Those who question the number of role models for today’s artists might consider the great impresario Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929), whose legendary productions include The Firebird, Le Sacre du Printemps, L’Apres-midi d’un Faune, Daphnis et Chloe, Petrushka, Apollon, Carnaval, Pavillon d’Armide, Coq d’or, Parade, and The Three-Cornered Hat.  This maestro, this “monster,” this “dictator” is the subject of a rich, elegant, massively researched, cryingly well-written book from Oxford University Press called Diaghilev: A Life, perfect for cold, winter days, the hiss of steam heat, and the conundrums of those involved in theatre today—not that he should be regarded as a saint, ever. Perhaps, he’s more of a beleaguered compatriot, rushing, one step ahead of the law–for failing to pay his debts–to make changes before tonight’s curtain in a process he called the “Psychology of the Hectic.”  According to the artist Alexandre Benois,

Diaghilev—this operator, this man of business—had an individual gift of creating a romantic working climate, and with him all work had the charm of a risky escapade. . . . Periods of idleness and apathy alternated with sudden bursts of extreme activity and it was only then that Diaghilev felt himself in his element.  It wasn’t enough for him to overcome the difficulties that naturally arose to block his path; he liked to create new ones for himself and to overcome them with redoubled fervor.

Sjeng Scheijen, the historian of Russian art who wrote the biography, brings a contemporary edge—and zeal–to his subject, taking us beyond the faded perfume, cloth, and canvas–and the hardened sweat–of unpronounceable, impenetrable works by a jaded super-aesthete. Instead the book’s language is hip without being too trendy or thin (“The Soviet Union Strikes Back,” is a title for one of the chapters, as an example) and he’s able to frame parallels and get you thinking about the present. Here’s how, during the early 1900s, the political divides are described in Russia regarding issues we’re still busy negotiating: 

        Diaghilev did his best to avoid politics—an understandable decision, given his journal was sponsored by the tsar and that he himself was an employee of the imperial court. Nevertheless, within his circle there was a growing antipathy to the regime, which was unable to quell the terrorist threat and yet resolutely refused to introduce any reforms that would stabilise the economy, protect small businesses from corruption and redress the appalling social injustice.

Diaghilev also “was immersed . . . in new theories about theatre and dance” that artists may simply never be able to reconcile:

        Almost all [of the different kinds of artists] wanted to do away with illusionism and realism—to dispense with wings, floodlights, tricks of perspective and the division between stage and auditorium.  Theatre should be accorded the status of a fully independent art form, and not treated as a poor cousin of literature.  Fixed scripts and method acting were out—improvisation, mime, garish make-up, marionettes, and artificial lighting effects were in. No wonder these pioneers were attracted by dance, with its direct ‘primitive’, anti-memetic power of expression and its perceived independence from other art forms.

Ultimately, however, Russia, covering 11.5 percent of the world’s land mass, wasn’t big enough for both Diaghilev and the imperial art bureaucracy. “We must be free as gods. . . . We must seek in beauty the great justification of humanity and the individual its highest manifestation,” the "snake" wrote as a young man. So free, in fact, that he fled, his experimental work only to be welcomed in Paris. 

        [He] was driven abroad by the impossibility of furthering his career in Russia; yet at the same time, the government was all too happy to fund his activities in France, provided this would keep the troublemaker out of their hair.  Working abroad, he could boost Russia’s international fame, which had suffered on account of the war.  More importantly, in far-off France he could do less damage.  The  powers that be had . . . Diaghilev right where they wanted him: far away and tied to their purse strings.

Actually, from today’s perspective, the enfant terrible, the producer with a big head (literally), may have been less of an innovator than is commonly held. He also seems more human, less perverse. Diaghilev could never fully reject an early love of Wagner and Tchaikovsky, despite being caught in the debate between nationalism and international art. In later years, in London and Monaco, he would also produce classic pre-modern ballets and operas, which nearly bankrupted him: Diaghilev’s idealization of the eighteenth century is illustrative of two seemingly contradictory ambitions” Scheijen writes, “promoting national consciousness and repositioning Russia within the constellation of Europe’s diverse cultural elites.”  Conjecture is also given to the idea that:

        [the foundational thinking of Diaghilev’s work was] by no means new. It was the level of performance, and the care, seriousness and dedication which Diaghilev, Fokine, Bakst and Benois brought to every detail that raise the ballet to a new level of dramatic expression—ballet as ‘total theatre’.  The shock . . . experienced lay not in discovering something entirely new, but in recognizing the potential of something that already existed.

To help him realize the potential of these art forms took finding premier talent—Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Nijinsky, Massine, Balanchine, Nijinska, Pavlova, Debussy, Satie, Rimsky-Korsakov, Goncharova, Picasso, Chanel, to only scratch the surface of the list of people who acted as part of the Ballets Russes. What is so plaintive in the book, however, is that despite working with the greatest artists (predominantly Russian ones), Diaghilev could never fulfill his dream of performing in his homeland, of showing his native country the degree of his accomplishment, of their accomplishment, of ever being seen as anything other than subversive. “He lived and died ‘a favourite of the gods,’ the writer Walter Nouvel wrote after Diaghilev’s death, “for he was a pagan, and a Dionysian pagan—not an Apollonian.  He loved everything earthly–earthly love, earthly passions, earthly beauty.  Heaven for him was just a lovely dome above the lovely earth.  That doesn’t mean he had no religious feeling.  But that feeling was pagan rather than Christian.”

It really doesn’t matter what season you read this book.  It’s history we’ve all needed to be reminded of, have sorted out. On such a broad canvas, it may have been helpful to understand the plots of the theatre works a little better, as well as the characters of some of the real-life players—I would have appreciated having a chronology of the productions in the back matter.  But don’t let these thoughts stop you from slipping into another world, closer to us than we realize. Diaghilev said, “The public was there to be ravished.” Through Sjeng Scheijen’s Diaghilev: A Life, he has his way.

© 2011 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved. Extracts from Diaghilev: A Life by Sjeng Scheijen. © 2009, Oxford University Press.

View the book on Amazon:

Diaghilev: A Life by Sjeng Scheijen (Translated by Jane Hedley-Prole and S. J. Leinbach)

Product Details

Hardcover: 560 pages

Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (September 1, 2010)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0199751498

ISBN-13: 978-0199751495

Product Dimensions: 10 x 7.2 x 2.1 inches

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