Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929) was arguably the most influential ballet impresario of the 20th Century. His Ballets Russes company (performing between 1909 and 1929) was a magnet for creative giants such as artists Pablo Picasso, André Derain and Henri Matisse, couturier Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, composers Stravinsky, Rimsky Korsakov, Debussy and Ravel and dancers Vaslav Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova, Serge Lifar, Ninette de Valois, Tamara Karsavina, Léonide Massine, Michel Fokine, Anton Dolin and Alicia Markova.
Russian-born Diaghilev trained as a law student in St Petersburg in 1890 – four years before the last Tsar Nicholas II came to the throne – and established influential magazine The World of Art that introduced him to elite artistic circles including the Imperial Ballet. He became artistic adviser to the Maryinsky Theatre under the patronage of flamboyant homosexual Prince Sergei Volkonsky who was ‘patron’ of dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Diaghilev resigned in 1901 to tour an exhibition of Russian art to Paris. In 1908 he brought a successful production of the opera Boris Gudonov to Paris and followed this with a season of opera and ballet at the Paris Opera.
Spurred by his success, Diaghilev formed the Ballets Russes in 1909 building avante garde new works around his lover Nijinsky with music composed by Stravinski (The Rite of Spring) and Debussy (L’apres-midi d’un Faune). In the latter a scantily clad Nijinsky appeared to simulate orgasm scandalising audiences in Paris and London. As with any aggressively modern art form, Diaghilev’s controversial ballets were often greeted with open hostility and the impresario would spend the rest of his life living on credit and romancing royal and aristocratic patrons to fund his travelling company’s peregrinations to London, Paris, Monte Carlo and Buenos Aires.
The Ballets Russes championed the modernist movement in classical music commissioning composers such as Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev and Stravinsky. The great works – Scheherazade (1910), The Firebird (1910), Le Spectre de la Rose (1911) and later works Les Noces (1923) Les Bitches (1924) and Le Train Bleu (1924) – evolved from the exotic, erotic Orientalism brought to life by designer Léon Bakst into the Art Deco aesthetic such as the sporty Jazz Age beach costumes Coco Chanel designed for Le Train Bleu.
Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes never returned to mother Russia after the 1917 Revolution and the company served as a focus for exiled white Russian aristocrats who flooded Paris and the Riviera after the murder of the Tsar and his family in 1918. Diaghilev considered himself a father to the company albeit one who would form romantic liaisons with his favourite dancers Nijinsky, Léonide Massine, Serge Lifar and Anton Dolin. Nijinsky fell foul of the impresario when he married in Buenos Aires during a Ballets Russes South American tour. Sadly, schizophrenia stole Nijinsky’s mind and he spent the rest of his life institutionalized. Massine, who likened sleeping with Diaghliev to ‘going to bed with a nice, fat old lady’ was fired when discovered having an affair with ballerina Vera Savina.
Diaghilev was famed for his acid tongue. Dame Ninette de Valois said that he dismissed her stage name as ‘half tart, half royal family of France’. His autocratic style was captured in the 1948 Powell and Pressburger ballet film The Red Shoes in which he is depicted as Svengali ballet impresario Lermontov. As in the film, Diaghliev demanded absolute loyalty and dedication to the craft from his dancers. French composer Henri Sauguet called him ‘the absolute master: the man who did everything and saw everything. Nothing escaped him’. Of his harem, Stravinsky observed ‘Diaghilev is surrounded by a kind of homosexual Swiss Guard’.
Commercially the Ballets Russes was on the brink of bankruptcy but was always rescued by Diaghilev’s genius for flattering wealthy patronesses such as the Princess Edmond de Polignac who rescued the company in 1921 and secured an annual residency at the Grand Théâtre de Monte Carlo courtesy of the Monegasque royal family. Another patroness was the Comtesse de Greffulhe who was Proust’s model for the Duchess de Guermantes in A La Recherche du Temps Perdu.
Diaghilev first visited Henry Poole & Co in London in 1897 when he was still under the patronage of the Prince Volkonsky. The impresario spent just under £43 on various pieces including a black silk brocade double-breasted vest (waistcoat), a white silk double-breasted vest and a grey Cheviot double-breasted coat. Though Diaghilev did return to Poole’s on various occasions when the Ballets Russes was performing in London he was not a prolific customer. It was noted towards the end of his life that his coat cuffs were frayed to ribbons and his famous opera coat with beaver fur collar was practically bald.
Serge Diaghilev died in Venice in 1929 leaving an unpaid hotel bill and was buried in the island cemetery of San Michele. But as Prokofiev said, ‘Diaghilev is a giant, undoubtedly the only one whose dimensions increase the more he recedes into the distance’.