He was the Russian genius who founded the celebrated Ballets Russes in Paris in the early 20th century and whose revolutionary influence on the world of dance and theatre design is still felt today. But, despite his extraordinary talents, Sergei Diaghilev resorted to underhand and even vicious tactics to ensure that the spotlight remained firmly focused on him, according to new research.
Professor Lynn Garafola, an American dance historian, discovered a previously unpublished text in which Bronislava Nijinska, the dancer and one of the most innovative choreographers of the 20th century, wrote of Diaghilev’s attempts to claim credit for the work of fellow artists – even blocking their employment elsewhere.
Nijinska, whose brother was the celebrated dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, had joined the Ballets Russes in 1909. She wrote: “[Diaghilev] victimised the ballet artists when they left his company and tried by all means possible to prevent their employment by other companies… he hindered their receiving an entry visa to England.”
She added: “Everything had to originate with Diaghilev. He considered himself the creator and the ruler of the Russian Ballet, and all had to submit to him.
“To create one’s own and to destroy somebody else’s – this was his principle. But such a principle seemed to me not only dangerous but also unworthy of a great man.”
She continued: “Diaghilev was beside himself when the new company of Ida Rubinstein was organised. [He] conceived a hatred for us and vowed to destroy us … This great man regarded as a mortal enemy anyone who … encroached on ‘his’ art: I personally was subjected to cruel reprisal: Diaghilev criticised me maliciously and impeded my work in every way.”
Nijinska, who died in 1972 aged 81, had trained at the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg and joined the Mariinsky Theatre company in 1908. She danced with the Ballets Russes, like her brother, and choreographed several ballets for the company, including Les Noces, which was described by the writer HG Wells as “the soul itself of the Russian people in sound and vision”.
Sir Frederick Ashton regarded her as one of the greatest influences in his career as a choreographer, once saying: “Her achievements have proved to me time and again that, through the medium of classical ballet, any emotion may be expressed. She might be called the architect of dancing, building her work brick by brick into the amazing structures that result in masterpieces like Les Noces.”
Garafola, professor emerita of dance at Barnard College, Columbia University, has now written Nijinska’s first biography. Titled La Nijinska: Choreographer of the Modern, it will be published by Oxford University Press in February in the US and in June in the UK.
She said that, when Nijinska tried to set up her own company in Britain in 1925, Diaghilev indirectly informed the Home Office that her dancers did not have the correct visas. Five of those dancers had to leave within 48 hours under the Aliens Order of 1920, according to research in an unpublished MA thesis to which Garafola had access.
She spoke of being the first to draw on Nijinska’s writings, including “very rich” diaries, letters and notes, among newly available documents held in the Library of Congress in Washington.
She said: “There’s quite a bit about Diaghilev. She was always trying to please him but she also felt that he wanted to claim everything as his own. She had already been choreographing for a number of years in Russia, but he didn’t want her talking to the press. He wanted to present her new work as though this were Diaghilev’s. There were times when he hurt her professionally. When she decided to leave the company, he went out of his way to ruin her first independent effort. She had a small company in England. She had a number of young men she’d trained. They were now part of the Diaghilev company. They were on vacation and were to appear in her company. But he pulled strings in order to alert the Home Office and make sure that they didn’t have the correct visas.”
But she was clearly conflicted over Diaghilev. In a draft note to an unnamed correspondent, following his death in 1929, she wrote: “[He] knew me entirely and idolised me in art – and he created me (without intending to – because I was a woman, after all).”
Garafola said: “Her diaries… allow one to track from the inside her obsession with creativity, her self-doubts, her triumphs, and her most intimate thoughts about love and, especially, her obsession with the opera singer [Feodor] Chaliapin.”
It was unrequited love. Chaliapin made it clear that he had no interest in any romantic involvement although she never doubted – at least in these diaries – that she owed the inspiration for her creative achievement to Chaliapin.
Garafola added: “Once she began working for the Ida Rubinstein company in 1928, her craving for Chaliapin’s physical presence intensified. As opening night approaches, all she can think about is Chaliapin and whether he will be in the audience. He isn’t. He misses all of the season’s performances, denying her the pleasure of hearing how much he admires her art.
“She sees him day and night in her dreams. They are ‘full of caresses’, she writes, and she wakes up happy. It doesn’t really matter, she adds, if this ‘happiness’ is real or not: ‘I was with you’.”