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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
Croce_1.jpg
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Serge Lifar as Apollo and Alexandra Danilova as Terpsichore in Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine’s Apollon musagète, 1928; photograph by Sasha. Arlene Croce writes that this ballet, 
first performed by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, was ‘the supreme example’ 
of neoclassicism, ‘which broke decisively with the past by reimagining it.’

In the 1930s, when he was trying to establish American ballet, Lincoln Kirstein complained that “balletrusse” was one word. Successor companies to the defunct Franco-Russian Ballets Russes, cashing in on its name and legend, were spreading themselves across the globe. Perhaps today in the public mind ballet is still Russian. When the Soviet Union fell and its ballet companies freed themselves from government interference, the Western choreographer whose works they chose to be their main guide to modernism was George Balanchine, a Ballets Russes product who had been Kirstein’s choice sixty years before, his gift to America.

If the goal of the formerly Soviet companies was to become modern in russe terms, by rights they should have chosen Merce Cunningham, because most Ballets Russes choreography was not ballet but what we would call modern dance. Now that modernism is dead and modern dance is a chapter in history (like Romantic ballet), we look back at ballets we cannot see and try to reconjure an image of stage magic from composites of scenery, costumes, and music. Since that is basically how they were conceived by their own producer, it is not surprising that the latest book about Sergei Diaghilev has no dance commentary to speak of. This is both an understandable omission and a missed opportunity.

Sjeng Scheijen’s field is Russian art, and he locates Diaghilev’s emergence in fin-de-siècle St. Petersburg, at a time when Russian art was at its most Russian. Diaghilev at twenty-one had never had anything to do with ballet. He was not even a balletomane. He was a serious musician, an opera-lover who had trained to be a singer, a self-taught art historian, and a theater aesthete whose certitudes were rooted in the principle of the Gesamtkunstwerk as promulgated by Wagner. It was one of his closest associates, Walter Nouvel, who looked to the future and saw that

that vague, inexpressible, elusive feeling, to which modern literature is trying to give voice, obeying the clamorous demands of the modern spirit, must find, and in all likelihood will find, its realisation in ballet.

Diaghilev came to agree with Nouvel that ballet rather than opera was potentially the vehicle for the fusion of the arts, but when he organized the repertory of the Ballets Russes, his philosophy and his own artistic predilections combined to place a higher value on the music, the scenery, and the story than on the choreography. Not that he disdained choreographers; he simply regarded them as technicians who could be instructed by artists—by himself if necessary.

Scheijen tends to treat his hero as a unique phenomenon, but Diaghilev wasn’t the only one of that inflamed post-Wagnerian generation who thought of himself as an all-purpose man of the theater. That conviction ran right through the top line of theater directors, conductors, and composers, and took in nontheatrical artists as well, saturating the times with multivirtuosic ambition. Strauss and von Hofmannsthal. Reinhardt. Meyerhold. Tairov. Eisenstein. Diaghilev set a painter, Mikhail Larionov, to guide the fledgling choreographer Léonide Massine. Jean Cocteau began as a Diaghilev camp follower. The belief common to all was that ballet, the classical academic dance, was nothing but technique, passionless, mechanical, dead. Even the academically trained, poetically gifted Mikhail Fokine, who was the Ballets Russes’ first choreographer, thought so. (Inside Fokine was the duende of Isadora Duncan.)

The moment was at hand for a new kind of dance. Scheijen sees the moment, and he sees Diaghilev taking hold of it—finding a young male dancer (the seventeen-year-old Nijinsky for starters), bonding with him body and soul, lecturing him on art, escorting him to concerts and galleries, providing whatever supplementary theatrical training he needed; and then there he’d be, someone who could animate the envisioned spectacle to the satisfaction of his mentor and even (as Diaghilev demanded of Cocteau) surprise him. Diaghilev’s attempt to insert himself into the choreographic process of Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps was disastrous, but he learned from it. After getting Massine on his feet, he let him alone, and he didn’t interfere either with Nijinska, his only female choreographer, or Balanchine, his last one.

It is what, in a positive sense, Diaghilev learned from his immersion in dance that we wish we could know. In that sense, he is us, the audience—an onlooker curious about the mysteries of the craft/art that lay at the lowliest depth of the theatrical pyramid yet without which it could not stand. A biographer may of course select aspects of his subject and ignore others, and Scheijen has permission to ignore dance from Diaghilev himself, who after one of his fights with Fokine was heard to boast, “I could make a choreographer out of this inkwell if I wanted to.”

But Scheijen also ignores it because it is a subject about which educated people, after a whole century of revelatory dance, are far more content to remain ignorant than they were at its inception. Granted, dance is the perishable art. Yet of all the Russian ballets that were produced between 1909 and 1929, it’s the ones with the strongest dance content that remain revivable today—Fokine’s Les Sylphides, Nijinsky’s L’Après-midi d’un faune, Nijinska’s Les Noces, Balanchine’s Apollo and The Prodigal Son. All the rest have gone to museum heaven.

But when dance is minimized, there’s a lot of Diaghileviana left over. The Victoria and Albert Museum has issued a thick commemorative album in connection with its current mammoth exhibition of Ballets Russes art, which runs through January 9. Scheijen’s biography presents new material from the Diaghilev archives in Russia. His method of narration through documentation succeeds up to a point. It allows his subject to paint his own portrait in exuberant, delightfully self-aware letters to his adored stepmother, Yelena Diaghileva. Self-revelation continues in the outspoken critical reviews Diaghilev wrote for Mir iskusstva (The World of Art), the arts magazine he founded in 1898 and edited until 1904. It is when he starts exporting Russian art and the saisons russes are launched, followed by the creation of a permanent touring company, that the self-portrait dissolves, and the book becomes a rerun of Diaghilev’s frenetic activities season by season, as seen by Scheijen and an extensive list of voluble Ballets Russes observers and stars.

This quasi-anthological scheme will undoubtedly appeal to readers encountering Diaghilev for the first time. Scheijen’s text avoids the overload of names, dates, and places that sank Richard Buckle’s Diaghilev in 1979, but his approach is nowhere as sophisticated, his interpretive skills never as refined as Buckle’s. His contribution is to have digested the totality of the Diaghilev literature, investigated its claims, and condensed its major findings in a comfortable yet compelling read. When I say “Diaghilev literature,” I mean to include the library of books by or about Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bakst, Benois, Picasso, Cocteau, Chanel, Matisse, Nijinska, Massine—in short, everyone who worked for the Ballets Russes or had some significant contact with it, such as Misia Sert, Count Harry Kessler, and Gerald and Sara Murphy. For Scheijen, no detail is too small. He even checks out Nijinsky’s assertion that Diaghilev dyed his hair. Rivalries within the Diaghilev camp are examined and enmities traced, most of the time profitably; the profile that emerges of the densely emotional, ever combative Alexandre Benois, the coauthor of Petrushka, is definitive. Diaghilev’s own profile is blurry. The new material, while welcome, isn’t enough, or isn’t weighted enough, to support a novel interpretation of the man’s character and destiny, which is what Scheijen seems to be aiming at. The inevitable conclusion, that Diaghilev was “a man of contradictions,” is not a conclusion so much as it is the outcome of the contradictory opinions expressed throughout the book by a horde of correspondents and memoirists.

One reason the section on Diaghilev’s early years fails to impress is that it is very much what we might have expected. It’s true that, arriving in St. Petersburg, he had to make up for his provincial background, but the old picture of a country bumpkin from Perm, a fair-sized town at the foot of the Ural Mountains, was never credible. Diaghilev’s father, a former cavalry officer, was a devoted amateur musician. His grandfather built the town’s main church, some say also the opera house. The family owned the local vodka distilleries and had a mansion on Perm’s main street and a very large estate in the country. Both houses were continually filled with the music and laughter of friends and relatives, led by Sergei’s father and stepmother. Sergei’s mother died when he was three months old (not in childbirth from the size of his head, as he told people later in life). He loved his stepmother Yelena and his two younger half-brothers.

Scheijen has one big piece of information to add to Buckle’s spectacle of family life: when Diaghilev was seventeen, his feckless father went bankrupt. Everything was sold—the distilleries, the house, the estate, the paintings, the pianos. Beginning with his father’s downfall, the story becomes familiar, Diaghilev’s life following a pattern whereby adversity creates opportunity. Having lost his ancestral home, he moved to St. Petersburg, where, with his fellow students Benois and Nouvel, his cousin and first love Dima Filosofov, and their friend Léon Bakst, he formed the nucleus of Mir iskusstva. (That they probably never did call themselves the Nevsky Pickwickians is sad news.) Of Diaghilev’s critical articles Scheijen observes:

He never doubted his talent as a critic, but it was that very talent that all too often reminded him of his own creative shortcomings. His failure as a composer helped him realise that his genius lay not in artistic creation, but in perceiving the genius of others.

It is doubtful that Diaghilev the critic thought that he was not an artist. One would not know from Scheijen that the influence of Oscar Wilde went deeper than sexuality. Perhaps the most important document cited in the book is “Difficult Questions,” the long, caustic, penetrating essay on aesthetics in which Diaghilev explained the editorial position of the Miriskusniki and which Scheijen presents without mentioning that “our creed”—“the exaltation and glorification of individualism in art”—came from Wilde: “A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is.” Diaghilev at all times was what he was.

He made his name with a series of elegantly mounted, provocative art exhibitions, but Diaghilev wanted more than renown, he wanted power. On his way up the institutional ladder—the arts were run by government bureaucracies—he was shot down by entrenched reactionaries, and his career in Russia was over almost before it began. This catastrophe precipitated his decisive move into Western Europe, and the campaigns in Paris on behalf of Russian art, music, and dance began in 1906. Diaghilev was thirty-four, although his Promethean aspirations had been formed a decade earlier. He overcame another crisis when war broke out, forcing the dispersal of his by now very famous dance company. Diaghilev’s fame spread back to Russia, where it earned him nothing but loathing as an opportunist and a scandalmonger. Not until close to the end of his life did he give up his dream of touring Russia with the Ballets Russes.

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