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4.9.1. Who was Diaghilev and what did he do?




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This article is from the Ballet and Modern Dance FAQ, by Tom Parsons twp@panix.com with numerous contributions by others.

4.9.1. Who was Diaghilev and what did he do?

Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929) was an impresario, the manager of the
Ballets Russes that created a sensation in Western Europe in the early
years of the 20th century. Born in Perm and active as a young man in
artistic circles, Diaghilev formed the Ballets Russes in 1909 and ran it
until his death in 1929. The dancers and choreographers associated with
the Ballets Russes included George Balanchine (question 4.9.3), Alexandra
Danilova, Ninette de Valois, Michel Fokine (question 4.9.2), Tamara
Karsavina, Serge Lifar, Alicia Markova, Leonide Massine, Vaslav Nijinsky,
Anna Pavlova, Marie Rambert, Olga Spessivtseva, and Tamara Toumanova, among
many others. His designers included Bakst, Braque, Picasso, Tchelitchev,
and Utrillo. His composers included Debussy, Milhaud, Poulenc, Prokofiev,
Ravel, Satie, and, most notably, Igor Stravinsky, whom Diaghilev spotted
when he was virtually unknown and whose career he launched.

The impact of Ballets Russes on the West stemmed from a number of
causes. First, there was the greater vitality of Russian ballet, as com-
pared with what was current in France. Second, Fokine was an innovative
choreographer, who would have been as influential in Russia if he could
have prevailed against the entrenched administration of the Russian
companies. Third, Diaghilev was a superb spotter of talent, a master
showman, and a man who knew his audiences. Fourth, there was the simple
fact that Russian ballet, and the performances mounted by Diaghilev, were
different and hence exotic. For whatever reason, Diaghilev rejuvenated
ballet in the West. If we could go back and view his productions now, they
might well strike us as quaint, and we might even wonder what all the fuss
was about. But, with the possible exception of the first modern dancers,
his company was the most influential in this century, and that influence,
in one form or another, has lasted to this day.

A list of the ballets premiered by Diaghilev reads like a roster of
the most important works of the century. They include, among many others,
"Les Sylphides" (1909), "The Firebird" (1910), "Le Spectre de la Rose"
(1911), "Petroushka" (1911), "Afternoon of a Faun" (1912), "The Rite of
Spring" (1913), "the Song of the Nightingale" (1920), "Apollo" (1928), and
"Prodigal Son" (1929). The mortality of ballets is notorious, but a
striking number of these are still performed.

After Diaghilev's death the company's properties were claimed by
creditors (he himself died in poverty), and the dancers were, more or less,
scattered. But the name was a property, too, and in the subsequent years
the company had two reincarnations, one as the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo,
the other as the Original Ballet Russe.

 

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