I’ve known of Sergei Diaghilev, master of the famed Ballets Russes, since I was a girl, but it was only when I researched this post that I discovered he was so much more than just a ballet icon. He was an impresario in the truest meaning of the word, the Cameron Mackintosh of his day.
More than that, he was a man who brought all the artistic disciplines together: art, music, dance, drama. He was a man who pushed boundaries. His collaborations with composer Igor Stravinsky, ballet master Leonide Massine and designer Leon Bakst changed the face of the ballet, if not all stage performances.
Sergei was raised in a wealthy, cultured home, (the family’s wealth coming mostly from vodka distilleries). The heaviest influence during his adolescence was his artistic stepmother. He studied music and singing in St Petersburg, but when it became evident he would not have a successful career in music, he moved instead into management at the Imperial Theatres, under Prince Sergei Volkonsky. However, he challenged the authorities and after the turn of the century he was discharged and branched out on his own.
His first excursion to Paris was in 1906, and he returned several times in the following years with different performances and exhibitions. In 1909 he was invited back to Paris and the Ballets Russes was launched. Included among the company’s first performers were Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Diaghilev remained in Western Europe and never returned to his homeland. His career, however, continued to ascend. His reputation was as a stern, demanding taskmaster, but his legacy lives on to this day.
He died in Venice in 1929, at the end of that glorious decade he so epitomizes, the Roaring Twenties.
If you are interested in reading further, Amazon has dozens of books about Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes.