Diaghilev’s lush genius revealed

In search of a new Russian identity, the Ballets Russes created a universal language. Glance at the magnificent costumes for the Ballets Russes presented at the National Gallery of Art in Washington until October 6.
Mikhail Larionov, Costume for the Buffoon's Wife from The Tale of the Buffoon, 1921. Source: Victoria and Albert Museum

Impresario Serge Diaghilev had a storied career chock full of memorable evenings and maverick productions, yet one night still stands out a century later.

“The Rite of Spring,” with music by Igor Stravinsky and choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, caused a rare riot of tuxedo-clad patrons when it was first performed in 1913 at the Theater des Champs-Elysees.

Dissonant harmonies inspired by a deconstruction of folk melodies and uncomfortable, staccato steps based on peasant dances shocked the audience out of submission. Later, many celebrated the pioneering work while some critics referred to “Rite of Spring” as barbaric.

Still, today, no one knows how much Diaghilev knew or hoped the sensational opening night would lead to a scandal. We do know that audiences had never seen anything like this before.

Diaghilev had secured his place at the center of a new Russian art movement - outside of Russia. What began as an exploration of the arts as exotic, foreign and sumptuous transformed into an experimental, avant-garde movement led by Diaghilev, with his many partners: Nijinsky, Stravinsky, Debussy, Satie, and Picasso, Fokine and Massine, as well as dancers like Nijinska and Pavlova. It embodied a new and restless Russia yet had an impact on the art that has come since.

Diaghilev’s magnificent career, and the ways in which he advanced the aesthetic of the times he lived in is captured in vivid and exhilarating detail at the National Gallery of Art’s (NGA) exhibit “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes 1909-1929.”

NGA associate curator of photographs Sarah Kennel said that while Cubism had already originated in visual arts, “‘The Rite of Spring’ was the first public declaration of modernist aesthetics. Here all of a sudden you had a public rupture with past traditions.”

The show at the NGA has recently been extended until October 6. “We always felt the run time was too short,” said Kennel. “Every institution lending [artwork] agreed to extend for another month, which was a nice vote of confidence,” she said.

No dance company has been as influential since, and it’s arguable that no impresario has inspired such a fusion of revolutionary artists. Diaghilev secured money from influential patrons to not only produce cutting edge shows, but to tour them in the most and least metropolitan of cities, from New York to Birmingham Alabama, where the ballet, “Scheherazade” was considered obscene.

But the overt, if dancerly, eroticism and sexy, diaphanous costumes of “Scheherazade” also caused a mighty sensation. Women started wearing turbans and feathers and harem pants and hosted themed parties. The Russian stars of Ballets Russes cultivated and exploited a certain Orientalism and exoticism in their early works.

They also introduced the West to textiles and folk culture from places like Uzbekistan and Ukraine. In many ways, the company, from its choreographers to its set designers and costume artists, was also in search of a new Russian identity in the world at a time of great upheaval at home.

Life in Perm and a Letter to Tolstoy

The exhibit and catalogue pay due attention to Serge Diaghilev the man. He was raised in Perm within an aristocratic family that eventually lost its fortune.

But during his childhood, his stepmother created a cultural biosphere for him in the Northern Urals. “The Diaghilevs did everything possible to reassure themselves there that they were not living in the Wild East but in a province of Europe,” Sjeng Sheijen writes in the catalogue.

On his 21st birthday, Diaghilev wrote a letter to Leo Tolstoy, who he had met that same year. In this poignant letter, Diaghilev tells Tolstoy that the first question that “afflicted me was connected to sexuality. I tried to solve that question…by finding a sense of direction as best I could.” But more agonizing for Diaghilev than his sexual identity—he eventually was accepting of and happy with his homosexuality—was his fear of death. His passions seem to fly in the face of his fear of the ‘total and irrevocable discontinuity of my existence.’”

As he gained confidence in his role as a producer and innovator, he also became more confident in his homosexuality. But not everyone was as happy with his “coming out.” Among his friends, especially those in the U.K., there was a level of puritan disapproval. But ultimately, he brought the same showmanship and desire to shock to his personal life as he did to his artistic life.

The Ballets Russes Revolution

Watching recreations of the 1917 ballet “Parade,” one cannot be less than awestruck by Pablo Picasso’s costumes, the tight choreography, and Stravinsky’s music. The ballet appears crisp and contemporary.

It’s clear that what Sarah Kennel writes is true: “The signal achievement of the Ballets Russes was the spirit of open collaboration it fostered. For twenty years, the company produced dazzling and innovative spectacles born of the robust dialogues between choreographers, dancers, artists and musicians.”

Diaghilev had always planned to take his Ballets Russes back home to Russia for a triumphant tour, but each time his efforts were met with bad luck or turmoil at home.

In one instance the theater in St. Petersburg where they were slated to perform burned down.

After the Russian Revolution, there was little to no chance for a celebratory return. His was an itinerant Russian company, first spawned from the Imperial Ballet of Russia, but Europe was to be their base.

What this show at the NGA drives home most colorfully is the huge contribution Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes made to modernism. Looking at Leger’s painting “Exit the Ballets Russes,” one sees clearly that the dancers’ explorations had a profound impact on the Cubists as well. The company’s search for identity found something much more universal: a modernist language that all the arts began to share.

Serge Diaghilev was born in 1872 in Novgorod and spent much of his childhood in Perm. In 1890 Diaghilev arrived in St. Petersburg to study law but threw himself into a cultural renaissance.

He co-founded Russia’s first fine arts magazine called World of Art, and in 1905 curated an influential exhibition of Russian Historical Portraits. Diaghilev organized an exhibition of 200 years of Russian paintings at the Salon d’Automne in Paris that caused a sensation. But he lost government financing in 1909.

Remarking “From opera to ballet is but a step,” he turned to ballet, in part because it was less costly. Diaghilev created a new ballet company: the Ballets Russes was born. His biggest secret was that he was often “just a step ahead of financial ruin.”

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