Diaghilev’s Empire: How the Ballets Russes Enthralled the World

Rupert Christiansen
Faber & Faber

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Diaghilev’s Empire cover Credit: Faber & Faber

Do we need another book on Diaghilev and Les Ballets Russes? Author Rupert Christiansen himself quotes Ninette de Valois saying after a glut of books on Diaghilev in the sixties and seventies, “there’s nothing left to say”. But it seems we do, since Sjeng Scheijen’s magisterial Diaghilev: A Life was published as long ago as 2009, Lucy Moore’s Nijinsky in 2013, the English translation of Michael Meylac’s personal pilgrimage Behind the Scenes at the Ballets Russes in 2018, Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller’s fine Ballets Russes documentary film came out in 2006 and the V&A’s celebration of his legacy, Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929, took place twelve years ago—feels like yesterday.

An opportune time for a reassessment—timed to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev’s birth (March 1872)—from self-confessed ballet addict Rupert Christiansen (read his article in The Sunday Telegraph 21 August 2022—a version of his book preface), dance critic for The Spectator, dance critic for the Mail on Sunday from 1995 to 2020, many years opera and arts correspondent of the Daily Telegraph. There’s not much I’d not read before, but what I didn't know or had forgotten I pounce on with glee. In Kansas City, Diaghilev is called “Dogleaf”… And his answer to Spain’s King Alfonso’s question as to what he does is choice: “Your Majesty, I am like you. I don't work. I do nothing. But I am indispensible.” He met Charlie Chaplin, an “exact contemporary”, but there’s no filmed record of it, as Diaghilev mistrusted the medium. Scandalous, riotous behaviour there is galore, Satie sentenced to a week in gaol for sending abusive postcards…

Christiansen pulls threads from many sources and weaves them anew. Diaghilev’s Empire: How the Ballets Russes Enthralled the World is meticulously researched (as nearly nine pages of bibliography and fifteen pages of notes testify) and carefully crafted over nine chapters. But who is the target audience? In his confessional preface, he says his fellow balletomanes are not the book’s “primary target”. That leaves me out... Nor is it for “scholars and experts”. Perhaps it’s another personal fix to spend time vicariously in Diaghilev’s dazzling, constantly evolving company, rub shoulders with its dramatis personae, eavesdrop on their petty volatile squabbles... According to Constant Lambert, “before the war Diaghilev created a vogue for Russian ballet, after the war he created merely a vogue for vogue”. And Balanchine decades later professed, “Diaghilev did not know anything about dancing. His real interest in ballet was sexual.”

One can almost overdose on the roll call of names littering the pages. Smelling salts are needed just to recall them: Rodin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse, Vuillard, Bonnard, Derain, Delauney, Kandinsky, Picasso, Cocteau, Gide, Proust, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, Ravel, Poulenc, Debussy, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Richard Strauss, de Falla, Satie, Roerich, Goncharova, Coco Chanel (affair with Stravinsky), the Bloomsbury set, the Sitwells… and so many more. Later we get Vaughn Williams, William Walton, Max Ernst, Joan Miró, André Breton, Wyndham Lewis, Cecil Beaton, Evelyn Waugh, Diana Cooper, Weill and Brecht, Roland Petit, Zeffirelli … The cast is vast with ever changing personnel and many walk-on parts.

So many planets circling the sun king… There are many sharp characterisations—Fokine “a conceited young man”, Petipa “slinking off to write his bilious and self-congratulatory memoirs”, Isadora Duncan “who talked a lot of airy nonsense”. Anna Pavlova has “a massive ego”, the “scheming” Mathilde Kschessinska, Rubinstein “was not egregiously talented”, “her training in ballet and acting was exiguous”, Cocteau an “eager beaver” and a “tiresome opportunist”, whilst Karsavina has “honest goodness”, Lydia Lopokova “a habitual bolter” and Balanchine an “enigmatic” ladies man. And there are some sweeping statements: “but feuds between Russians are chiefly opportunities for the revival of love and loyalty”…

Diaghilev, the man himself does not enter the stage (and vanishes from time to time) till page 37—the way has to be prepared for him, an attention-seeking, aristocratic personality who doesn’t take no for an answer, knows how to play people off each other and is able to ride on a knife edge of financial difficulties. A charlatan, a natural impresario great at promotion, whose creature comfort was a boy in bed—Nijinsky, Massine, Fokine (none of these homosexual, but they obliged) and Kochno (with whom Cole Porter had a brief affair). A peripatetic, uninhibited Wildean visionary who made the jigsaws fit even during vicissitudes of opportunity, history, health and life. A man with enough nous or chutzpah, or call it what you will, and good connections, sponsors, wealthy benefactors, namely Misia Sert, to make a lasting mark.

We start in the foothills, climb the mountain and descend into the foothills on the other side. Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 film The Red Shoes and Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo bookend the 320 pages. The clue is in the title “Empire”—its construction and legacy. Survivors tell their stories, successors, rivals, and his influence goes on today in the many named iconoclasts of contemporary dance. “Diaghelettitis” is the name Christiansen gives the infection. Not a pretty word, but Diaghilev did bring the arts together in the service of dance and for that many are thankful. Ninette de Valois (born Edris Stannus) and Marie Rambert (Cyvia Rambam) danced for him—both went on to found two of our main ballet companies. Alicia Markova, Anton Dolin, Balanchine are names in our living memory. The Trocks joke is that all their male dancers in drag have silly faux Russian names because Diaghilev gave all his Ballets Russes dancers Russian names. Alicia Markova was plain Alicia Marks, an easy makeover, but Dolin was born Sydney Francis Patrick Chippendall Healey-Kay in Sussex, Lydia Sokolova was Hilda Munnings from Essex, and so on. The tradition later made Margaret Evelyn Hookham into Margot Fonteyn, stage names de rigueur.

A daisy chain of ballet addicts, professionals, critics and writers such as Richard Buckle (slept with Dolin—talk about inside information), Arnold Haskell with his 1935 epic Balletomania book, Jennifer Homans’s 2010 heavyweight Apollo’s Angels, and so many more, serving at the altar of dance, music, and art. Christiansen tries to capture it in measured fashion, though Diaghilev remains strangely elusive. No gushing fandom, just a steady pacing bringing a collage of many parts together. My favourite chapter, the one with the most energy, is chapter five, "War", the pinnacle of the climb.

In 2016, The Red Shoes film was adapted by Matthew Bourne into a successful stage production. It lives on. It has always interested me why the Diaghilev character was given the name of Boris Lermontov. Boris for Kochno? Lermontov, who died in a duel far too young, one of my favourite nineteenth century poets, wrote a short novel Hero of Our Time. Was this the homage, Diaghilev a hero of his time?

Gorbachev wants Lermontov’s 1841 “Alone I set out on the road... Vykhozu odin ya na dorogu” for his funeral. Diaghilev did step out on a singular lonely road. He was superstitious, too. He believed the gypsy who said he’d die on water; this was how he missed Nijinsky marrying Romola on a transatlantic crossing—he avoided travel by sea. He died and was buried in Venice. I recollect a young man with a single red rose in my Venice hotel asking the way to his tomb. Stravinsky, who fell out badly with Diaghilev, is buried nearby with his wife.

And yesterday—how serendipitous is that—in a theatre bookshop, I find an old Royal Ballet programme from June 1991: the programme is Nijinska’s Les Biches, Les Noces, and Frederick Ashton’s Scènes de Ballet, the programme notes (especially Iain Fenlon’s on Stravinsky) enlightening. Its Les Noces images from 1923 would have made a glorious inclusion in Christiansen’s book, a book melding dispassionate English style and flamboyant Slavic subject. There are some typos, chief being “kopak’ which ought to be ‘hopak” or at least ‘gopak”.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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