Monday, 6 February 2012

Diaghilev: A Life by Sjeng Scheljen

I first came across the Ballet Russes when reading Bloomsbury Ballerina by Judith Mackrell, a biography of the dancer Lydia Lopkova. I know nothing about ballet, but was captivated by the world described in the book. So when I saw this biography of the founder of the Ballet Russes I jumped at the chance to extend my knowledge.

Sergei Diaghilev was a man of immense talent and vision and energy. He lived life at breakneck speed, he lived for art and music and beauty. He loved and feuded with equal passion and he was a big man whose presence dominated a room. As a young man he admired and sought out the old guard of Russian cultural life and later he discovered and encouraged some of the brightest new talents.

He was born into a wealthy family who fell on hard times. Money, and the lack of it, was to be an issue for Diaghilev his whole life. He attended university in Moscow where he read widely and expanded his circle of friends. In an early example of the confidence in himself which would be vital to his career, he and his cousin decide on a whim to visit Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy at this time was the most famous and influential man in Russia, and Sergei and Dima just pitched up on his doorstep one day. Tolstoy kindly exchanged a few words with them and Diaghilev wrote a ten page letter to his stepmother about the visit, describing every last detail.

Diaghilev seems to have been a great networker.  He knew everyone, from Tchaikovsky to Oscar Wilde, but some of his closest collaborators, such as Leon Bakst, he had known since he was a young man. Pre-revolution he was close to political power, but less so after 1917 and eventually he was exiled from his beloved Russia.

Sjeng writes; In the course of a twenty-three-year career Diaghilev had made his mark in Europe and the Americas, and in this relatively short space of time he transformed the world of dance, theatre, music and the visual arts as no one had ever done before (or has done since).

Around the time I read this book I watched the film Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky about an affair that the two were rumoured to have had. I enjoyed it, it was beautiful to look at, if a little cold. The main pleasure for me was seeing some of the characters I was reading about portrayed on screen.


  1. I remember you telling me in a comment about the book "Bloomsbury Ballerina" which was a biography of Lydia Lopkova who was married to Maynard Keynes. I am so glad you mentioned it again as I would like to read this book. Diaghilev sounds very interesting and the Ballet Russes was hugely influential on so many of the artists at the time. Sounds like a worthwhile read.

    1. I think that you will enjoy Bloomsbury Ballerina, you have the advantage over me in actually knowing something about ballet! And yes, it was clear from the Diaghilev book how influential the Ballet Russes had been. Oh, and I've recently finished Everybody Was So Young (which I believe you've read) and Gerald Murphy helped to paint some of the backdrops for one of the Ballet Russes productions! These are definitely people and a period which I want to read more about.