Succès de Scandale
A century ago, a Russian law student made his ballet company the talk of Paris. As an exhibition of their costumes opens at Bonhams, Rupert Christiansen revels in the glories of the Ballets Russes

It is no exaggeration to claim that Diaghilev's Ballets Russes changed the course of European culture. In 1909, when the company was formed, ballet was routinely written off as pretty but infantile nonsense, fit only for pantomime. By 1929, when Diaghilev died, the splendour and originality of its performances had astounded and enchanted audiences throughout Europe and the Americas.

Diaghilev's genius was not a matter of outstanding artistic or creative ability. His gifts were those of an impresario, shrewdly commissioning, producing and managing. As his close friend Alexandre Benois put it, "he knew how to will a thing, and he knew how to carry his will into practice... If he wanted something it was scarcely possible to gainsay him." Among the artists he bent to his will were the painters Picasso and Matisse, the composers Debussy, Stravinsky and Prokofiev, and the choreographers Fokine, Massine, Nijinska and Balanchine. The great dancers he had at his disposal included Nijinsky and Karsavina, Markova and Dolin. Diaghilev's relationships with them were often tempestuous, but they invariably paid tribute to his unique skills: his force of personality empowered them. More than a century after the company's debut – in conjunction with Russian Art Week and alongside the Russian Art sale in May – Bonhams New Bond Street will host a celebratory exhibition of Ballets Russes costumes.

Born in 1872, Sergei Diaghilev came from an upper- middle class family that had gained and lost a fortune through a vodka distillery. As a boy, Sergei Pavlovich showed modest talents as a musician, and briefly nursed dreams of becoming a composer. But as a half-hearted law student in St Petersburg, he fell in with a crowd of cultured young men who were infatuated with the opera and ballet. Diaghilev had soon set up the lavish monthly magazine The World of Art, dedicated to expanding Russian taste beyond the dreary realism fashionable at the time. In the process, he educated himself in western European trends. Using this as a springboard, he began to curate exhibitions of Russian art, first in St Petersburg and then in Paris. Their success led him, step by step, to the idea of exporting the great traditions of Russian opera and ballet. He was fortunate to catch the crest of two waves – one being the flowering of a new generation of extraordinary theatrical, musical and artistic talent in Russia; the other was a vogue in the West for exotic and ethnic dance, whether Isadora Duncan performing barefoot or Indian and Japanese styles.

In 1909, Diaghilev's first season of Russian ballet opened in Paris at the Théâtre du Châtelet. The audience had never seen anything to match the technical skill or emotional intensity of these superbly trained dancers, while Léon Bakst's vibrantly coloured sets and costumes, Stravinsky's primitivist music, and Fokine's imaginative choreography for such ballets as The Firebird, Carnaval and Scheherazade made the Ballets Russes the biggest artistic sensation of the years before the First World War – not only in Paris, but soon in London too.

At the heart of the enterprise in these first years was Diaghilev's infatuation with Vaslav Nijinsky, a dancer of astonishing strength and grace. Nijinsky's onstage partnership with the supremely elegant and soulful Tamara Karsavina in Fokine's Le Spectre de la Rose and Petrushka captured the imagination of a generation, but he was almost as influential as a daringly avant-garde choreographer who scandalised audiences by presenting unambiguous masturbation in Prélude à l'Après-midi d'un Faune and wildly stamping peasants in Le Sacre du Printemps – the latter ballet, with its ferocious score by Stravinsky, caused a riot at its première in Paris in 1913.

But Nijinsky was doomed: painfully sensitive, he deserted Diaghilev to marry the Hungarian aristocrat Romola de Pulszky. In furious revenge, Diaghilev fired him. After abortive attempts to run his own ballet troupe, Nijinsky sank into psychotic madness from which he never emerged. He would be succeeded in Diaghilev's affections by Léonide Massine, a much cooler character. His dancing was inferior to Nijinsky's, but he was a choreographer of fertile invention and versatility, who created a series of knockout box-office hits, including the Surrealist romps Parade and La Boutique Fantasque, designed respectively by Picasso and Derain.

Diaghilev's enterprise barely survived the First World War: two tours of the United States proved financially disastrous and many of the dancers returned to Russia, only to be fatally embroiled in the Revolution. In 1918, the dregs of the company were left wandering through neutral Spain, where Massine became obsessed with flamenco – a form of dance that opened a new phase for the company when its fortunes revived in London in 1919. A brilliant gypsy called Félix García was marketed by Diaghilev as 'the Spanish Nijinsky' and briefly became all the rage. Alas, he too ended up mad, one night breaking into St Martin-in-the-Fields church – not far from London's Royal Opera House – and dancing stark naked on the altar. He was incarcerated.

Diaghilev had now turned his back on his homeland. The post-war Ballets Russes became more cosmopolitan and populist in outlook, yet the biggest show it ever staged was a throwback to pre-Revolutionary Tsarist Russia in the form of a lavish reconstruction of Sleeping Beauty, a traditional ballet with a score by Tchaikovsky that Diaghilev had adored in his student days. With a cast of hundreds, and sets and costumes of jaw-dropping magnificence by Léon Bakst, it ran in London's West End for three months in 1921-1922. Despite rave reviews, it did not cover its costs and brought Diaghilev – not for the first or last time – close to bankruptcy.

A move in 1923 to a base in Monte Carlo, where the ballet served as an adjunct attraction to the casino, happened in the nick of time. At last the company had something like a permanent base for rehearsal and administration, and the result was work of a
more daringly experimental nature. Some of it was choreographed by Nijinsky's formidable sister Bronislava Nijinska, who created the stunning evocation of a Russian peasant wedding Les Noces and, in complete contrast, two witty critiques of the Roaring Twenties: Les Biches and Le Train Bleu.

A further wave of young Russian émigrés – including Serge Lifar, who created the title role in George Balanchine's Apollo, the dazzling ballerina Alexandra Danilova, and the composer Sergei Prokofiev – brought the Ballets Russes a final lease of life. But Diaghilev was by now a sick man. He died from complications related to diabetes in his beloved city of Venice in 1929. He had made no money, cared little for
worldly possessions and had as many enemies as he had friends. But his legacy was immense – and for the next half-century, every balletic enterprise in the world dreamed about his achievements and lived in the shadow of their glory.

Rupert Christiansen is opera critic for The Daily Telegraph and currently working on a book about the Ballets Russes.

In Pursuit of the Firebird: A Ballets Russes Exhibition runs at Bonhams, 101 New Bond Street, London W1S 1SR from 28 May to 5 June. Admission free.

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