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The Instigator

Diaghilev

by Richard Buckle
Atheneum, 616 pp., $22.50

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 he was thirty-six. Magician or monster, as you will, but what did he do? He neither danced, designed, composed, nor trained dancers. Sometimes, when asked, he said he arranged the stage lighting. Alfonso of Spain questioned him, and Diaghilev answered: “Like you, sire, I am indispensable.”

And this, in 600 relentless pages, Richard Buckle demonstrates. The author of the best life of Nijinsky, the organizer of brilliantly evocative exhibitions of Diaghilev (and also of Shakespeare), Buckle has certainly written an indispensable book. Surely no other similar biography will ever be required. In it we learn absolutely everything Diaghilev did in public, where and when. There is little intrusion of intimate detail, even less of personal motivation. Mr. Buckle confesses to an addiction for dates and admits cutting 70,000 words from his original manuscript. Perhaps such savagery eliminated definition of the social and historical perspective which places an individual in the frame of his epoch. Specific calendars propose historical immediacy; they also tend to blur. It would be far harder to write a book of 300 pages about Diaghilev than one of 600. It would also take twice as long. Having enjoyed Mr. Buckle’s book, we come to realize how indispensable Diaghilev was in everything he did. But who, essentially, he was rather eludes us.

Perhaps it is assumed we know enough about Parisian society and its contrast with late-Edwardian London. Buckle invokes great names. Few are invested with much personality; his pages on Petersburg, because the material is less familiar, are more vivid. One senses the extraordinary capriciousness, irresponsibility, and cruelty of an imperial household—how access to the Grand Dukes was indeed open to a young gentleman from Perm, who could as easily be crushed under the mindless whim of a silly ballerina.

What made Diaghilev tick? What was the genetic source which made him hunt out the dying Beardsley in Dieppe to buy a drawing, or give lunch to Oscar Wilde, out of jail, or ask Chekhov to edit the literary section of his distinguished review? He had barely come of age. His self-assurance amounted to genius. He seemed ordained to touch the main forces of progressive lyric activity in his time. His security was contagious and infectious; his will imposed itself, yet, in an important sense, was quite selfless. It was his artists he promoted; his passion was for their performance, not for his own person.

A word might be said about Diaghilev’s status as an “amateur,” a term with overtones of dilettante. He had a trained, but as he said, “a powerful and ugly voice,” schooled by a well-known baritone. He studied counterpoint and harmony with Rimsky-korsakov, but found he had no real talent. He looked long and hard at old and new painting. Eyes and ears were sharp; attention made them sharper. He judged the work of musicians and painters on their own terms. Can one imagine any past or present concert manager presuming to alter the orchestration of any first-rate contemporary composer, or reject as unsatisfactory the scenic models of Bakst or Picasso? Diaghilev did.

It is true he had guides, but he knew whom to choose. Among the most influential was Cocteau, who very early attached himself to the Ballets Russes and Nijinsky. A decade later, after the First World War, in Cock and Harlequin, Cocteau established the policy of revolution by repudiation, which marked Diaghilev’s espousal of modernism. The relics of fin de siècle, the pseudo-Oriental, the folkloristic, the last vestiges of the picturesque which saturated Diaghilev’s first repertory would be abandoned for Cocteau’s “rehabilitation of the commonplace,” which in painting was signed by the Cubist’s pipe and newspaper, in music by Satie’s musiquette. The ordinary transformed became Diaghilev’s program, which seemed chaos and anarchy to White Russian balletomanes who became leading Paris dance critics. And this violent shift of policy from the nostalgic to the contemporary had political promptings.

It is hard to say whether Diaghilev’s denial of repetition and habit was forced on him by exterior circumstance, or whether he embraced change and its risks for their own sake. Separated by the Central Powers from the Imperial ballet schools after 1914, he recruited English and Irish dancers while russifying their names. With his troupe deprived of former stars, his scale was diminished from the spectacular to the domestic. Lacking forces for grand spectacle, with a need for constant touring, he concocted the novel resource of the painterly backdrop. Picasso, Matisse, Derain, Juan Gris, Braque, Max Ernst, Rouault, the entire spectrum of the School of Paris offered him watercolor block-size sketches, often very cursory, which he had blown up to opera-house scale. These cloths, virtual oneman shows, starred his seasons from 1917 through 1929, with an importance nearly equal to his dancers and musicians. It was Diaghilev as much as the commercial dealers who promoted the golden age of modern art. Parallel to this was his collaboration, both financial and artistic, with Coco Chanel, the extraordinary generous and anonymous queen of haute couture. Fashion in painting, and to some degree sculpture, and in women’s dress was defined by Diaghilev’s ballets which became determinedly international by the early Twenties.

While he enjoyed popular success in many of his twenty seasons, it is often forgotten he also endured memorable failures. Le Sacre du Printemps, milestone of the new century, was presented only eight times in Nijinsky’s original version. The Sleeping Beauty, his magnificent homage to Tchaikovsky and Petipa, all but finished him, yet it would serve, decades later, as the keystone of the Royal Ballet and other companies with traditional coloration. A number of his later works were consciously trivial, compounded of cynicism, bad luck, feeble forces, and the cruelty of circumstance.

Certainly he was a hard master; one is reminded of those Byzantine emperors whose Realpolitik was balanced by their sense of the divine; who blinded their successful generals. Diaghilev proscribed Nijinsky out of hand on his marriage. Peace was made when Otto Kahn demanded the dancer head the first American tour. Massine was dismissed forthwith when he had the effrontery to take a girlfriend. With Stravinsky he quarreled bitterly when, needing money, Stravinsky worked for Ida Rubinstein, whom indeed Diaghilev had first displayed. He could string along Gershwin, Cole Porter, and John Alden Carpenter with vague proposals for an “American” ballet. He didn’t think the Americans orchestrated well, so the use of a jazz idiom was consigned to Auric, Poulenc, and Dukelsky. He could be sly if it helped survival; the record of his treaties with a famous press lord is not the prettiest episode in Mr. Buckle’s honest history. Diaghilev suffered and endured, but he converted suffering to use; his few chronicled complaints indicate his humanity, scope, and the extremes of action on which he operated.

He was continually propelled by a sequence of arresting young men, all either gifted or capable; all of whom, though unrelated to each other, bore a remarkable familial likeness. Slim, trim, compact, reticent but dynamic, with high cheekbones and much personal grace—from Nijinsky through Massine, Kochno, Lifar, and Markevitch, these embodied for him an ideal of unlimited virile possibility. He specialized in the risks of opportunity. His sponsorship did them only good, as long as they let him be their keeper. When they became restive under his possessiveness, he would accept their natural self-protection as ingratitude or treason. However, after a logical lapse, and inevitable scandals with their successors, each would be recalled for work that was not diminished by separation. Reasons of state, of survival, of art superseded claims of the self. A classic personal and political drama was played out with his first great protégé. He said to Nijinsky, aged twenty-one, something like: “I love you so much, I’ll give you anything. What do you want?” The answer was: “I want to be free.” In his “September 1, 1939,” Auden set it in stone:

What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

Before Alexander II emancipated the serfs, liberal noblemen sent promising youths abroad to be trained as painters and performers. Diaghilev’s attitude toward his young men held a residue of this concern. These might seem to be held as indentured servants but their bondage was not by law but by love, at least at the start. Nor was it money; finally, it was Nijinsky’s wife, not himself, who sued for back wages. His lovers in their exalted connection would endure virtual ostracism by the company. This hardly applied to ballerinas who found protectors outside it. And it must be remembered that Diaghilev’s most constant consolers and supporters were what amounted to be a committee of intelligent, fashionable women, who took him for what he was, extending their affection to his favorites. Also, little or none of his favoritism was capricious; if youth lacked demonstrable talent for composition at least there was a sufficiency for stardom. Diaghilev waved a dowser’s wand for star-quality.

Buckle divides Diaghilev’s adult career into three blocks corresponding to the tenure of his four principal choreographers. In 1909, when the combined forces of the Russian lyric theaters were shown in Paris, the dance-designs of Mikhail Fokine, almost as much as dancing, astonished the French. The ballet of the Opéra had long been a proverbial brothel for the Jockey Club. Male dancers were mere supports for girls on point; important male roles were danced by ballerinas en travesti. Fokine’s synthetic Central Asian barbarism in Prince Igor shocked, amazed, and delighted an audience habituated to prettiness and triviality, and pointed the way to Stravinsky’s and Nijinsky’s Sacre du Printemps four years later. Fokine was prone to look back, a kind of deluxe illustrator or master of tableau-vivants—to Egypt, Hellenistic Greece, Persia, India, Versailles, or the Biedermeier. In his long career in Europe and America, he would never take a pretext from the present, and his work, after he left Diaghilev in 1912, never equaled his earlier invention. But Buckle is quite wrong in attributing to Isadora Duncan a preponderant influence on him. He may have been impressed by the corsetless body and bare limbs of the girl from California, the plastic ease of her expressive arms, and her use of the floor as a base for reclining movement. However, he was an excellent virtuoso dancer, with the whole repertory of Petipa in his head, with its wealth of steps, as well as a sense of ingenious kinetic construction inherited from Ivanov and St. Léon.

Nijinsky, in the few packed years given him, always looked ahead. To be sure, L’Après-midi d’un faune was “Greek,” but his was a rude, archaic Attica rather than the late Latinized models that heretofore had served revivals of classical antiquity. Le Sacre was as much or more about an extreme inversion and extension of the academic vocabulary than its ostensible source in pre-history. Its subject was neither rhetorical nor decorative; nor was it a vehicle for stars, as were most ballets before and after. It was a thrust forward toward collective physical movement accompanying an alternative metric, which although it seemed anarchic was, in fact, a new dimension of ordering. For Debussy’s Jeux Nijinsky took suggestion from a triangular flirtation, two women and a man, since the times were not yet permissive enough to show two men and a woman, the essential prompting reflecting his life with Diaghilev. It was set in a private park, perhaps somewhere near Colette’s Avenue Henri Martin. Its “tennis game” was only a frame for tentative exploration of the romance and recalcitrance of contemporary sexuality. Here, triggered by Diaghilev’s canny anticipation of the ambiance of Proust and Gide, the Russian Ballet indicated the embodiment of a novel lyric sensibility which would spark the repertory of the Twenties. Fokine was painter and decorator; Nijinsky, sculptor and psychologist.

Buckle tells with skill the saga of Diaghilev’s survival through the war years. Having abandoned Nijinsky, he appropriated Leonide Massine, a handsome boy with little academic dance training. With the aid of scenic artists who enlarged Russian folk-craft motifs up to opera-house proportions, Massine contrived a repertory of popular works. Ingenuity, charm, and brilliant coloration were acceptable substitutes for genius. Here, Diaghilev’s authority, taste, and cunning had their Svengali effect. Massine became a spirited and elegant character dancer, glowing with a demure shyness which could explode into panther-like exuberance.

With Massine’s demission, Diaghilev recalled Nijinsky’s greatly gifted sister, Bronislava. Two of her best ballets are admirably revived in the current repertory of the Royal Ballet. Stravinsky’s Les Noces Villageoises is her projection, her magnificently achieved further step past her brother’s Sacre. In virtual monochrome, accompanied by a quartet of grand pianos and a raucous choir, she established a concentrated domestic rite, the star of which was the choreography itself. In the early Twenties, Les Noces promised the abstraction and stoicism ballet would assume in the Fifties. Nijinska’s Les Biches (Englished as “The Houseparty”), with Poulenc’s neoclassical jazz (including irreverent quotations from César Franck), danced in cocktail dresses and swimsuits, was a logical extension of Nijinsky’s Jeux of ten years before. Only now allusions to the polymorphous perverse were overt, the classic idiom undeformed, and its frame of contemporaneity presupposed.

Diaghilev’s repertory composed outside Russia was never seen in the Soviet Union. At the outbreak of the October Revolution, he and Stravinsky, much to the discomfiture of tsarist embassies still operating in Western Europe, signaled their sympathy with the fall of the old regime. Anatoli Lunacharsky, commissar of culture and education, invited Diaghilev to return as artistic chief. But already Diaghilev had experienced the chanciness of bureaucrats. However there were constant contacts with Russian composers, writers, and artists who at the time passed easily from East to West.

Diaghilev’s third and final period commenced with the abrupt replacement of Nijinska by Georgei Melitonovitch Balanchivadze, a budding choreographer and dancer from the Mariinsky Theater, a student also of the musical conservatory. If one wonders how Georges Balanchine, as he was now renamed, came to consider Diaghilev’s court, there exists a living picture in the pranks and postures of the epicene eunichoids of Prokofiev’s “Prodigal Son.” In Russia, Balanchine had staged Alexander Blok’s “The Twelve,” and was familiar with the Stravinsky of “Ragtime.” His facility and celerity recommended him to Diaghilev, then charged with producing opera in Monte Carlo. Here Balanchine mounted the first performance of Colette’s and Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges (“The Spellbound Child”).

Mr. Buckle concludes his extremely conscientious biography with an epigraph, or epitaph, the sense of which seems cryptic. He evokes highlights from two decades of repertory, as if this might suggest a signal for footlights to blaze, the overture to commence. “The music strikes up; there are distant horncalls; and the long afternoon of Diaghilev begins.” Does dusk follow afternoon? What or when is nightfall? After his death, with his own ballets as backbone, commenced decades of performances by the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. Is now the furious activity of classical dancing all over the world our midnight? By “afternoon” perhaps Mr. Buckle implies that his name rests in the penumbra of history; that it is impossible to indicate fully the extent of his achievement and influence.

These are loyally adumbrated in a biography which will not soon be superseded, a most generous homage to a master of manipulation and an acme of accomplishment. Alembic and catalyst, Diaghilev deployed the principal painters, musicians, and dancers of his time in a manner that used their unique powers, in programs that exploited their primary capacities. Through his hands flowed currents of sensibility and discrimination which galvanized, fertilized, and fortified dance, music, and plastic art. He gave to the classic academic ballet priority in imagination, authority, and autonomy on a level of quality by which it is measured half a century after his disappearance.

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