Review of the Diaghilev Empire by Rupert Christiansen: the splendor of the Russian Ballets

Review of the Diaghilev Empire by Rupert Christiansen: the splendor of the Russian Ballets

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When young Serge Diaghilev decided to save an art form, ballet wasn’t his first choice. The law student from the unpromising Ural city of Perm had started the 20th century with a desire to become a composer, until he showed his music to Rimsky-Korsakov, who was simply shocked. Then he moved on to curating Russian avant-garde art, which was electrifying but had no international market. Eventually, he made his way to the ballet, which had seemed silly to him when he first met him. Still, that was half the fun. As his friend Alexandre Benois later said: “he knew how to want something, he knew how to put his will into practice.”

The will in this case was to take an exhausted and stripped art form and transform it into new forms so electrifying that the world couldn’t help but sit back and take note of it. Diaghilev inherited a decidedly sclerotic artistic practice, churning out nostalgic tales about dying swans and sleeping princesses for an audience composed mostly of middle-aged men who had come to observe the girls and speculate that they were wearing underwear. His great triumph was to inject into Russian ballet – he called his new France-based company the Ballets Russes – with a creative adrenaline rush so that he was busy creating moods and ecstatic moments quite simply. telling implausible stories. At the center was also a new body type, one that could jump as high and fast as before, but also organize itself with a new graphic vitality. The type of body, therefore, that would look good in the Paris of cubism and Coco Chanel.


Diaghilev … “He knew how to put his will into practice.” Photograph: Apic / Getty Images

The story of Diaghilev and the Russian Ballets has already been told many times, but no one can master it in a more engaging way than Rupert Christiansen, the veteran opera critic and “incurable ballet addict”. He comes to his argument with a head full not only of pas de deux and grands jetés, but also of all the gossip and scandals that have dragged on Diaghilev’s unstable wake. Everyone who was anyone in early twentieth-century artistic Europe was attached at some point to his grand modernist project, even if they mostly didn’t get paid. Pablo Picasso and Léon Bakst made scenes while Chanel consulted on the wardrobe. The choreographers included Michel Fokine, Léonide Massine and George Balanchine, who is as famous as possible. Then there were the dancers: Vaslav Nijinsky, who seemed to be able to fly; Lydia Lopokova, who married John Maynard Keynes; dying swan Anna Pavlova and Hilda Munnings of Essex, who preferred to be known as Lydia Sokolova.

A cast of secondary characters revolve around this focal point including patrons such as Princesse de Polignac, also known as Winnaretta Singer, the heir to the Yonkers sewing machine, and the heroic workhorse Bronislava Nijinska, the sister of the dancer, who may have been “fat, deaf and screaming,” but she could line up a body like no other. Christiansen is not an author who feels the need to spare the feelings of his subjects and one of the great joys of this readable book. compulsive is his ability to skewer people in a few chosen words. So, he informs us that sex with Diaghilev, who was happily gay and engaged in “gentlemanly mischief” with ballet boys, was like cuddling “with a nice old lady. “In return, the elderly lotario loved giving his young friends gifts of more than four. You can always spot who was the current favorite by the width of his pants.

Regardless of all this behind-the-scenes gossip, Christiansen takes us through the highlights of the Ballets Russes, including the riot in the streets of Paris in 1913 that followed the first night of Stravinsky’s dissonant, erotic and baffling ballet The Rite of Spring. He too is concerned with extending Diaghilev’s story beyond his untimely death in 1929. With skilful and elegant prose Christiansen takes us through the postwar period, showing us how Diaghilev’s revolutionary vision was carried forward by a corps of choreographers and dancers. based in the United Kingdom, including Frederick Ashton, Kenneth MacMillan, Robert Helpmann, Ninetta de Valois, Anton Dolin and Margot Fonteyn. Then, of course, there is Rudolf Nureyev, who exploded from the Soviet Union in 1961 as a Tatar dervish from one of Diaghilev’s fever dreams.

• Diaghilev’s Empire: How Russian Ballets Fascinated the World is published by Faber (£ 25). To support the Guardian and Observer order a copy at Shipping charges may apply.

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