'Diaghilev's Empire' - how the Ballets Russes rocked the dance world

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday November 1, 2022
Share this Post:
author Rupert Christiansen
author Rupert Christiansen

If you were really somebody in Paris at the 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du printemps" ("The Rite of Spring"), you weren't just in the Theatre des Champs-Elysees. You were in the car that spirited a distinguished quartet to the after-party: Stravinsky himself, the Ballets Russes impresario Serge Diaghilev, Diaghilev's muse, principal dancer, and love interest, Vaslav Nijinsky, and Count Harry Kessler.

Vaslav Nijinsky and Serge Diaghilev  

We know this from Kessler's own account in his essential, spellbinding diary, "Journey to the Abyss." An aristocratic gay aesthete, Kessler seems to have been everywhere of consequence during the Belle Epoque leading up to World War I, and he and his diaries make frequent appearances, always salient, in "Diaghilev's Empire: How the Ballets Russes Enthralled the World" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Rupert Christiansen's absorbing new chronicle of one of history's most influential dance companies.

True to its title, and despite a catalog of the names of some of the most well-known artists of the Belle Epoque and beyond, the book maintains a keen focus on Diaghilev, whose florid character lent the vivid colors to his company and its legendary repertoire.

Igor Stravinsky's 'Le Sacre du Printemps' ('The Rite of Spring')  

High-brow immorality
By the time his aging, already declining company entered its second decade, the Ballet Russes mounted two American tours, where its "European" values shocked consciousnesses and consciences —and sold tickets. Before its appearance in Kansas City, a local official sent advance word to Dogleaf that "This is a strictly moral town, and we won't stand for any of that high-brow immorality."

Christiansen's summary judgment of Diaghilev comes early: "He was neither intellectual nor theorist, and he had no creative gifts of his own —the ideas were harvested largely from others."

But like no one else in the world of the "high" arts, Diaghilev knew how to put on a show, and Christiansen, a dance critic for a quarter-century who shares his subject's sweet tooth for opera, puts on one of his own recounting it.

Vaslav Nijinsky in a publicity photo for 'Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun"  

It's not for nothing that, today, only balletomanes have associations with Diaghilev that go beyond that infamous "Rite of Spring," which caused a riot in the audience at its premiere. Popular lore has it that the scandal was in the pit, with Stravinsky's raucous score. But Christiansen takes the position, uncontroversial among historians and his fellow critics, that the outrage was over the dancing, not that the high-society Parisian audience who arrived expecting the latest in ballet were wont to apply the term to the angular, foot-stomping on parade in Vaslav Nijinsky's quasi-primitive and proto-modernist choreography.

The Rite stuff
Kessler wrote of the premiere, "The public...was from the beginning restless, laughing, whistling, making jokes... The commotion became general....Above this crazy din there continued the salvos of laughter and scornful clapping while the music raged and on the stage the dancers, without flinching, danced fervently in a prehistoric fashion."

Serge Diaghilev on a ship headed to the U.S.  

"The Rite" was not the first of Diaghilev's towering innovations, but it changed the world not just of dance but of the arts overall. Now even regional orchestras know —and play— the score.

At the turn of the century, Christiansen writes, ballet was "moribund and infantilized, surviving either as over-stuffed family-friendly entertainment for court theaters ... or as part of a fancy parade in superior variety halls," ... "vaudeville turns offering a pas de deux sandwiched between performing dogs and jugglers." By harnessing the creative powers of many of the giants of the early-20th-century arts, Diaghilev changed it forever, tossing family entertainment into the aisles.

Kessler opined that "this Russian ballet [is] one of the most remarkable and significant manifestations of our time.... We are truly witnessing the birth of a new art."

Christiansen's take is that "the Ballets Russes adumbrated a new form of sensuality, challenging conventional demarcations of masculinity and femininity as well as fostering a distinctly homosexual subculture in its audience." At Diaghilev's urging, Nijinsky — "aways at his most inspired when performing on the cusp of what is human"— kicked the fru-fru out of the tutu.

Vaslav Nijinsky in a publicity photo for 'Scheherazade'  

The boys in the band
The Pole had previously shocked Parisian audiences with his highly eroticized version of Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun," which ended in simulated masturbation until even Diaghilev had to tone it down. Heterosexual, Nijinsky early recognized what the Russian impresario could do for him and his career, and, was, like a succession of other dancers and men in Diaghilev's sphere over the years, "compliant" in the bedroom.

The author is appreciative of Nijinsky's genius and compassionate about his slow descent into madness brought on by chronic paranoid schizophrenia. One of the lingering images from this busy, comprehensive, detail-oriented study is of the reconciled Nijinsky sitting in a theater box, at Diaghilev's initiation, witnessing another dancer in the role of Petrushka, which he had created, now immobile and all but drooling in his seat, too insensible to the situation for envy.

A subplot of Christiansen's study is the parade of young men, usually heterosexual, often but not always from the lower classes, who earned their day in the sun with nights in Diaghilev's bed, enduring for as long as they could. Well after he was part of it, Stravinsky decried "the perversity of Diaghilev's entourage —a kind of homosexual Swiss guard."

Leonid Massine as Joseph in the 'Legend of Joseph' (1914); cover photo of the Journal 'Comoedia Illustre'  

Nijinsky's successor in the rehearsal room and the bedroom was his physical opposite, the willowy young Leonid Massine, another straight man whose tenure far outlasted Nijinsky's. While "The Rite," for all its importance, lasted only a handful of performances, including in London, Massine's masterwork, "Parade," held the stage for a comparative eternity. It featured a score by Erik Satie, a story by Jean Cocteau, and sets by the up-and-coming artist Pablo Picasso.

At an impressively young age, conductor-to-be Igor Markevich capitulated to what Christiansen calls "Diaghilev's uncomplicated sexual urges," later declining to accuse Diaghilev of exploitation. "[Diaghilev] certainly can't be accused of favoring or promoting pretty boys of mediocre talent," Christiansen observes drily, "and it could be argued that his relationships with Nijinsky and Massine ... would have been no different had he not been sexually involved with them."

Christiansen is equally considerate of the rise of the Ballet Russe and of its fall, following the death of Dighilev from diabetes at 57. Without overlooking its occasional tawdriness, he writes of the company's decline as a period of survival that also yielded some important artistic developments, not the least of them the fostering of the career of George Balanchine.

Sympathetic even with the opportunists who rushed into the gap presented by Diaghilev's death, his medical condition a surprise to most, Christiansen ends his study asserting, "They are true balletomanes all, making a reverent bow of sorts to Diaghilev's revolutionary endeavor —a phenomenon of rich progeny that enchanted and exalted millions and leaves its mark on history as one of the greater beauties created by the fraught and largely ugly twentieth century."

'Diaghilev's Empire: How the Ballets Russes Enthralled the World' by Rupert Christiansen. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 350 pages, $35. www.us.macmillan.com

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.