Impresario. He was probably the greatest ballet director in history. Diaghilev ran his own company, the Ballet Russes, from its first performance in 1909 to its last in 1929. He conceived of music, set design, and costume as equal, integral aspects of the dance, and persuaded many great composers, choreographers, and artists to help realize his ideas. In the process his company raised ballet from a secondary entertainment to the status of a vital contemporary art. Diaghilev is probably best-remembered for launching the career of composer Igor Stravinsky, who wrote the ballets "The Firebird" (1910), "Petrushka" (1911), "The Rite of Spring" (1913), "Pulcinella" (1920), "The Song of the Nightingale" (1920), "Les Noces" (1923), "Apollon musagete" (1928), and the opera-oratorio "Oedipus Rex" (1927) for him. At the landmark premiere of "The Rite of Spring," the savage music and choreography provoked the audience to riot. ("Exactly what I wanted", he quipped, knowing well the publicity value of scandal). Other outstanding Ballet Russes productions were "Daphnis et Chloe" (1912), with music by Maurice Ravel; Claude Debussy's "Jeux" (1913) and "Afternoon of a Faun" (1913), featuring Vaslav Nijinsky's controversial dance movements; "Parade" (1917), another scandalous work, with music by Erik Satie, Cubist sets and costumes by Pablo Picasso, and surreal libretto by Jean Cocteau; "The Three-Cornered Hat" (1919), composer Manuel De Falla's masterwork; Francis Poulenc's "Les Biches" (1924); and Sergei Prokofiev's "The Prodigal Son" (1929), which made choreographer George Balanchine famous. Diaghilev also pioneered in adapting pre-existing music for the dance and in meticulous revivals of 19th Century ballets (Tchaikovsky's "Sleeping Beauty" in 1921). Michel Fokine, Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Adolph Bolm, Leonid Massine, Bronislava Nijinska, Serge Lifar, and Ninette de Valois were among the great dancers and choreographers who worked with him; Leon Bakst, Alexander Benois, Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Georges Braque, Andre Derain, Juan Gris, Marie Laurencin, Joan Miro, and Georges Rouault all designed decor and costumes for the Ballet Russes. Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev (he later Gallicized his first name to Serge) was born into a wealthy family in Perm, Russia, and studied law at the University of St. Petersburg. He wanted to become a composer but was dissuaded by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who told him he was really a critic. In 1899 he became artistic adviser to the Imperial Theatres in Moscow and founded a progressive art journal, "The World of Art." Beginning in 1907 Diaghilev presented concerts of Russian music in Paris and scored a sensation with his 1908 production of Modest Mussorgsky's opera "Boris Godunov," with the great Fyodor Chaliapin in the title role. He decided to settle in Paris and the Ballet Russes, which had its debut on May 19, 1909, was based there for its 20 years of existence. A homosexual, Diaghilev was known for his affairs with several dancers (notably Nijinsky) and for his dictatorial, love-hate relationships with other collaborators. Prokofiev never quite forgave the impresario for turning down his ballet "Alla and Lolly" ("Diaghilev has better taste in boys than in music", he acidly remarked), and Ravel challenged him to a duel for rejecting his score of "La Valse" (1920). Even the devoted Stravinsky finally broke with him in 1928. Diaghilev died from complications of diabetes in Venice, Italy, and was buried on the nearby island of San Michele. Without its driving force the Ballet Russes folded, but its members went on to create new ballet traditions throughout the world. Though not creative himself, Diaghilev had a genius for inspiring and guiding the talents of others, and his influence on 20th Century art is inestimable.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards