Diaghilev, Sergei

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DIAGHILEV, SERGEI (1872–1929), Russian art critic and ballet impresario.

Born in Novgorod Province of an aristocratic family, Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev became—like many other Russian provincials (Peter Tchaikovsky and Anton Chekhov, for example)—one of the great figures in the history of Russian culture. Unlike them, he had no notable talent in any of the arts, but possessed an unquenchable love for them, impeccable taste, and savvy business skills. Diaghilev studied law in St. Petersburg at the alma mater of Tchaikovsky, Vladimir Stasov, and Vladimir Lenin, and staggered his legal lessons with study at the Conservatory of Music, which had been founded a decade before his birth. Possessing broad and deep aesthetic erudition, Diaghilev was consumed by art history, music, and theater and managed to publish an able volume on eighteenth-century Russian portraiture in 1902. But it was the public and international face of art—particularly contemporary art—not scholarship that came to fill his life.

With the artist Alexander Benois, Diaghilev coedited a sumptuously illustrated journal, The World of Art (1898–1904). In an effort to make Russian graphic art known to Europe, already under the thrall of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy, Diaghilev organized shows in Berlin, Paris, Monte Carlo, and Venice in 1906 and 1907. From 1907, he brought the "Historical Russian Concerts" to Europe, with the participation of the composers Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Sergei Rachmaninov, and Alexander Glazunov; the singer Fyodor Chaliapin; the pianist Josef Hofmann; and the conductor Arthur Nikisch. In St. Petersburg, The World of Art sponsored

"Evenings of Contemporary Music" from 1902, featuring the works of Gustav Mahler, Claude Debussy, Arnold Schoenberg, Max Reger, Alexander Scriabin, and Rachmaninov. At one of these, Diaghilev met Igor Stravinsky whom he persuaded to compose the music for Petrushka (Petrouchka). Thus Diaghilev paved a two-way street between the cultures of Europe and Russia, old and new.

In 1908 began the "Seasons of Russian Opera" in Paris, which included Modest Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, Rimsky-Korsakov's The Maid of Pskov, and a handful of excerpts. Diaghilev's biggest triumph, the ballet seasons, introduced the European public to Stravinsky's three early masterpieces: Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913). The modernity of the latter set off a well-known scandal at its Paris premiere that catapulted Diaghilev's name into world renown. Driven by the Wagnerian dream of a total work of art, Diaghilev fused original dance forms, music, and decor into fantastic spectacles that thrilled audiences in Europe and later in the United States and Latin America. A master at harnessing (and manipulating) talented people, he pressed into service Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, and a whole string of French composers; the set designers Benois, Nicholas Roerich, Lèon Bakst, and Pablo Picasso; the choreographer Michel Fokine and others; and the legendary dancers Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, and Vaslav Nijinsky.

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 and the Russian Revolution of 1917 cut Diaghilev off from his native land and he could no longer draw new dancing talent from the great Imperial theaters—the Maryinsky in St. Petersburg (Petrograd after 1914) and the Bolshoi in Moscow. In exile, the impresario traveled the globe with his Diaghilev Ballet, which had premiered in 1913. In the 1920s, his thirst for innovation pushed him further into modernism and avant-garde forms, including the use of acrobatic tricks. Contrary to received opinion, Diaghilev did not remain wholly alien to Soviet culture. In 1927 he staged in Paris and London, with Lèonide Massine as director, Prokofiev's little-known ballet, Pas d'acier (The steel step), a wildly modern and experimental constructivist work set in a factory, with a clear "proletarian" plot. Soon after, however, the Diaghilev tradition and the emerging Soviet style under Joseph Stalin parted company. In many ways, Soviet ballet defined itself as a negation of Diaghilev and opted for lengthy narrative works, often done up in an academic manner. Diaghilev's 1921 London staging of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty, first choreographed by the masterful Marius Petipa, failed to recapture the magic of the older version. Diaghilev died in Venice in 1929, but his ballet company, under varying names, most famously the Ballets russes de Monte Carlo, carried on long after his death.

The controversies surrounding the life of the stormy impresario fall into the personal and the artistic. The former—all too familiar in the world of theater—involved Diaghilev's titanic ego, explosive temper, and alleged sexual misuse of his male dancers, Nijinsky in particular. Diaghilev's cruel streak was captured brilliantly by Anton Walbrook in the 1948 film The Red Shoes. Far more interesting was Diaghilev's contribution to the world of theater arts. Even Soviet scholars—who routinely accused Diaghilev of promoting "reactionary bourgeois modernism"—conceded readily that his and his colleagues' earlier work had contributed in a major way to the reanimation of ballet in Europe and to the establishment of national and private ballet companies around the world.

See alsoAvant-Garde; Dostoyevsky, Fyodor; Nijinsky, Vaslav; Paris; Stravinsky, Igor.


Buckle, Richard. Diaghilev. London, 1979.

Dyagilev i ego epokha. St. Petersburg, 2001.

Eksteins, Modris. The Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age. Toronto, 1989.

Garafola, Lynn. Diaghilev's Ballets russes. New York, 1989.

Rosenfeld, Alla. Defining Russian Graphic Arts: From Diaghilev to Stalin, 1898–1934. New Brunswick, N.J., 1999.

Scholl, Tim. From Petipa to Balanchine: Classical Revival and the Modernization of Ballet. London, 1994.

Richard Stites