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A true vocation; The legendary impresario Diaghilev changed the course of Western art forever, says Richard Edmonds.

Byline: Richard Edmonds

A Feast of Wonders - Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes (Skira: pounds 39.95) In a few days Birmingham Royal Ballet will open its autumn season at Birmingham Hippodrome.

David Bintley's autumn selection will include both his own stunning Cyrano - a ballet based on Cyrano de Bergerac - and new work in what promises to be yet another memorable evening with Birmingham's own top rate ballet company.

Yet in the context of this beautifully designed new book on Diaghilev and his astonishing company of Russian dancers who once brought electrifying ballet into Europe, it is interesting to remember that Dame Ninette de Valois was herself in her youth a dancer with the Ballets Russes, when that particular company was making its reputation immediately after the First World War.

Diaghilev himself, the only begetter of the remarkable ballets his company produced, was an astonishing man, who once wrote: "I am first a great charlatan (though with dash), second, a great charmer, third, cheeky, fourth, a person with a lot of logic and few principles and fifth, someone afflicted with a complete absence of talent. But I think I've found my true vocation, to be a patron of the arts, for that, I have everything I need, except money. All this was written in a letter to his stepmother in 1895 and his words eventually proved to be prophetic. The man who during the greatest times of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes frequently didn't know where the next thousand pounds was coming from, became perhaps the world's most legendary impresario, a man who changed the course of art in the West, making Stravinsky, Picasso and certain brilliant dancers household names who remain even today unequalled in the world of dance and design.

Diaghilev's ballets are still in the repertoire of companies all over the world. Obviously, many people may not be able to describe them in any great detail but everyone has at least heard of Petrushka, Les Sylphides or Scheherazade.

The glorious costumes and sets designed by Leonid Bakst (very sexy) and Alexandre Benois (very charming) are here in one superb colour plate after another. And as you study them you marvel at the technical mastery of line and colour bestowed upon them by their artists, not forgetting that Diaghilev, as supreme arbiter of taste for his company, saw, by 1920 that Modernism was the only way forward.

And so eventually you get costumes with plastic headdresses. We can also note that by 1915 Picasso was working as a designer for Diaghilev coming up with the three-cornered hat as a masterwork. And then of course there was the French writer Jean Cocteau who devised the outrageous scenario of walking skyscrapers for the Diaghilev ballet Parade.

But Braque, Derain and Matisse had also jumped on the Ballets Russes bandwagon. Thus the company, its sensational productions and equally sensational dancers, reached new heights in the 1920s which continued until Diaghilev died in Venice from diabetes in 1929 and the company disbanded in despair.

Obviously legendary stories abound. For example, Nijinsky, probably the greatest male dancer of all time and Diaghilev's lover, marched into The Fine Art Society, in New Bond Street when Bakst's designs were being exhibited and apparently chose the one of himself as the god in Le Dieu Bleu. When asked how he would like to pay, Nijinsky said - in atrocious English - "send to Savoy Hotel - charge to Diaghilev!" And that was that. The favourites - and there were several - relied on Diaghilev for every cent from the money for linen summer suits and straw hats to the funds with which to pay hotel bills. As performers they were paid nothing at all. Everything was found for them. But whoever had passed through the Ballets Russes inevitably became a changed person. After all, you had rubbed shoulders with the greatest painters, choreographers, dancers and composers in the modern world and it left its mark.

It was the association with Diaghilev which made the dancers stars of the international marketplace and allowed these Russian expats - who were never able to go back to Russia again - to star in careers which spanned three continents.

Diaghilev made them - but he could also alienate them. Anna Pavlova finally left and if she returned made quite sure it was only as a guest. Nijinsky married and was thrown out for treachery to his lover and finally went completely mad in a Swiss clinic. Ida Rubinstein left - suffocated by Diaghilev's uncompromising aesthetic, which allowed no compromise and formed Les Ballets in 1933.

Yet, in later years, all these artists carried a kind of halo around their heads and were regarded foremost as Diaghilev artists. And many of their faces are here looking out at you in some of the most appealing theatre photo studies ever made.


Ninette de Valois as Papillon in Carnava in 1923 Sergei Diaghilev in 1929
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Article Type:Dance review
Date:Sep 11, 2009
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