(Dalya Alberge’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/20; Photo: Nijinska, right, and her brother Nijinsky in L’Apres-midi d’un Faune, 1912. Photograph: Baron de Meyer. Eakins Press Foundation.)
The dance impresario ‘cruelly’ sabotaged the careers of others in a bid to keep all the glory to himself, according to a new biography
He was the Russian genius who founded the celebrated Ballets Russes in Paris in the early 20th century and whose revolutionary influence on the world of dance and theatre design is still felt today. But, despite his extraordinary talents, Sergei Diaghilev resorted to underhand and even vicious tactics to ensure that the spotlight remained firmly focused on him, according to new research.
Professor Lynn Garafola, an American dance historian, discovered a previously unpublished text in which Bronislava Nijinska, the dancer and one of the most innovative choreographers of the 20th century, wrote of Diaghilev’s attempts to claim credit for the work of fellow artists – even blocking their employment elsewhere.
Nijinska, whose brother was the celebrated dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, had joined the Ballets Russes in 1909. She wrote: “[Diaghilev] victimised the ballet artists when they left his company and tried by all means possible to prevent their employment by other companies… he hindered their receiving an entry visa to England.”
She added: “Everything had to originate with Diaghilev. He considered himself the creator and the ruler of the Russian Ballet, and all had to submit to him.
“To create one’s own and to destroy somebody else’s – this was his principle. But such a principle seemed to me not only dangerous but also unworthy of a great man.”
Diaghilev considered himself the creator and the ruler of the Russian Ballet, and all had to submit to him.–Bronislava Nijinska
She continued: “Diaghilev was beside himself when the new company of Ida Rubinstein was organised. [He] conceived a hatred for us and vowed to destroy us … This great man regarded as a mortal enemy anyone who … encroached on ‘his’ art: I personally was subjected to cruel reprisal: Diaghilev criticised me maliciously and impeded my work in every way.”
Nijinska, who died in 1972 aged 81, had trained at the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg and joined the Mariinsky Theatre company in 1908. She danced with the Ballets Russes, like her brother, and choreographed several ballets for the company, including Les Noces, which was described by the writer HG Wells as “the soul itself of the Russian people in sound and vision”.