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Why Diaghilev was the greatest showman

Modern ballet could do more with his low cunning and imaginative daring
September 8, 2022

Like Nero’s or Napoleon’s, the name of Serge Diaghilev is bandied about without much regard to the actualities of the historical figure: recently I spotted Malcolm McLaren described as “the Diaghilev of punk.”

What is being implied? Loosely, someone of avant-garde taste who can bring together artists of different persuasions and make magic happen. In Diaghilev’s case, this was initially a matter of sweeping up painters, musicians and dancers based in St Petersburg and presenting them to European audiences of the Edwardian era in the novel form of one-act mimed dramas. After the First World War, his range would extend far beyond these roots.

Perhaps he is most usefully contextualised as a leading visionary investor in modernism—one of the dealers, collectors and patrons who took an early punt on marginal young creatives in rebellion against the pieties of their Victorian forebears, thereby transforming the market. Ambroise Vollard traded in Cézanne and Picasso; Sylvia Beach bankrolled James Joyce. Diaghilev’s enterprise ran in parallel.

Ironically, those closest to him assert that he wasn’t deeply interested in ballet. Opera was his greater passion, and later in life he became obsessed with book collecting. But he saw his opportunity in exporting to London and Paris the novelty of an overtly sensual Slavic exoticism—embodied in the androgynous figure of his star dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky—that both shocked and enchanted. And he wasn’t just a showman: he was also blessed with managerial and diplomatic skills, and an even rarer ability to get things done. Chekhov shows Russians as endemically agonising and havering; but Diaghilev was always magnificently decisive.

He died in 1929, aged only 57, having sustained the glamour and originality of the Ballets Russes for 20 years, albeit with several disastrous slumps along the way. In his wake came many imitators. Among them were a former military policeman, little short of a crook, who called himself Colonel Wassily de Basil; Lincoln Kirstein, an introverted intellectual with a trust fund who took Diaghilev’s ideas to the US; Serge Denham, a banker who ran the imitative Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo; the effete Marquis de Cuevas, who married a scion of the Rockefeller dynasty in order to finance his fantastically extravagant balletic circus; and many others, all of whom would founder. None of them could match Diaghilev’s combination of practical nous, low cunning and imaginative daring.

Today the myth of Diaghilev, and the dream of replicating his trick, has still not quite died—one example being the work of Wayne McGregor. He goes a step further in that he not only runs his own company and collaborates with the cream of what might be called “Tate Modern creatives,” but also choreographs prolifically.

What has altered the bigger picture, however, is the principle of state subsidy for ballet, introduced in Britain during the Second World War by John Maynard Keynes (who married one of Diaghilev’s ballerinas) and now key to the survival of any talent like McGregor’s.

Diaghilev lived gaily, hand-to-mouth and on the road. Money didn’t interest him, except as a means to an end: his shirt cuffs were frayed, there were holes in his shoes and he often defaulted on his hotel bills. If box office takings weren’t sufficient, he would turn his charm on a bevy of susceptible ladies (including Coco Chanel) with open cheque books. But everything Diaghilev did was ad hoc, on a wing and a prayer or a plea and a handshake. He answered to nobody; there was no board, no governance beyond his say-so; accounts were scribbled into a little black notebook.

State subsidy put an end to this modus operandi—for good and ill. If you want the stability and capacity to plan confidently ahead with taxpayers’ money, then you must consent to be accountable; there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The pay-off is the development of an administrative superstructure that has drawn real power—in all branches of the performing arts with any ambition—away from the single creative producer towards the advocates of sound business practice, including departments of marketing, outreach, digital content and fundraising, all of them inhibiting as much as enabling.

Perhaps this isn’t a bad thing: jobs are more secure, books are better balanced. But it also means creative decisions once made off one man’s instinctive genius are at the mercy of bean counters, equations and algorithms. The result so far is a depressing contraction of the ballet repertory, with an emphasis on fairytale narratives designed to appeal to “family” audiences and a diminution of risky innovation. Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes was an adult affair, crossing boundaries and breaking taboos; a few exceptions like McGregor aside, that is no longer the case. The tradition of ballet is being carefully preserved, but in the process it is losing its freedom and vision.