You've successfully subscribed to American Purpose
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to American Purpose
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
Success! Your newsletter subscriptions is updated.
Newsletter subscriptions update failed.
Success! Your billing info is updated.
Billing info update failed.
When the Ballets Russes Enthralled the World

When the Ballets Russes Enthralled the World

Serge Diaghilev ushered ballet into the twentieth century with his notoriously wild productions. A new book explores how he built his modernist empire.

Sharon Skeel
Diaghilev’s Empire: How the Ballets Russes Enthralled the World
by Rupert Christiansen (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 384 pp., $35.00)

In his new book Diaghilev’s Empire: How the Ballets Russes Enthralled the World, Rupert Christiansen illustrates how oddballs and narcissists can work together to forge great art—given the right manager. Serge Diaghilev, a curator, tastemaker, and founder of the legendary Ballets Russes, brokered deals within his eccentric coterie of artists and supporters for two decades as he introduced the glories of the Russian ballet to the rest of the world. Without him, Vaslav Nijinsky might have remained an obscure dance prodigy and George Balanchine, a choreographer roaming Europe in search of work. Besides launching numerous artistic careers, Diaghilev transformed ballet from a predictable exercise in symmetry and set pieces into a wondrously immersive blend of painting, music, and movement innovations. In other words, he ushered ballet from the nineteenth century into the twentieth.

Despite his oversized head and loopy gait, Diaghilev was an elegant charmer who could both wheedle funds from haute Parisian dames and coax precocious striplings into his bedchamber. Before World War I, his entourage included the prickly composer Igor Stravinsky and the inarticulate, high-strung Nijinsky, whom Diaghilev had taken as his first protégé/lover. “In [Nijinsky] Diaghilev had detected, on nothing but a hunch, a genius that went beyond his capacity to incarnate other identities and leap like a big cat,” writes Christiansen. The impresario gambled by tasking Nijinsky with the choreography for Stravinsky’s pounding “Rite of Spring” score, which evoked a virgin sacrifice in an ancient Slavic culture. To ease the rehearsal process, Diaghilev hired an intuitive young woman with rhythmic training to communicate Nijinsky’s intentions to his dancers and to soothe his taut nerves. The ballet’s 1913 premier now ranks as dance history’s most notorious opening night, as the cast had to fight their way through the din of guffaws, whistles, claps, and howls to complete the performance. Aesthetically, it was a modernist tour de force; marketing-wise, Diaghilev cracked that it was “exactly what I wanted.” Later that night, however, he was said to have wept in a taxi, “overcome with nostalgia for mother Russia.”

Ironically, Russia was one place where the Ballets Russes didn’t perform. As a young functionary in St. Petersburg, Diaghilev had fallen out of favor with his superiors after organizing several successful art ventures. He turned his attention to Paris, borrowing dancers from the Russian Imperial ballet for a six-week season of dance and opera there in 1909. His clever programming—a mix of the exotic and anodyne—was a smash hit. Diaghilev’s colleague, artist Alexandre Benois, exulted: “Our wild Russian primitiveness, our simplicity and naiveté had proved to be more progressive, more elaborate and more refined than all that was being created in Paris—the most cultured of cities!” The troupe became a permanent, privately funded enterprise that toured widely but never at home, since the Bolshevik takeover of the Russian government in 1917 made a formal return too risky.

Nevertheless, Diaghilev’s love for czarist Russia persisted, prompting his most spectacular failure. European audiences had warmed to his novel idea of replacing the traditional single long story ballet with a string of modish one-act dance dramas as an evening’s entertainment. In 1921, he suddenly reversed course by mounting an epic The Sleeping Princess (his new name for The Sleeping Beauty) in London, as an homage to the grand classical ballet of fin de siècle Russia. Diaghilev invested heavily to reproduce the magic of the 1890 St. Petersburg original, ordering enough new backcloths to keep four separate ateliers busy. When sales lagged, he shortened the show and considered adding live animals or a “witty ironic speech to be written by George Bernard Shaw,” the kind of fixes that might be floated today. But nothing worked. The impresario “slunk off to Paris where he and [his assistant] took attic rooms and ate their meals in a seedy guinguette alongside the cab drivers.”

A veteran British dance writer, Christiansen covers his subject’s highs and lows with an entertaining blend of facts and gossip. He draws mainly on well-known sources such as Lydia Sokolova’s Dancing for Diaghilev and Lynn Garafola’s Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes rather than new ones, offering the reader an original synthesis instead of startling revelations. In Christiansen’s breezy telling, however, Diaghilev’s “empire” seems more like a precarious three-ring circus, with Diaghilev as a wily master of ceremonies molding a talented, mostly self-absorbed brood of performers into the greatest show on earth. During the company’s pre-war years, it was that brood, as much as its radical choreography or gem-toned costumes, that theatergoers thronged to see. Christiansen’s unsparing portraits of four early soloists—Tamara Karsavina, Anna Pavlova, Ida Rubinstein, and, of course, Nijinsky—testify as to why.

Of the three women, only doe-eyed Karsavina stuck around longer than a few years. She danced regularly with the Ballets Russes from its outset until 1922. “Queenly and gracious,” according to Christiansen, she was also versatile, imbuing roles as diverse as a mythical firebird and dreamy ingenue with warmth and imagination. No wonder she drew the ire of her older colleague Pavlova, whose nonpareil delicacy captivated audiences but lent itself to a narrower range of parts. Although Pavlova appeared ethereal onstage, she possessed a fierce ambition. She didn’t abide challengers, nor did she share Diaghilev’s avant-garde inclinations. She bolted from the Ballets Russes after just one season to embark on what became a twenty-year itinerant career, “dancing garbage exquisitely and ubiquitously” until her untimely death in 1931. Like other commentators before him, Christiansen finds less to admire about the celebrity Pavlova than her more sensitive rival.

The third member of the female trio, the raven-haired Rubinstein, was in a class by herself—but not because of her dancing ability. Rather, Rubinstein had a unique stage allure that Diaghilev exploited. As Salome, she seductively dropped her veils; as Cleopatra, she emerged from her mummy dressings to “[reveal] herself in almost transparent shimmering déshabillé—a tall and willowy figure, imperious yet vulnerable.” A bewitching diva offstage too, Rubinstein was said to walk her pet leopard around Paris on a leash. Not surprisingly, Diaghilev couldn’t hang onto her either. She left his employ in 1911 and established a sporadic troupe of her own subsidized by her wealthy Russian Jewish family.

It was Nijinsky’s eventual rejection, however, that wounded Diaghilev most deeply. On a tour to South America that the impresario skipped because he loathed sea travel, Nijinsky shocked everyone by marrying a groupie who had schemed her way onto the ship. Grief-stricken, Diaghilev severed ties with his prized companion. Ballerina Lydia Sokolova remarked that Nijinsky “danced because he could, and couldn’t do anything else.” Lacking his mentor’s careful oversight, Nijinsky’s life unraveled and he descended into permanent psychosis. His final performance took place in a ski resort before an audience of twenty: “Playing the smiling host, Nijinsky ushered everyone in affably before solemnly announcing ‘This is my marriage with God,’” Christiansen writes. He “then sat on a chair and stared fixedly at his audience for some minutes.’” His erratic performance left onlookers stunned and mute. Christiansen’s vivid description of the scene tangibly conveys the awkwardness.

In the meantime, Diaghilev had moved on. He sidestepped World War I by booking tours in neutral Spain at the invitation of King Alfonso, a fan of his work. He also fixated on a new protégé, Léonide Massine, a soulful-looking teenager from Moscow. Massine’s dancing prowess couldn’t match Nijinsky’s, but he was cunning and eager to choreograph. He was assigned to make dances for the Ballet Russes’ 1917 Parade, which depicted circus performers enticing passersby to their fairground carnival. More impressive than the work’s scenario was the creative team of experimentalists Diaghilev assembled. Along with Massine, it included composer Erik Satie, librettist Jean Cocteau, and artist Pablo Picasso (who ended up marrying one of his boss’s ballerinas). Together they concocted a surrealistic frolic, which “played insouciantly with the frivolous novelties of cubism, futurism and the slapstick of Chaplin and the Keystone Cops.”

Parade augured what was to come for the Ballets Russes in the 1920s: trendy works that were more European than Russian in character. Still, two Russian choreographers Diaghilev retained during that period—Bronislava Nijinska, Nijinsky’s brilliant but cranky sister, and the neophyte Balanchine—produced the three Ballets Russes masterpieces that survive on today’s stages: Nijinska’s Les Noces and Balanchine’s Apollon Musagète (later just Apollo) and The Prodigal Son. Although Diaghilev’s postwar soloists were not as magnetic as their predecessors, they had their enthusiasts. Lydia Lopokova, a saucy audience favorite who married British economist John Maynard Keynes, could “airily fling her drawers into the wings when they slid down her legs during a performance of Les Sylphides and carry on unblushingly.” A second Lydia—the previously mentioned Lydia Sokolova—had an admirer in Diaghilev, who showed his respect—and tender side—by giving her whatever meager funds he could muster when her daughter became critically ill.

Diaghilev died in Venice in 1929. His company collapsed and his dancers dispersed. For decades afterward, his love for his homeland went unrequited, as the Communists ignored his legacy of modernism and unfettered expressivity. Ballet carried on through the Soviet regime as a closed system, continuing to turn out excellent dancers but few new ballets of merit. Constraints loosened somewhat under Nikita Khrushchev: in 1961, Diaghilev’s early hit Petrouchka was performed in Russia for the first time, and a year later, Balanchine arrived with his New York City Ballet for an eight-week tour. In 2010, the first major exhibition devoted to Diaghilev opened in Moscow, heralding a long-delayed pride in his accomplishments. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, however, has fractured the Russian dance community and signaled an ominous return to repression and isolationism.

Christiansen situates Diaghilev’s death about two-thirds of the way into his narrative. After that, the author’s focus dissipates as he tracks the disparate paths of surviving deputies, rivals, and associates, whose lives were no longer connected except by memories. Artist Benois pinpointed the key to Diaghilev’s success: “He knew how to will a thing.” Absent his vital presence, even the accomplished Christiansen loses his way.

Sharon Skeel is the author of Catherine Littlefield: A Life in Dance (Oxford University Press, 2020).

Image: A screen capture from the documentary Ballet Russes. (Zeitgeist Films)