev was introduced to a circle of art-loving friends who called themselves The Nevsky Pickwickians. They included Alexandre Benois, Walter Nouvel, Konstantin Somov, and Léon Bakst.
Seven months after graduation Diaghilev opened his first art exhibition. By 1897, he had run several art exhibitions introducing Russian and Finnish contemporary artists to the local public at the Stieglitz Academy with works of Mikhail Vrubel, Valentin Serov, and Isaac Levitan. He then ran an exhibition of young Russian painters in Germany. Though he had no private fortune, Diaghilev managed to gain support from Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich and later, Nicholas II.
- The ‘Mir iskusstva’ (World of Art) magazine was established in 1898, by Diaghilev with some of his Nevsky Pickwickian friends including Benois, Somov, Dmitry Filosofov, Bakst, and Eugene Lansere. As art-director, Diaghilev created its style and design, and wrote critical essays for the magazine.
- In 1899, Prince Serge Wolkonsky received directorship of all Imperial theatres. As editor-in-chief of the Annual of the Imperial Theatres, Diaghilev invited many of his fellow members of ‘Mir iskusstva’ (Benois, Bakst, Serov, and Lansere) to work on the magazine.
Diaghilev began to frequent the Imperial Ballet, which staged productions at various Imperial theatres. The ballerinas were amazed by ‘this dandy with a grey lock’ and soon nicknamed him ‘Chinchilla’. Once again, Diaghilev brought the members of ‘Mir iskusstva’ with him to the Imperial theatres, working on decorations and costumes. By 1900, Wolkonsky entrusted Diaghilev with the staging of Léo Delibes’ ballet Sylvia, a favourite of Benois. Diaghilev’s success saw him to the top of the art and society elite.
A 1906 exhibition inspired by Diaghilev presented Russian music to Paris, the world’s culture capital. The following year, he organised ‘Concerts historiques russes’ starring Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Alexander Glazunov, and Feodor Chaliapin. The tour was supported and sponsored by Diaghilev’s royal patrons Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich of Russia and Duchess Marie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin.
- In spring 1908 Diaghilev mounted a production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, starring Feodor Chaliapin, at the Paris Opéra, with sets designed by Bakst and Benois.
- In 1909, the first ballet Saison Russes took place and its success overwhelmed even the artists themselves. Diaghilev’s innovation was to synthetize dance, music and visual arts with set decorations and costumes into a single performance. The first season included Le Pavillon d’Armide, Polovtsian Dances, Nuit d’Egypte, Les Sylphides, and operas Boris Godunov, The Maid of Pskov and the first part of the Ruslan and Lyudmila. The ballets followed the operas and were performed after the second intermission. Leading dancers Vaslav Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova, immediately became world-known stars.
During these years, Diaghilev’s stagings included several compositions by the late Rimsky-Korsakov, such as the operas, The Maid of Pskov, May Night, and The Golden Cockerel. Diaghilev commissioned ballet music from composers such as Claude Debussy (Jeux, 1913), Maurice Ravel (Daphnis et Chloé, 1912), Erik Satie (Parade, 1917), Ottorino Respighi (La Boutique fantasque, 1919); Francis Poulenc (Les biches, 1923) and played a decisive role in the career of Sergei Prokofiev (Scythian Suite; Chout, and The Prodigal Son); and others. His choreographer Michel Fokine often adapted the music for ballet, and the artistic director for the Ballets Russes was Léon Bakst.
- Together they developed a more complicated form of ballet with show-elements intended to appeal to the general public, rather than solely for the aristocracy. The exotic appeal of the Ballets Russes had an effect on Fauvist painters and the nascent Art Deco style. Coco Chanel is said to have stated that “Diaghilev invented Russia for foreigners.”
Perhaps Diaghilev’s most notable composer-collaborator, however, was Igor Stravinsky. Diaghilev heard Stravinsky’s early orchestral works Fireworks and Scherzo fantastique, and was impressed. In 1910, he commissioned his first score from Stravinsky, The Firebird. Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913) followed shortly afterwards, and the two also worked together on Les noces (1923) and Pulcinella (1920) together with Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, who designed the costumes and the set.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Diaghilev stayed abroad. The new Soviet regime, condemned him in perpetuity as an especially insidious example of “bourgeois decadence”. Soviet art historians wrote him out of the picture for more than 60 years.
- The later years of the Ballets Russes were often considered too “intellectual”, too “stylish” and seldom had the unconditional success of the first few seasons, although younger choreographers like George Balanchine hit their stride with the Ballets Russes.
- Diaghilev’s life and the Ballets Russes were inextricably intertwined. His most famous lover was Nijinsky. However, out of all Diaghilev’s lovers, only Léonide Massine, who replaced Nijinsky, provided him with “so many moments of happiness or anguish”.
- Diaghilev dismissed Nijinsky summarily from the Ballets Russes after the dancer’s marriage in 1913. Nijinsky appeared again with the company, but the old relationship between the men was never re-established; moreover, Nijinsky’s magic as a dancer was much diminished by incipient mental illness. Their last meeting was after Nijinsky’s mind had given way, and he appeared not to recognise his former lover.
Throughout his life, Diaghilev was severely afraid of dying in water, and avoided traveling by boat. He died of diabetes, in Venice, on 19 August, 1929, and his tomb is on the nearby island of San Michele, in the Orthodox section, near to the grave of Igor Stravinsky.
- The film The Red Shoes is reported to be a thinly disguised dramatization of the Ballets Russes.
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