Sergei Diaghilev: genius of modern ballet

A part of Leon Baksts Portrait of Sergei Diaghilev with his nanny, 1906, which is housed in the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg

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.

 Read more in The Observer


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