- Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929: When Art Danced with Music ed. by Jane Pritchard, and: Diaghilev: A Life by Sjeng Scheijen, and: René Blum and the Ballets Russes: In Search of a Lost Life by Judith Chazin-Bennahum
As noted in the beautifully illustrated catalog that accompanied the National Gallery of Art’s recent display of artwork, costumes, photographs, music scores, and video related to the Ballets Russes, this year marks the 100th anniversary of Le Sacre du Printemps, the Igor Stravinsky/Vaslav Nijinsky/Nicholas Roerich collaboration that secured the company’s reputation within the European avant-garde and “instigated a revolution in dance that changed the history of ballet” (9). The marvelous exhibit originated at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2010 and was augmented by additional materials for this year’s US exhibition. With essays by Geoffrey Marsh, Sjeng Scheijen, Jane Pritchard, John Bowlt, Sarah Woodcock, Howard Goodall, and Juliet Bellow, the catalog offers a comprehensive introduction to the Ballets Russes and its impact on the fields of art, music, and dance, but its primary value lies in its four-color reproductions of paintings, sketches, and costumes that practically leap off the page, hinting at the story that no archive can fully tell. Indeed, the company’s legacy lives on in its repertoire (which is reproduced in exacting detail by preservationists, such as dance historian and choreographer Millicent Hodson in her reconstruction of Nijinsky’s Sacre du Printemps for the Joffrey Ballet in 1987), and in the practice of other contemporary ballet companies, such as the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, that continue its tradition of innovation. The master works of impresario Sergey Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes were not protected by the kinds of trusts later established by choreographers like Antony Tudor, Jerome Robbins, and George Balanchine. While several Ballets Russes ballets were restaged with some accuracy after Diaghilev’s death, others remain visible only in black-and-white photographs, vintage programs, and costumes scattered across private collections, libraries, and museums.
Appearing at a moment when sociopolitical changes were altering the cultural landscape of Europe (and Russia in particular), Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes addressed the needs of a youthful generation [End Page 608] of artists seeking new modes of expression and of audiences yearning for a way to make sense of a modernizing world. “A coincidence of external circumstances created an unusual opportunity,” Marsh affirms in his opening essay, “but it was the infusion of Diaghilev’s restless ambition that provided the catalyst for the creation of one of the greatest artistic enterprises of the twentieth century” (15). Indeed, the conflict between and confluence of visionary artist and cultural modernity is a theme that appears in all three books.
Scheijen’s critical biography of Sergey Pavlovich Diaghilev begins at the end, in Venice, where, in 1929, a funeral barge wended its way through the city’s canals, delivering the body of a man who lived much of his life in political exile to his permanent home in a city that, for him, “represented the ultimate work of art” (3). Born into an aristocratic Russian family that lived off of the diminishing profits of a poorly managed vodka distillery in Perm, Diaghilev enjoyed the privileges of caste while suffering the pain of poverty throughout his life. His family was musical and the 22-year-old impetuously determined that music would be his vocation until his bid to study theory with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was rejected with blunt disdain. Rebounding with a spurned lover’s passion, Diaghilev set his sights on art criticism, informally studying with Alexandre Benois, one of the circle of school friends whom he would enlist in his future artistic enterprises (the...