This book, which was sent to me to review, has come out to mark the centenary of the foundation of Sergei Diaghilev's celebrated Ballets Russes. I was rather pleased to get it as I've been fascinated by that amazing and innovative ballet company since I was a teenager, when I read a biography of the great dancer Nijinsky, written by his wife. It's some years since any biography of Diaghilev has appeared, though evidently another is planned to come out later this year.
Born in 1872 into a rather unremarkable, though very musical, family in the Russian provinces, Diaghilev was not particularly academic. His chief passions as a young man were classical music and European travel, something he loved all his life and indulged in frequently with whoever was his latest lover. Introduced in his twenties to theatre, he quickly became fascinated, and soon was arranging to stage an opera, Moussorgsky's Boris Gudunov, in Paris. Back in St Petersburg, he made friends with the composer Stravinsky and the choreographer Michel Fokine. He was also introduced to Nijinsky, then a very young but already hugely celebrated dancer, with whom Diaghilev became increasingly obsessed. Not long afterwards, having become rather disillusioned with Russian classical ballet, he "began wondering whether it would not be possible to create a number of short, new ballets, which...would link the three main factors, music, decorative design, and choreography far more". That initial idea, first put into practice in Paris in 1909, became the foundation of the Ballets Russes. The company, which played exclusively in Europe, quickly became enormously admired, at least by the artists, intelligentsia and avant garde of the day, and remained so for the twenty years of its existence. The list of those who were involved at various times is breathtaking: composers included Delibes, Debussy, Ravel, Satie, Prokoviev and Poulenc in addition to Stravinsky; there were designs by Bakst, Picasso, Matisse, and many others; as well as Fokine, Diaghilev started the careers of the choreographers Massine, Lifar and Balanchine; and his dancers included Nijinsky, Tamara Karsavina, Anna Pavlova, and the young dancers Marie Rambert and Ninette de Valois. Despite its fame, the company frequently found itself in financial difficulties -- Diaghilev seems not to have been good at handling money, and in later years apparently siphoned off its earnings to increase his collection of rare antiquarian books. But the company managed to keep going into the 1920s, though Diaghilev's health began to fail badly -- he had diabetes, but refused to take it seriously. His death, in Venice, in 1929, put an end to the company he had so boldly and successfully created.
Joy Melville's biography aims to tell the story not only of Diaghilev's own life and career but also to describe the milieu in which he moved. There is some fascinating material here on homosexuality in Russia at the period -- known as "gentleman's mischief" and quite common, apparently. Diaghilev had affairs with several of his own dancers, including Nijinsky, Massine and Lifar, although as many of his partners went on to marry, it seems likely they were only involving themselves with him to further their careers. The saddest story in the book is that of Nijinsky, possibly the greatest dancer of all time -- he was capable of leaping into the air and apparently pausing there before coming down again -- who, though he married and had two children, gradually descended into mental illness from which he never recovered.
There are lots of good illustrations -- several of Bakst's wonderful costume and set designs, and numerous paintings and photographs of the people involved with Diaghilev. I was a bit disappointed that the decor of the later productions was not reproduced -- I'd love to have seen Picasso's and Matisse's original designs, or at least photographs of them. But I learned a lot and enjoyed the book.