The Great Adventure of Sergei Diaghilev

Diaghilev: A Life

by Sjeng Scheijen, translated from the Dutch by Jane Hedley-Prôle and S.J. Leinbach
Oxford University Press, 552 pp. $39.95

If the religion of art can be said to have had saints, Sergei Diaghilev was one. His whole enterprise had about it the odor of sanctity. When he could not pay his creditors or his dancers or his own hotel bills, he ate in truckers’ cafés and closed his astrakhan coat with a safety pin. A diabetic, he was also plagued with boils. His dancers who could not afford to buy clothes wore their costumes. From the beginning, he considered himself and all who joined him bound by the ethic of hard work. “You can’t imagine what it’s like, the Ballets Russes,” Matisse wrote to his wife. “There’s absolutely no fooling around here—it’s an organisation where no one thinks of anything but his or her work—I’d never have guessed this is how it would be.”

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