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Diaghilev's Many Unsung Successes


Edited by Ann Codicek

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Lund Humphries Publishers, distributed in the US by the Antique Collectors Club

175 pp., $35

In the mid-1890s, Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929) wrote a letter to his stepmother when it at last dawned on him that his ambition to be a composer was unrealistic. The letter displays a degree of ironic self-knowledge:

"As for me ... it must be confessed ... from observation, that I am, first, a great charlatan, though with dash, second a great charmer, third cheeky, fourth a person with a lot of logic and few principles, and, fifth, someone afflicted, it seems, with a complete absence of talent. I think I've found my true vocation: to be a patron of the arts. For that I have everything I need except the money...."

Instead of becoming a monied patron, he proceeded to persuade rich and aristocratic people to support his patronage of artists. He became an impresario, one with a flair for obtaining sponsorship.

He became much more than a famous figure in the annals of 20th-century dance. He can be credited with changing its course, with giving it a new impetus and rescuing it from being an art form of low status, obscure and conventional. Modern dance would probably be entirely different but for the achievements of his Ballets Russes company.

He was what today we like to call a facilitator. But by all accounts, his capacity to inspire and stimulate his artists (as well as to organize and bully in often high-handed ways) amounted to a gift commensurate with that of many of the artists themselves.

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The roster of greats who worked for this incorrigible name-dropper and self-publicizer is quite extraordinary. Even he, whose somewhat indolent appearance belied a ruthless energy and uncanny intuitiveness, would undoubtedly have felt that all his efforts had been justified by the fact that, more than 65 years later, he is still indissolubly associated with such names as Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, Picasso, Nijinsky, Massine, Fokine, Balanchine, Chaliapin, Bakst, Benois, Debussy, Satie, Goncharova - the list goes on and on.

Diaghilev's story is told in an exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, (through April 14) and in an accompanying book-cum-catalog, "Diaghilev: Creator of the Ballets Russes: Art, Music, Dance."

The book has a dual role to play, which makes it a little multi-faceted, but its essays add a considerable amount of historical detail to the largely spectacular character of the exhibition. And, of course, the book's useful life continues after the show itself ends. It does not contain, however, very many color plates.

Both show and book concentrate on the years up to about 1914, although - as another well-illustrated book, "The Art of the Ballets Russes" (1991, now sadly out of print), impressively showed, Diaghilev continued to produce a program of highly original productions all through the 1920s and to commission many prominent artists to design them.

The Ballets Russes did not operate in Diaghilev's homeland, but in Paris. Its beginnings were preceded by a series of "Russian Seasons" in that city from 1907 to 1909. These started with concerts and operas, and only gradually shifted into the ballet productions that were to really shake the French cultural capital and make it reassess its assumptions. Diaghilev consciously aimed to demonstrate in the very center of the art world his burning conviction that Russian art, music, and dance were strikingly original - or could be. In the process he also gave Russian art, music, and dance, a new lease on life.

Early in his career, when he was organizing Russian art exhibitions, he observed: "If Europe needs Russian art, then it needs its youth and spontaneity." It was a principle he applied later to his grandiose, uncompromising theatrical projects.

But for all the spontaneity, many of the Diaghilev company's ballets were - paradoxically - thematically traditional. Rus-sian myth and history abounded in their story lines. Not until 1913 did Diaghilev stage a ballet on a contemporary subject. This was "Jeux," a one-act piece about three tennis players (though their ball was football-sized). "Jeux," with music by Debussy and gymnastic choreography by Nijinsky, was not a success at the time.

Even one of Diaghilev's most renowned ballets, Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," had a mixed reception. The outrage of the first-night audience is a story often told. The costume designs and decor by Nikolai Roerich now seem period and even a little quaint in a folky, fairy-tale way, yet apparently they contributed to the feeling of primeval savagery that the ballet's earliest audiences felt. After only a few performances Diaghilev withdrew "The Rite," believing the public was not ready for it.

But since that time, it has been subjected to many versions, and Stravinsky's music for it has long been established as a performance classic in its own right. The ground-breaking originality of this music more than supports the thesis of one of the essays in this new book. Its author, Irina Vershinina, writes: "Diaghilev's special gift as an 'inspirer' ... was no less apparent in the sphere of music than in that of choreography or design."

All told, what he demonstrated, more than anyone had before, was that many kinds of different artists - dancers, designers, composers, and choreographers - could be encouraged, without losing their individual originality, to produce together performance works of unusual potency.

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