Today is the 150th birthday of the ballet dancer and founder of Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev. To be able to see those performances in the 1920s Paris with collaborations between Debussy, Matisse, Miró, Picasso and Stravinsky. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
NAME: Sergei Diaghilev
OCCUPATION: Journalist, Critic, Songwriter, Ballet Dancer, Choreographer
BIRTH DATE: March 31, 1872
DEATH DATE: August 19, 1929
EDUCATION: University of St. Petersburg
PLACE OF BIRTH: Perm, Russia
PLACE OF DEATH: Venice, Italy
BEST KNOWN FOR: Sergei Diaghilev was a Russian artistic visionary and founder of Ballets Russes, which profoundly shaped the course of the dance/performance world.
Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev was born on March 31, 1872, to a wealthy family at an estate in Perm, Russia. His mother died during childbirth, and he was raised and highly influenced by his stepmother, with whom he maintained a close relationship. Diaghilev’s father was a major general and liquor distiller whose fortunes went bankrupt, with the family losing the estate in 1890. Diaghilev, who was versed in the arts during his upbringing, eventually went on to study law at the University of St. Petersburg, graduating in the mid-1890s, but instead opting to follow his passions and pursue music.
He showcased his own musical compositions before focusing on writing about art with an innovative, unconventional perspective, having immersed himself in a group of figures involved in cultural output. Thus in 1899, Diaghilev launched the magazine Mir Isskustva (“World of Art”).
Diaghilev later became involved with the Maryinsky Theatre, handling editorial projects for the imperial venue as well as overseeing performances. Earning a reputation as a connoisseur of great works, he took a Russian portraiture exhibit over to Paris in 1907. There he also put together concerts featuring composers from his homeland and ran a production of Modest Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov.
In 1909, Diaghilev founded the Ballets Russes, a company that changed the face of the performance world forever. With choreography primarily by dancer Michel Fokine and stage designs by longtime friend and artist Leon Bakst, Russes showcased several ballets that took audiences by storm at the company’s Châtelet Theatre debut.
Russes, with initial dance stars like Vaslav Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova and Ida Rubenstein, went on to run for two decades, became international in its staff—having toured Europe, South America and the U.S.—and even debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1916. The company became known for movements not confined to traditional classicism, defying the convention that female dancers should always be delicate and giving male dancers more of a spotlight.
Diaghilev had a vision that various forms of art could come together onstage, and as such recruited a range of iconic composers to become involved in his productions, including Claude Debussy, Erik Satie and Manuel da Falla, along with visual artists like Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró.
One of his most famous collaborations came in the form of Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky, with Diaghilev staging some of the composer’s early works. These works included 1913’s The Rite of Spring, whose primal, urgent aesthetics caused Parisian audiences to come undone.
Despite the public acclaim, Diaghilev was often an overbearing personality with his company, which also suffered from financial hardships. Diaghilev barely kept things afloat through his own outreach, panache and machinations. (One of the great economic burdens on the company came as a result of the big 1921 staging of The Sleeping Princess, aka Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty.)
Diaghilev was also open about his sexuality and known for his relationships with men, having engaged in affairs with Russes dancers as well, including Nijinsky, Léonide Massine and Serge Lifar. With Nijinsky and Massine, he fired both men after they married and/or entered into relationships with women, with Diaghilev subsequently experiencing breakdowns.
Having suffered from diabetes, Diaghilev became ill and lapsed into a coma after a trip to Venice, Italy, dying there on August 19, 1929. His work and ideas deeply affected how various parts of the art and performance worlds continue to come together, with a large number of dance companies and organizations based on the Ballets Ruses concept. A well-received biography of the iconic producer was released in 2010—Diaghilev: A Life by Sjeng Scheijen.