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
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…

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