The big OED has “Impresario: from Italian impresa;—undertaking, attempt, device. The undertaker of any business, contractor, etc. One who organises public entertainments, especially the manager of an operatic or concert company.” “Impresario” is the tag attached to Sergei Pavlovitch Diaghilev (1872-1929).
The Oxford definition ignores the present interest in ballet for which he was largely responsible. Diaghilev indeed organized seminal performances of Russian, French, and Italian opera in addition to new orchestral music, but his fame depends on service to the classic academic dance. However, his function and its character surpassed the operations of most impresarios, our most notorious of whom in the United States was Sol Hurok. He sold dance like delicatessen, rented art from its prime movers and made money. Diaghilev was an instigator.
After thirty years of back and heart-breaking persistence, he died with no fixed abode, one clean well-patched dinner-jacket and a collection of rare old Russian books. The money he spent his adult life in begging for was used only to create and maintain a repertory of unprecedented collaborations of music, dance, and painting. He paid his performers neither promptly nor well; working with or for him was a reward past cash. Diaghilev was not a purveyor of entertainment. He was a prompter, strategist, and tactician of virtuoso performance, a discriminating stubborn triple agent whose effect is felt strongly wherever ballet is seen today.
When Balanchine, his final ballet master (hired at twenty), is asked, “What was Diaghilev like?” his reply may seem odd. No word about ballet, music, art. Instead he is remembered as a kind of Potemkin or Witte, a personage with the capacity of prime minister or hereditary prince. Naturally this recollection is colored by the fact that Balanchine entered the Imperial Academy as a child, passed early years under the Soviets, and then was enlisted by Diaghilev who was serving as minister of culture for Monaco. It was almost like coming home. Diaghilev’s own apprenticeship was within the bureaucracy of the Imperial theaters. Youthful high spirits and efficiency caused a setback which might have destroyed a frailer temperament. He derived from minor provincial aristocracy; it has been proposed, without much conviction, that the fact his paternal fortune derived from his grandfather’s license to make vodka triggered a compensatory ambition. His mother, however, descended from an ancient line; he was not above imagining he bore remote kinship and resemblance to Peter the Great.
Diaghilev’s courage and flexibility were always superior to small pretensions or simple ambition. On the eve of his first great French season, when grand-ducal support was abruptly withdrawn, he shouldered apparent bankruptcy with ingenious indifference. He quarreled on principle with his trusty collaborators. He orchestrated betrayals and managed reconciliations as if schooled by Machiavelli. In silence, before insulin, he endured diabetes and died at fifty-seven. The popular residual portrait, derived from photographs in the last years of his life, presents him as a bulky person in late middle age; one forgets he met Nijinsky when …