[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/93564?ns=guardian&pageName=Sergey+Diaghilev+assessed+by+Simon+Callow%3AArticle%3A1304186&ch=Stage&c3=Guardian&c4=Stage%2CBallets+Russes%2CDance%2CCulture+section&c6=Simon+Callow&c7=09-Nov-14&c8=1304186&c9=Article&c10=Feature&c11=Stage&c13=&c25=&c30=content&h2=GU%2FStage%2FBallets+Russes[/img]Simon Callow on the great impresario Sergey Diaghilev of the Ballets Russes
In the theatre, there is a distinction to be made between an impresario and a producer. Sergey Diaghilev was both. He produced the work â that is to say, he raised the money, hired the artists and the craftsmen and ensured that the show opened on time â and he did all this superbly. But what has made him legendary is that he also created the conditions in which the work was initiated, he prepared the public for it, and he made sure that when it was done, it was the cynosure of the artistic world. This is the work of the impresario, who must be part huckster, part rallier of the troops, part goad and tormentor of his artists, part keeper of their artistic conscience, part networker. He needs to be absolutely in tune with the public and always ahead of it, and to create a perpetual excitement around the work. He must be a huge personality, but he is never the creator of the work itself.
It seems an impossible job description, but Diaghilev was all of these things and more, and an important new biography by the Dutch cultural historian Sjeng Scheijen (Diaghilev: A Life, translated by SJ Leinbach, published by Profile, £25) is the sober record of his sensational modus operandi.
Scheijen begins at the end, with a magnificent meditation on his subject's death in Venice. Like his early idol, Richard Wagner ("the little monster from Bayreuth," as he called him), Diaghilev predicted that he would die in the mythic, chimerical city on the water, and that his death, like Wagner's, would thus become a work of art. For him La Serenissima epitomised western civilisation. But it also had another, even greater significance: it was dying. And although he started as a conservative (a conservator, in fact), he soon became possessed by the conviction that the old must always give way to the new. When he was told that the Campanile was thought to be in danger of collapsing, Diaghilev observed that "the culture of 20 centuries, pressing down on our shoulders, prevents us from creating, and if, along with San Marco's Campanile, the whole of our beloved Venice were to tumble down, we would go mad with grief but . . . for men of the future there would be one serious obstacle the less." This was at the turn of the century, long before he had begun his promotion of the avant garde.
Drawing on a great deal of new research, and relying wherever possible on contemporary journals and letters, Scheijen puts Diaghilev into a different frame to any of his previous biographers. He shows us a man "driven by an overpowering need to explore the mystery of human creativity in its highest form" who "resolved to transform his age and consecrate his life to the cult of beauty."
He debunks many of the myths about Diaghilev, revealing how much effort and scholarship went into his dazzling achievements: first the St Petersburg magazine The World of Art (Mir isskustva) which Diaghilev edited, then the ground-breaking exhibitions of Russian art he curated, and finally, the creation of the Ballets Russes. Discrediting Diaghilev's own story of the circumstances of his birth â his mother, he said, died in childbirth as a result of the inordinate size of his head â he shows that she died three months later of peritonitis. There was, though, something physically egregious, compelling, almost lordly, about the boy; though on his own admission, he was no beauty: "your black-eyed piglet," he signed himself to his beloved step-mother. Nor was he particularly gifted scholastically; what he excelled at was getting other people to do the work for him.
His family â landed gentry who had become suddenly rich manufacturing vodka â lived like kings, which set the pattern for Diaghilev; like him, they teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, in their case finally tipping over. There is a Chekhovian feel, well conveyed by Scheijen, to this childhood: they lived in Perm (where Three Sisters is set) and even had an Uncle Vanya. Their life was filled with music-making, high-spirited games and amateur theatre. When he was six, young Sergey took part in a play called Sleeping Beauty: "I was the prince . . . I kissed Beauty's hand, and she woke up," which was pretty well the effect he would have on Russian art and the art of ballet.
He enrolled at the university to read law, but barely even pretended to study; he wanted to play the piano, to sing and to compose. At none of these activities was he outstanding, as he soon acknowledged. His failure as a composer helped him realise that his genius, as Scheijen says, "lay in perceiving the genius of others". His own famous self-analysis is somewhat harsher: "First, I'm a charlatan, although one with flair; second, I'm a great charmer; third, I've great nerve; fourth, I am a man with a great deal of logic and few principles; and fifth, I think I lack talent. But I think I've found my calling." Scheijen provides superb glimpses of his personality in action: "part over-sensitive aesthete, part coarse Hussar", as his friend Alexandre Benois said, with his extraordinary laugh: "The hinges of his jaws opened to expose a vast interior vista." Cocteau said it was the laugh of a very young crocodile. "The charm of that man," said the English impresario C B Cochran, sensing himself seriously outclassed, "could revive a corpse."
He gathered around him a group of artists who underpinned his whole operation, many of them friends from childhood, supplemented by his valet Vasily and his old nanny: his family in art, in effect. His personality, autocratic, superstitious, impulsive, affectionate, was the glue that held them together: he had, said Benois, "an individual gift for creating a romantic working climate, and with him all work had the charm of a risky escapade".
The emotional dynamics of the group were volatile and complex in the extreme. Benois superbly calls this "the psychology of the hectic". Naturally, it was as annoying as it was inspiring, even to the inner circle; to the world outside, it was often enraging. Diaghilev created many enemies, especially in Russia, and this compelled him into Europe, where first the operas and then the ballets conquered audiences with their exoticism and brilliance.
Scheijen masterfully recounts the phenomenal way in which Diaghilev contrived, under virtually impossible circumstances, to nurture a sequence of works, from Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Debussy, Ravel, Falla, Milhaud, designed by Bakst, Picasso, Derain, Matisse, Miró, danced by Nijinsky, Karsavina, Massine, Lifar, choreographed by Fokine, Nijinsky, Nijinska, Massine, each more audacious than the last, many of them still in the repertoire. He formed intensely personal relationships with all these artists, in some cases amorously.
Diaghilev seems to have known from an early age that he was gay, a perception that was confirmed when he was dragged by his father to a brothel at the age of 17, leaving him with a dose of the clap. Thereafter, he pursued beautiful young men. He was averagely promiscuous, but when he loved a young man, it was on the Greek model, trading his wisdom for the boy's beauty, spurring him on to find his own creativity. He liked to involve his boyfriends in his professional life, whether they were secretaries or premiers danseurs. He did this to a legendary degree in the case of Vaslav Nijinsky. Scheijen shows that it was Nijinsky who made all the running at the beginning of their relationship but, unlike Richard Buckle with his wicked indiscretions ("Nijinsky was not large in a part where size is admired"), he fails to bring Diaghilev's amatory self to life â regrettable because it was so intrinsically intertwined with his artistic life.
Where Scheijen triumphs is in making clear the degree to which, despite the cosmopolitanism of so much of the work, Russia was at the core of Diaghilev; Russia, the country he left before the revolution of 1917 and which he never saw again, but whose culture he spent his whole life promoting, wanting it to take its place at the table of western civilisation. Knowing that he would never return, he became suffused with patriotic melancholy; towards the end of his life he started obsessively collecting Pushkin first editions. But he remained utterly committed to the new. As he made his way to Venice to die, he took with him his last lover, the 16-year-old conductor-to-be Igor Markevitch, to meet the then fiercely avant-garde Paul Hindemith: an action which touchingly combines his love of young men, of teaching, and of the new.
He died in the Hotel des Bains, Aschenbach's hotel in Death in Venice. His oldest friend Walter Nouvel wrote: "His death was lovely â like a pagan's. 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."
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