Sergei Diaghilev born 19 March 1872 (d. 1929)
Sergei Diaghilev was a Russian impressario and founder of the Ballet Russes. He is one of the most significant artistic figures of the early 20th century.
In 1905 he staged an exhibition of Russian portrait painting in St Petersburg, and the following year took a major exhibition of Russian art to Paris. He went on to present concerts of Russian music and opera in Paris, and this lead to the invitation which prompted him to create the Ballet Russes - with the most exciting young Russian dancers, among them Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky. They were an instant success.
Diaghilev's contribution to the artistic growth and richness of his era was his dedication to the notion of 'total theatre', which saw him bring together not only the finest dancers, but commission exciting new music from Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie, Richard Strauss, Sergei Prokofiev, Francis Poulenc, Ottorino Respighi and Igor Stravinsky; he sought design contributions from Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Leon Bakst. He took ballet and made it exciting, cutting edge and gave it massive popular appeal - the Ballet Russes had a wide cultural effect. He fathered the rebirth of ballet through supporting pioneering choreography to dynamic and challenging new music, with astonishingly original set designs and costumes - erotic and exotic.
Initially choreographed by Michel Fokine, Diaghilev encouraged his lover and star dancer to choreograph for the Ballet Russes, and Vaslav Nijinsky duly rewrote the visual vocabulary of dance. Lovers from 1909 until 1913, when Nijinsky married and was briefly exiled, they were the most celebrated gay couple of their age.
Diaghilev had a series of relationships with his younger star dancers, but each was loving and long-term, and each was encouraged to grow artistically and each went on to make a huge contribution to ballet as choreographers and artistic directors. He not only loved them for their youth and beauty but in each he identified and nurtured their genius: Leonide Massine - one of the greatest 20th century choreographers; Anton Dolin - great British dancer; Serge Lifar - later director of the Paris Opera Ballet; and Boris Kochno - his last love who became an associate director of the Ballet Russes.
Other members of the Ballet Russes went on to found great ballets in the US and England - George Balanchine, Ninette de Valois, Marie Rambert.
Although he could be possessive and controlling, he inspired love and admiration, as his lovers' autobiographies bear witness. Stories that he corrupted Nijinsky and contributed to his mental illness are an innacurate re-write of history. Diaghilev created a massive gay-friendly international organisation of incredible creativity and influence, passionately committed to excellence and modernism; and his sexual relationships with men were central to that creative force. In fact, the enduring and fantastically creatively productive link between gay men and ballet - as performers, creators and audience - can be traced directly to Diaghilev.
He died in Venice, Italy in 1929 of complications from diabetes. Lifar, Kochno, and friends Coco Chanel, Misia Sert & Baroness Catherine d'Erlanger were at his bedside.
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