Sergei Diaghilev: ballet, beauty and the beast

In August 21 1929 a funeral barge set off from the Grand Hotel on the Lido for the little island of San Michele, where the city of Venice has buried its dead since the beginning of the 19th century. The body in the barge, bound for the Greek Orthodox section of the cemetery, was that of Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev, founder and leader of the Ballets Russes and one of the most influential pioneers of modern art in the 20th century.

In the course of a 23-year career, Diaghilev had made his mark in Europe and the Americas, and in this relatively short space of time he transformed the world of dance, theatre, music and the visual arts as no one had ever done before, or since. From 1896 he was active in Russia as a critic, exhibition organiser, publisher and art historian. Through his journal Mir iskusstva and exhibitions, he brought Russian art out of years of stagnation, championed international symbolism, art nouveau, the Arts and Crafts movement and Russian neonationalism, and revived forgotten aspects of Russia’s artistic past.

He set up a privately financed ballet troupe that performed in the most famous venues in Europe and the US, and for nearly a quarter of a century it would be the world’s leading dance company. Its early productions fed the craze for Slavic and oriental exoticism, shooting the Ballets Russes to instant fame. Shortly before the First World War, Diaghilev reinvented his company as a laboratory and platform for the avant-garde, working with artists such as Picasso, Cocteau, Derain, Braque and Matisse, as well as Russian modernists such as Larionov, Goncharova and Naum Gabo.

His ventures, which often met with strong resistance from those closest to him, entailed huge personal and financial risks. Diaghilev’s company did more for the prestige and scope of the European avant-garde than any other single entity. Diaghilev achieved all this with an improvised organisation that had no official headquarters for its first 10 years and, even more incredibly, no regular funding. He himself had no home and almost no possessions.

He roamed the world with his manservant and a couple of suitcases, staying at expensive hotels (which he sometimes left without paying the bill).

Financial crises were the leitmotif of his life. He often teetered on the brink of ruin, and at least once he actually had to flee his creditors. Yet at the same time he was the feted guest of kings, noblemen and captains of industry.

Diaghilev spent his youth in Perm, at the foot of the northern Urals, where his family had their roots. No one who knew him failed to say how Russian he was and how attached he was to his homeland, from which he was virtually exiled by the First World War. Despite this, his relationship with the Russian establishment was a troubled one. The courtiers of Tsar Nicholas II frequently tried to frustrate and sabotage Diaghilev’s success in Western Europe. By the time of the Soviet regime, Diaghilev was regarded as a has-been and ultimately as an enemy of the state. Yet in Europe and the US his death was front-page news, and in the wake of his passing the papers were full of reminiscences and necrologies.

In his own country his death merited only a solitary mention: a brief obituary on page 15 of the Red Panorama, a journal of art and literature.

Diaghilev’s dedication to the arts was complete; moderation was out of the question. Without total commitment there could be no art; indeed, life itself would be incomplete. As far as he was concerned, life was work, interspersed with brief intervals of rest. He squeezed every last drop out of life, living in the eye of a whirlwind of joy and sorrow, conflict and reconciliation, a personal cloud of turbulence that left those around him breathless.

If we look beyond the conflicts, the legendary charm, the dictatorial tendencies, the unparalleled eye for talent, the cunning and deceitfulness, the self-assurance and prophetic gifts, we see a man driven by an overpowering need to explore the mystery of human creativity in its highest form.

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