The opening paragraph of Sjeng Scheijen's biography cuts boldly to the chase: Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929) "transformed the world of dance, theatre, music and the visual arts as no one had ever done before (or has done since)". Scheijen's expansive, immensely readable text then sifts and substantiates its ostensibly extravagant premise, detailing Diaghilev's fruitful, often tumultuous rapport with Vaslav Nijinsky, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Sergei Prokofiev and Henri Matisse, among incandescent others. Peripatetic yet passionately Russian, by turns gracious and cunning, generous and self-absorbed (Claude Debussy called him "that terrible and charming man"), Diaghilev emerges as a web of contradictions buttressed by unwavering ardour for the incomparable Ballets Russes he founded and sustained.
Ballets Russes buffs should not expect major revelations, but rather a balanced overview enhancing understanding of the cultural context that Diaghilev significantly helped to shape. Scheijen cites edifying correspondence as he tracks the young Diaghilev negotiating aesthetic and budgetary minefields while producing Mir Iskusstva (The World of Art), a journal striving to transcend national determinations for art while tapping the distinctly Russian perspective of its core contributors (Diaghilev, Alexandre Benois, Leon Bakst, Walter Nouvel and Dmitry Filosofov - Diaghilev's cousin and first great love). Championing renewal for the visual arts, the meticulously illustrated Mir Iskusstva prompted both acclaim and debate among St Petersburg's artistic elite.
A Life shines especially when focused on relationships. The openly homosexual Diaghilev maintained important and intimate bonds with women. His beguiling correspondence with his stepmother, Yelena, includes him signing off as "your black-eyed piglet, the son of your heart, your 11-year-old grandfather, your little friend", and, in 1902, the startlingly prescient assertion that he would emulate Richard Wagner and "come to Venice to die", as he would do (intensely superstitious, Diaghilev avoided sea voyages after a fortune-teller predicted he would die "on the water"). Misia Sert was a lifelong confidante and sometime sponsor, and Diaghilev was likewise devoted to ballerina Tamara Karsavina and to Coco Chanel, who designed the costumes for Le Train Bleu.
Generally operating at a hair's breadth from bankruptcy, Diaghilev had tempestuous relations with collaborators, and his rapport with Igor Stravinsky was no exception. They squabbled endlessly about money, yet were extremely close: Stravinsky ends one letter with a "brotherly kiss", and when his wife was convalescing from an operation, Diaghilev cared for their children in Monaco.
Stravinsky's compositions underpinned some of the greatest triumphs of the Ballets Russes - The Firebird, Petrushka, Le Sacre du Printemps (with its infamous premiere), Pulcinella, Les Noces, Apollon Musagete among others - and Diaghilev's belief in his genius never wavered. The two were sadly estranged when Diaghilev died, leaving Stravinsky shocked and distressed.
Diaghilev was 35 to Nijinsky's 17 when he met the fledgling sensation, and their affair proved the most notorious instance of his Pygmalion-like penchant for younger men (Leonide Massine, Anton Dolin and Serge Lifar would perpetuate the pattern). Scheijen stresses the complexities of the attraction, however, noting that while Nijinsky was a protege of sorts, the two pursued each other with mutual fervour.
He disputes the casting of Nijinsky as a victim by his biographers, arguing that he became Diaghilev's lover as a career move and to enrich his intellectual growth, and that Diaghilev was, at least initially, hesitant to become involved.
A supremely charismatic dancer, Nijinsky ventured into increasingly radical choreographic terrain, provoking rivalry with the more conventionally classical Michel Fokine and eliciting tension among the Ballets Russes ranks. In L'apres Midi d'un Faune, the movements of the dancers in profile, as from a Greek relief, were arguably as disconcerting as the final, masturbatory gesture, while Sacre in turn defiantly eschewed the erotic, exotic glamour of the company's incipient years.
Scheijen depicts Diaghilev's anguish over Nijinsky's marriage and the cruelty of his firing him, owing him money as he did. Nijinsky's appearance at the premiere of Les Noces, intended for him and then innovatively choreographed by his sister, Bronislava Nijinska, and later at Petrushka, which he had earlier performed so poignantly, failed utterly to shake his schizophrenia.
The commentary on the productions is less consistently engaging, although sometimes masterful. Scheijen offers a nuanced analysis of Petrushka, underscoring the influence of Stanislavsky's dramatic techniques on Fokine's approach. Fokine gave the corps de ballet a significant dramatic function, and even sketched out mini-biographies for each role, encouraging the dancers to bring their characters to life. Scheijen observes that the mimetic nature of Petrushka "struck a subtle blow against the empty acrobatics of the academic style", and astutely addresses the libretto's depiction of the Moor character and the surprising lack of commentary about the ballet's racist bent. In contrast, he depicts La Chatte as "among the most important of Diaghilev's late productions", but neglects to explain how, or why, George Balanchine's choreography is "brilliant", and only sketchily explicates Naum Gabo's constructivist scenography.
Quibbles aside, A Life is terrific - a must for anyone intrigued by the Ballets Russes and the ingenious impresario indelibly linked with its achievements.
Diaghilev: A Life
By Sjeng Scheijen
Profile Books, 560pp, £25.00
Published 15 October 2009