When he died, at 57, Serge Pavlovich Diaghilev (1872-1929) was many things: the most celebrated of Russian émigrés; the impresario of the Ballets Russes, the world’s most famous ballet company; a pivotal figure in the recent histories of opera, stage design, visual arts, classical music, as well as theatrical dance; the hub of successive schools of artistic modernism; the man who had taken ballet from state patronage into the world of commercial sponsors; the most celebrated homosexual since Oscar Wilde.
He died in bed in Venice, in the Grand Hôtel des Bains de Mer, on the Lido.
The new biography by Sjeng Scheijen, “Diaghilev: A Life,” does not, however, end there. Three weeks later his half-brother Valentin Diaghilev was executed in Solovki, the Soviet Union’s first concentration camp. Serge’s death made front-page news across the world. News of Valentin’s death never reached his own children.
Previous biographies — this is the first in-depth volume since Richard Buckle’s in 1979 — have said little or nothing of the family Diaghilev left behind in Russia. Mr. Scheijen, a Dutch expert in Russian art, demonstrates, however, that Diaghilev made repeated efforts to contact them. In late 1927 Serge became aware of Valentin’s disappearance and prompted the French Foreign Ministry to apply its full weight on Valentin’s behalf. Only when the Soviet authorities no longer feared any repercussions that Serge might have prompted did they proceed to have Valentin killed.
Diaghilev’s early life had been Chekhovian; he grew up as a member of one of the most well-to-do families in Perm, the setting of “The Three Sisters,” in the western part of Russia. Mr. Scheijen draws from the many letters he wrote to his cherished stepmother, in which we first feel Diaghilev’s celebrated charm. But, in a stroke worthy of “The Cherry Orchard,” Diaghilev’s family life was shattered by bankruptcy in 1890, when his father’s and uncles’ estate had to be sold.
This bankruptcy is among Mr. Scheijen’s many revelations. For fluency of storytelling, “Diaghilev: A Life” easily surpasses both Mr. Buckle’s dense biography “Diaghilev” and Lynn Garafola’s intellectual analysis “Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes” (1989). Mr. Scheijen draws happily from a wide range of sources that have become available in recent years in Russia and the West, notably the diaries of the German diplomat and arts patron Count Harry Kessler and the archives of the composer Serge Prokofiev, both of whom were intimate members of Diaghilev’s circle for many years.
Yet Mr. Buckle’s approach — that of both celebrity hound and aesthete — and Ms. Garafola’s probing application of modern historical methods both yield a far more intense wealth of detail. They also demonstrate a much greater sheer excitement over Diaghilev’s achievements. The often cool Mr. Scheijen brings us the latest information but omits too many of the facts already in the common domain. And at many moments he prefers to concentrate on his archival discoveries rather than to re-examine central areas of Diaghilev’s artistic work.
Ballet was not Diaghilev’s first, second or third love. But he found in it the ideal vehicle to bring other arts together. It’s also likely that it stimulated, and sublimated, his sexuality. As he developed a taste for younger men, so ballet brought him the male beauties he desired; and his status gave him maximum casting-couch power.
In several cases, his lovers — who included, successively, the star dancers Vaslav Nijinsky, Léonide Massine, Anton Dolin and Serge Lifar — needed no seduction from him; they were ambitious. And this gay Pygmalion was most galvanized when he could turn these male Galateas into artists the world would worship. Ballet had hitherto been essentially a heterosexual art glorifying femininity, but now a long series of Diaghilev ballets cast more luster on hero than heroine, while at least two of them (“Jeux,” “Les Biches”) actively encouraged homosexual nuances.
Mr. Scheijen tackles this revealingly but calmly. At several points art and life for Diaghilev were indivisible. Notoriously possessive, he dismissed both Nijinsky (in 1913) and Massine (in 1921) from his company when first one, then the other, married. Then, in private, he broke down, both times. Mr. Scheijen shows that the loss of Massine — the more intelligent, worldly and self-sufficient, if less legendary, of the two — caused Diaghilev the greater crisis. He needed to be in love to keep working at his ferocious pace, but Mr. Scheijen’s narrative implies that after Massine he was never again so passionately involved.
The book only skims Diaghilev’s rediscovery of ballet classicism in his ill-fated decision to mount “The Sleeping Princess” (better known today as “The Sleeping Beauty”), the greatest of the 19th-century ballets originally choreographed by Marius Petipa. Diaghilev, who in 1900 had objected to Petipa as a leader of ballet’s academic old guard, had come full circle by 1921; this ruinously expensive project was motored by his and Stravinsky’s enthusiasm for what they now recognized as a masterpiece of classicism.
The exceptional ballerina Olga Spessivtseva was among the new blood Diaghilev transfused into that ballet’s old framework. But once Mr. Scheijen has recorded that the “Sleeping Princess” was a fiasco (planned as a long-running blockbuster, it closed after only 107 performances, leaving Diaghilev with astronomical debts), he never mentions Petipa or Spessivtseva again. Nor does he relate that, according to Stravinsky, its disastrous first night caused Diaghilev another breakdown. You wouldn’t know from this narrative that, between 1922 and 1929, Diaghilev presented hundreds of successful performances of one-act excerpts from choreography attributed to Petipa. He programmed these alongside his modern repertory, revitalizing ballet by showing the connections between past and present.
Diaghilev’s mixed feelings for George Balanchine get short shrift too. Balanchine was always grateful (other sources reveal) for the artistic education Diaghilev gave him, and the two men enjoyed talking. Yet Diaghilev felt more detached than he had been with those choreographers he had both bedded and molded; Balanchine was heterosexual, independent and remarkably proficient.
Even so, Diaghilev took more pleasure in the young man’s masterpiece “Apollon Musagète” (1928, known today as “Apollo”) than Mr. Scheijen does. “What he is doing is magnificent,” Diaghilev commented on “Apollo" in rehearsal. “It is pure classicism, such as we have not seen since Petipa’s.”
Mr. Scheijen’s biography, while it is an important addition to the large shelf of Diaghilev literature, cannot stand as the definitive one. It’s a tribute to Diaghilev’s Protean diversity that no biography of him fully satisfies.
The Beauty Cultist
In December of 1874, when Serge Diaghilev was 2 years old, he stood in the drawing room of his home in St. Petersburg, belly thrust out, and took in the spectacle of the family Christmas tree. He “gravely inspected the tree with its glittering lights,” his stepmother recalled in her memoirs, “glanced at the toys placed around it and said quietly, ‘Not bad. . . .’ ”
Thirty-eight years later, at the premiere of the Nijinsky ballet “Le Sacre du Prin-temps,” a riot broke out at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. As Stravinsky’s dissonant score pulsed, as the dancers of the Ballets Russes darted and scuttered, whispers in the audience gave way to agitated shouts and screams. Stravinsky himself, according to one account, “dashed out like a madman.” At a restaurant afterward, celebrating with his collaborators, a contented Diaghilev declared, “Exactly what I wanted.”
From the discriminating toddler to the triumphant impresario: Diaghilev, as one gathers from Sjeng Scheijen’s meaty and rigorously researched new biography, could never have been any other than he was — a brilliant promoter of innovation, an unapologetic lover of chaos, an impeccable judge of both art and the public’s hunger for it, a man who in his tireless quest to dazzle became if not a god, then at least a sun, one who drew the brightest artists of his era into his orbit.
“Diaghilev resolved to transform his age and consecrated his life to the cult of beauty,” Scheijen writes. The dominant facets of that life — the glamour of his associations; his chronic troubles with money; his exploding of traditions in ballet, music and the visual arts — are well chronicled. The contribution of Scheijen, a Dutch historian of Russian art, is a scholarly synthesis of previous accounts, buttressed by material from heretofore unplumbed archives. His “Diaghilev: A Life” is especially excellent on its subject’s formative years, on how the chubby boy became the hedonist to whom, as Cocteau once wrote, “life was tolerable only to the extent to which he could summon up marvels.”
Diaghilev grew up mostly in Perm. His mother died soon after his birth, and he was raised by his father, a military man turned maladroit businessman, and a “dreamy” stepmother who taught young Serge never to utter the words “I can’t.” The Diaghilevs made and lost their fortune in vodka distilleries. All the while, Scheijen writes, “they lived like kings.” Their home, according to a boyhood friend of Serge, was “the Athens of Perm,” host to salons and soirees swirling with intellectuals and musicians. Even on the brink of bankruptcy, the family mustered the rubles to send 18-year-old Serge on a tour of Europe, where he forwent meals to buy opera tickets and attended his first ballet. (“It really is all so delightful!” he wrote home.)
As a law student in St. Petersburg he corresponded with Tolstoy, an early celebrity trophy, to whom he asserted that “the dream and purpose of my life are to work creatively in the realm of the arts.” He made his first splash as a collector and curator, hobnobbing with painters and dealers, writing reviews, staging groundbreaking exhibitions and, with Alexandre Benois and Léon Bakst, founding the progressive arts journal Mir Iskusstva, all of which culminated in his being appointed a functionary of the Imperial Theaters.
Before 1900, Diaghilev had shown little interest in ballet (“frivolous,” many Russians called it). But his friend Walter Nouvel, part of the Mir Iskusstva circle, championed the dance. “That vague, inexpressible, elusive feeling, to which modern literature is trying to give voice,” he once wrote, “must find, and in all likelihood will find, its realization in ballet.” Scheijen speculates that Diaghilev’s ideas were less romantic, that he embraced ballet partly to curry favor with Czar Nicholas II, a fan. But whether the motivation was strategic or aesthetic, it was not long before Diaghilev, in his travels abroad, was using ballet to excite and offend.
Scheijen’s writing, as translated from the Dutch by Jane Hedley-Prôle and S. J. Leinbach, is lucid and occasionally wry, if rarely stirring. He makes up for this by quoting liberally from the letters and diaries of Diaghilev’s contemporaries, who after all had enough stir in them to realign the entire universe of Western art. No dry stretch goes on too long before we are treated to some fervent dispatch, some ardent recollection.
Diaghilev founded the Ballets Russes in 1909, and immediately it became a nexus for the French avant-garde. Proust wrote that the company “aroused Paris . . . with a fever of curiosity that was less bitter, more purely aesthetic, but perhaps quite as intense as the Dreyfus Affair.” The electricity that surrounded it is evidenced in the briefest listing of its associates and admirers: Apollinaire, Chanel, Matisse, Miró, Prokofiev, Satie; Picasso, who literally married into the company; and of course the dancers and choreographers — Fokine, Karsavina, Lifar, Massine, Nijinsky, Pavlova, Balanchine.
The Ballets throbbed with the anxiety and rapture of creativity, persevering through clashes of egos, financial distress and homelessness (disowned early on by St. Petersburg, it did not secure a permanent base, in Monte Carlo, until 1923). Diaghilev, Benois wrote, subscribed to “the psychology of the hectic, everything on the boil.” Scheijen scrupulously recounts highs and lows, although his predilections can cloud the picture; a throwaway line, “the Picasso ballets ‘Parade’ and ‘Pulcinella,’ ” may best illustrate his biases. Details are ample but often glancingly delivered. Lacking are evocative characterizations of the artistic movements of the day or the dances themselves. These topics have monopolized the attention of numerous authors (“Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes,” by Lynn Garafola, would ideally come packaged with this biography as critical supplement). But here, what eludes the reader who may arrive unacquainted is a deep immersion in the political and artistic concepts that inspired Diaghilev and his coterie, a palpable sense of what made his company such a revelation.
Prosaic matters are largely kept at a distance, save when skirmishes grow dangerous enough to disrupt Diaghilev’s plans. During World War I, as the beau monde sped in nurses’ vans to the aid of the troops (Cocteau sported “a natty little uniform designed by the couturier Poiret”), Diaghilev retreated to Italy, where he concentrated his energies on the “artistic education” of Massine, his protégé du jour.
Ah, yes — Scheijen keenly dissects – Diaghilev’s love life, whose patterns bring to mind a line (about high school girls) from the movie “Dazed and Confused”: “I get older, they stay the same age.” Diaghilev loved beautiful young men, and at a time when the fashion in ballet was to exchange patronage for sex, his company provided a bounty. Scheijen dexterously plays his sources against one another to examine the erotic and professional dynamics between Diaghilev and his stars. (He argues convincingly, for one, that Nijinsky, portrayed by past biographers as a passive actor in a game of Swap the Boy Toy, was in fact an active pursuer of the maestro.)
Diaghilev cavorted insistently outside the sphere of the average mortal, until the accumulated bacchanalia caught up with him. He died in 1929, from complications of diabetes, broke, estranged from lifelong allies, exiled from family and country. Yet Scheijen suggests that such temporal concerns were not the measure by which Diaghilev was meant to be judged. The book concludes with a letter from Nouvel to Stravinsky: “He was a pagan, and a Dionysian pagan. . . . He died in love and beauty, under the tender smile of those gods whom all his life he passionately served and worshipped. And I think Christ cannot but love such a man.”
JENNIFER B. MCDONALD
editor at the Book Review
By Sjeng Scheijen
Translated by Jane Hedley-Prôle and S. J. Leinbach
Illustrated. 552 pages. Oxford University Press. $39.95