How the Radical Ballets Russes Brought Ballet into the 20th Century
Diaghilev can usefully be classified among the speculators of modernism – the early 20th century dealers, collectors and patrons who preyed on young marginal artists, composers and writers in rebellion against the piety of their parents: for example, Ambroise Vollard who traded with Cézanne and Picasso; Sylvia Beach who funded James Joyce; the Princesse de Polignac (Winnaretta Singer) who tapped into the family fortune of sewing machines to commission Stravinsky. All of these personalities, like Diaghilev, bought rule breakers cheap and early, whetted the public’s appetite and bided their time. Sometimes their faith deceived them and the investment failed, but they had the courage to take bets based on instinct. Without them, electricity would never have been connected to the grid.
Diaghilev might well have become an art dealer – in the first phase of his career he organized exhibitions – but Russian painting had no potential to shock or captivate. His masterstroke was to understand that ballet had this potential.
By the turn of the century it was moribund and infantilized, surviving either as overloaded family entertainment for court theaters such as the Paris Opera and the Mariinsky in St Petersburg, or as part of a fancy parade in variety rooms. From this jejou material, Diaghilev felt that something better could be made – one-act dramas that could have meaningful content, absorb recent developments in art and music, and work with the social liberations of the post-Victorian era. Now that the dust has settled, it should not be controversial to claim that works such as Nijinsky’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Massine’s Tricorne, Nijinsky’s The Wedding of Sister Bronislava Nijinska , and Balanchine’s Apollo should rank alongside Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time as turning points in our culture.
The appeal of ballet – like that of cinema, which grew in popularity alongside it – was based on movement, its appearance in motion. This is where he scored crucially on the opera. Richard Wagner had championed the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, a theatrical work of art combining musical, visual and philosophical elements, but nothing he created ever achieved this ideal synthesis. His operas might have sounded marvelous, but they looked deadly – scenically cluttered affairs in which the performers were poor actors who stood motionless or ridiculous, however sublime their singing, framed by backdrops painted in an antique realism style with pantomime effects and harsh lighting.
The young mind of the 20th century needed something lighter, calmer and more subtle: it was drawn to anything that moved fast – bicycles, planes, cars, the masterfully timed slapstick of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin – and he had learned to distrust antiquarian realism. . Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes would take care of that.
One day in 1890, Diaghilev arrived in St. Petersburg from the distant city of Perm to study law. He was a headache: crude and a bit too Russian in style for Westernized Petersburgers. His eyes were soulful, with an expression often compared to that of a bulldog, but his temper was exuberant: when he laughed, his wide mouth opened like a cave. No one has ever seen him read a book. “We thought him inferior to us, wrote an intellectual, and we treated him with a certain marked superiority.
He had mastered the art of charming large, sensitive ladies who could give him money, and he had no prejudice against female artistry, to which he would give unprecedented opportunities. But his world would still be predominantly male, and his erotic inclinations were entirely homosexual, specifically directed at the thin young men he could educate. It was something that, surprisingly, he never gloried in or agonized over; he seems to have accepted him simply as he was.
During trips to Europe, Diaghilev skillfully began to collect minor works of the new generation of Symbolists and Impressionists. Back in Saint Petersburg with his little loot, he puffs himself up, adopts a monocle and a dandy’s top hat. He wrote his beloved mother-in-law a frequently quoted letter, blustering with shameless self-knowledge: “First of all, I am a great charlatan, though he has a nose; second, I am a great charmer; third, I have a lot of nerve; fourth, I am a man of great logic and few principles; and fifth, I think I lack talent; but if you want, I believe that I have found my true vocation: patronage of the arts. Everything was given to me except the money, but it will come.