A life for the arts
A luminous, engaging and refreshing study
As founder of the exotic Ballets Russes in 1909 and father of modern dance theatre, Sergei Diaghilev has gained legendary status as one of the most influential artistic pioneers of the twentieth century. In this comprehensive biography Sjeng Scheyen sheds fresh light on his life and achievements, peeling away the shrouds of myth that surround him.
Scheyen dispels some tenacious rumours, from the size of Diaghilev’s head at birth (purportedly the cause of his mother’s death) to his tumultuous relationship with Nijinsky, who was perhaps less a victim of Diaghilev’s stifling possessiveness than we have been led to believe. He paints an intimate portrait, drawing upon previously unknown letters written by Diaghilev to his stepmother, which reveal a more gentle, loving and anxious side to him.
Finally, new archival research provides harrowing details about the persecution of his relatives in the Soviet Union and his attempts, from exile in France, to save his family from imprisonment – a tragic finale to a life that was in every respect dramatic and colourful.
It is astonishing how Diaghilev’s discerning eye for talent led him to commission work from some of the world’s greatest artists: foremost among them the composers Ravel, Debussy, Satie, Stravinsky and Prokofiev; the artists Picasso, Matisse, Braque and Cocteau; the choreographers Massine, Nijinsky and Balanchine. Scheyen minutely reconstructs the tumultuous opening night of the Ballets Russes’ first production, Le Pavillion d’Armide, and the disastrous premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps, which was allegedly broken up by the police.
Diaghilev’s despotism led to incessant squabbling and agitation at the Ballet Russes. Scheyen makes palpable the strength and virtuosity required of Diaghilev in producing pioneering performances in continental Europe year after year. Cut off from revolutionary Russia, plagued by debts and frequently unhappy in love, Diaghilev’s devotion to detail and unrelenting drive to reach new heights of dramatic expression are clear testimony to his monumental talent.
As Scheyen demonstrates, it was precisely this unbridled energy, along with his uncompromising attitude towards aesthetics and his belief in the superiority of art to life, that enabled Diaghilev to leave a lasting impression on the cultural history of Europe.
- Draws on previously unknown letters, telegrams, diaries, newspapers clippings and other valuable biographical material.
- Photographs published here for the first time, discovered in Russian archives and private collections.