In the middle of World War 1, when performing in Paris was impossible, the Russian born impresario Serge Diaghilev took his Ballets Russes troupe to America crossing the Atlantic via Cadiz. In Madrid, he was introduced to King Alfonso, who asked him what exactly it was he did. ‘Your Majesty,’ replied the whip smart Diaghilev. ‘I am like you, I do nothing. But I am indispensable.’
This brilliant and brash son of a colonel had always been confident of his ability to achieve something in life, even while admitting (to his stepmother) that he lacked both talent and money. Yet he was certain he could create something through others. Reading about his wildly imaginative and resourceful ideas for radical performances that both shocked audiences but also catered to their deepest desires in order to create that something, is compelling. For twenty years, Diaghilev achieved phenomenal success alongside often manipulative sexual demands as he discovered genius and provided the conditions for it to flourish, in the process changing the concept of what is today understood as ballet.
Vaslav Nijinsky, the fiercely athletic son of professional dancers who toured the Caucasus and Ukraine, was key to the early success. An oddball with an odd physique (just 5’ 4” tall with a thick neck, rock solid thighs and bulbous calves) who might pick the side of his thumbs until they bled, was the man who jumped so high that he seemed to reach the stars, as his friend Marie Rambert said later. He soon became not only Diaghilev’s personal star performer but also lover.
One of my favourite descriptions in this book bursting with extraordinary characters and anecdotes – a who’s who of early 20th century European artists – was Stravinsky’s reflection that, given the impossibility of accurately reflecting the perversity of Diaghilev’s entourage, ‘a kind of homosexual Swiss guard,’ was a useful description.
But the role of women in the story is also important. Nijinsky’s sister, (Bronislava) Bronia Nijinska, was involved briefly as choreographer as she witnessed, but could do nothing to stem, her brother’s slow descent into madness from 1919 onwards. Financial backing from the sewing machine heiress Winnaretta Singer and Misia Sert, muse and inspiration to many artists, was critical while the beautiful Ida Rubinstein, dismissed by Christiansen as having too much money and too little talent, hovers on the sidelines. Towards the end – Diaghilev died in 1929 from diabetes in Venice – Ninette de Valois (born Edris Stannus) and Alicia Markova (the skinny, tubercular girl from North London born Alice Marks) both fell into Diaghilev’s orbit.
Diaghilev’s Empire may not be the first biography to tackle this mercurial genius but it feels as glitteringly modern as its subject deserves. Christiansen, a self confessed ‘incurable balletomane’ (a word that only entered the lexicon in 1919), knows every anecdote and foible you could wish to know about some of the most significant cultural creators of the early 20th century. But his skill is to take his readers back to Paris in 1905 and make them feel not merely that they are witnessing the birth of a new art form but one it was imperative to be part of. In the years before 1914 a new Ballets Russes performance became a benchmark of taste among progressives and bohemian young so that: ‘Not to have thrilled to Scheherazade was to be outside the cultural loop’.
And yet, although it may appear today that this new Russian ballet exploded overnight, Christiansen is at pains to show that it was not so sudden. Paris was ready for the Ballets Russes as seen in the art of Toulouse Lautrec and (the imported) Isadora Duncan. Diaghilev understood that had he tried to show such highly sexualised performances in St Petersburg he’d have been hauled off to a lunatic asylum, “or sent to Siberia for hooliganism.” He was therefore not so much radical innovator as one taking advantage of what he found. And, although seeds were later planted elsewhere which have taken root, the English never responded to this erotic art in quite the same visceral way for, as the Russian ballerina Lydia Kyasht commented, ‘the English do not really understand ballet…. They imagine they do but the truth is they like to come to a theatre and see a dancer kick her legs.’
By the end Emerald Cunard, the American-born hostess fearing that something beautiful had turned ugly, tactfully reminded Diaghilev that for a performance in front of King George V he might be wise to programme something more traditional and less avant garde; Les Sylphides rather than les Noces?
Anne Sebba is the author of Ethel Rosenberg: the short life and great betrayal of an American Wife and Mother W & N