Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev (Russian: Серге́й Па́влович Дя́гилев / Sergei Pavlovich Dyagilev), also referred to as Serge, (March 31, 1872 – August 19, 1929) was a Russian art critic, patron, ballet impresario and founder of the Ballets Russes from which many famous dancers and choreographers would later arise.
Early life and career
Sergei Diaghilev was born to a wealthy family in Selischi (Novgorod gubernia), Russia toward the end of its age of empire. He finished Perm gymnasium in 1890 year. Sent to the capital to study law at St. Petersburg University, he ended up also taking classes at the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music where he studied singing and music (a love of which he had picked up from his stepmother). After graduating in 1892 he abandoned his dreams of composition (his professor, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, told him he had no talent for music). He had already entered an influential circle of artists who called themselves the Pickwickians: Alexandre Benois, Walter Nouvel, Konstantin Somov, Dmitri Filosofov and Léon Bakst. Although not instantly received into the group, Benois aided Diaghilev by developing his knowledge of Russian and Western Art. In two years, he had voraciously absorbed this new obsession (even travelling abroad to further his studies) and came to be respected as one of the most learned of the group.
With financial backing from Savva Mamontov (the director of the Bolshoi) and Princess Maria Tenisheva, the group founded the journal Mir Iskusstva (World of Art)
In 1899, Diaghilev became special assistant to Prince Sergei Mikhailovitch Volkonsky, who had recently taken over directorship of all Imperial theaters. Diaghilev was soon responsible for the production of the Annual of the Imperial Theaters in 1900, and promptly offered assignments to his close friends: Léon Bakst would design costumes for the French play Le Coeur de la Marquise, while Benois was given the opportunity to produce Sergei Taneyev's opera Cupid's Revenge.
Having taken a recent interest in the world of Ballet, Diaghilev pushed for a revival of Léo Delibes' ballet Sylvia, a favorite of Benois'. The two collaborators concocted an elaborate production plan that startled the established personnel of the Imperial Theatres. After several increasingly antagonistic differences of opinion, Diaghilev was asked to resign in 1901 and left disgraced in the eyes of the nobility. It appears that already he was known to be homosexual, which made him unacceptable to many of the more influential people about the court.
Diaghilev's friends stayed true, following him and helping to put on exhibitions, mounted in the name of Mir Iskusstva. In 1905 he mounted a huge exhibition of Russian portrait painting in St Petersburg, having travelled widely through Russia for a year discovering many previously unknown masterpieces of Russian portrait art. In the following year he took a major exhibition of Russian art to the Petit Palais in Paris. It was the beginning of a long involvement with France. In 1907 he presented five concerts of Russian music in Paris, and in 1908 mounted a production of Boris Godunov, starring Fyodor Chaliapin, at the Paris Opera.
This led to an invitation to return the following year with ballet as well as opera, and thus to the launching of his famous Ballets Russes. The company included the best young Russian dancers, among them Anna Pavlova, Adolph Bolm, Vaslav Nijinsky, Tamara Karsavina, Adolf Bolm and Vera Karalli, and their first night on 19 May 1909 was a sensation.
During these years Diaghilev's stagings included several compositions by the late Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, such as the operas The Maid of Pskov, May Night, and The Golden Cockerel. His balletic adaptation of the orchestral suite Schéhérazade, staged in 1910, drew the ire of the composer's widow, Nadezhda Rimskaya-Korsakova, who protested in open letters to Diaghilev published in the periodical Reč'. Diaghilev commissioned ballet music from composers such as Nikolai Tcherepnin (Narcisse et Echo, 1911), Claude Debussy (Jeux, 1913), Maurice Ravel (Daphnis et Chloé, 1912), Erik Satie (Parade, 1917), Manuel de Falla(El sombrero de tres picos,1917), Richard Strauss (Josephs-Legende, 1914), Sergei Prokofiev (Ala and Lolly, rejected by Diaghilev and turned into the Scythian Suite, and Chout, 1915), Ottorino Respighi (La Boutique Fantasque, 1918), Francis Poulenc (Les Biches, 1923) and others. His choreographer Mikhail Fokine often adapted the music for ballet. Dhiagilev also worked with dancer and ballet master Leonid Myasin (aka Massine).
The artistic director for the Ballets Russes was Léon Bakst. Together they developed a more complicated form of ballet with show-elements intended to appeal to the general public, rather than solely the aristocracy. The exotic appeal of the Ballets Russes had an effect on Fauvist painters and the nascent Art Deco style.
Perhaps Diaghilev's most notable composer collaborator, however, was Igor Stravinsky. Diaghilev heard Stravinsky's early orchestral works Fireworks and Scherzo Fantastique, and was impressed enough to ask Stravinsky to arrange some pieces by Frédéric Chopin for the Ballets Russes. In 1910, he commissioned his first score from Stravinsky, The Firebird. Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913) followed shortly afterwards, and the two also worked together on Pulcinella (1920) and Les Noces (1923).
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Diaghilev stayed abroad. The new Soviet regime, once it became obvious that he could not be lured back, condemned him in perpetuity as an especially insidious example of bourgeois decadence. Soviet art historians wrote him out of the picture for more than 60 years.
Diaghilev staged Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty in London in 1921; it was a production of remarkable magnificence both in settings and costumes, but despite being well received by the public it was a financial disaster for Diaghilev and Oswald Stoll, the theatre-owner, who had backed it. The first cast included the legendary ballerina Olga Spessivtseva. Diaghilev insisted on calling the ballet The Sleeping Princess. When asked why, he quipped, "Because I have no beauties!" The later years of the Ballets Russes were often considered too "intellectual", too "stylish" and seldom had the unconditional success of the first few seasons, although younger choreographers like George Balanchine hit their stride with the Ballet Russes.
The end of the 19th century brought a development in the handling of tonality, harmony, rhythm and meter towards more freedom. Until that time, rigid harmonic schemes had forced rhythmic patterns to stay fairly uncomplicated. Around the turn of the century, however, harmonic and metric devices became either more rigid, or much more unpredictable, and each approach had a liberating effect on rhythm, which also affected ballet. Diaghilev was a pioneer in adapting these new musical styles to modern ballet. When Ravel used a 5/4 time in the final part of his ballet Daphnis and Chloé (1912), dancers of the Ballets Russes sang Ser-ge-dia-ghi-lev during rehearsals to keep the correct rhythm.
Members of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes later went on to found ballet traditions in the United States (George Balanchine) and England (Ninette de Valois and Marie Rambert). Ballet master Serge Lifar went on to revive the Paris Opera.
Diaghilev engaged in a number of homosexual relationships over the course of his life. His first important affair was with Dima Filasofov, his cousin, when they were both little more than adolescents; his second with Nijinsky, who had already had a homosexual laiason with a wealthy aristocrat, partly in order to help support his mother, sister, and mentally disabled brother (his father had deserted the family). Later affairs of Diaghilev were with Boris Kochno, his secretary from 1921 until the end of his life, and at least three other dancers in his ballet company,Leonide Massine, Anton Dolin, and Serge Lifar. His last love affair, possibly unconsummated, was with a young composer, Igor Markevitch, who later became a distinguished conductor and married Nijinsky's daughter Kyra. Diaghilev had a close platonic relationship with two women, Misia Sert and the dancer Karsavina, to both of whom he said he would have liked to be married.
Diaghilev was known as a hard, demanding, even frightening taskmaster. Ninette de Valois, no shrinking violet, said she was too afraid to ever look at him in the face. George Balanchine said he carried around a cane during rehearsals, and banged it angrily when he was displeased. Other dancers said he would shoot them down with one look, or a cold comment. On the other hand he was capable of great kindness, and when stranded with his bankrupt company in Spain during the 1914-18 war gave his last cash to Lydia Sokolova to buy medical care for her daughter. Markova was very young when she joined the Ballet Russes and would later in life say that she called Diaghilev "Sergypops" and he would take care of her like a daughter.
Diaghilev dismissed Nijinsky summarily from the Ballets Russes after the dancer's marriage in 1913. Nijinsky appeared again with the company, but the old relationship between the men was never re-established; moreover, Nijinsky's magic as a dancer was much diminished by incipient madness. Their last meeting was after Nijinsky's mind had given way, and he appeared not to recognise his former lover. Dancers such as Alicia Markova, Tamara Karsavina, Serge Lifar, and Sokolova remembered Diaghilev fondly, as a stern but kind father-figure who put the needs of his dancers and company above his own. He lived from paycheck to paycheck to finance his company, and though he spent considerable amounts at the end of his life on a splendid collection of rare books, many people noticed that his impeccably cut suits had frayed cuffs and trouser-ends. The movie The Red Shoes is a thinly disguised dramatization of the Ballet Russes.
He died in Venice, Italy, on August 19, 1929, and is buried on the nearby island of San Michele.