The person responsible for the explosion of ballet across the world in the twentieth century wasn’t a dancer. He wasn’t a choreographer either. Nor was he a musician or a composer. He wasn’t even very rich.

Portrait of Sergei Diaghilev by Valentin Serov
© Wikimedia Commons

It has never been particularly clear what exactly it was that Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev did for dance, but one thing is certain; he made dance the vibrant, international art form it is today. Research the lineage and influences on any leading contemporary figure in the dance world, and somewhere back in the mists of time, you will come back to Diaghilev.

Born in 1872, Diaghilev had the kind of privileged childhood you might read about in the great Russian novels of Tolstoy or Chekhov. He studied as a lawyer but his heart was really in artistic pursuits; he formed a magazine called Mir Iskusstva (World of Art), with artists like Alexandre Benois and Leon Bakst, who would later become key designers in his company. Diaghilev assisted at the Imperial Theatres from 1899 to 1901, but he was dismissed in disgrace after disagreements with the management over his lavish productions.

In 1906, Diaghilev brought his first exhibition of Russian art to Paris. The following year he brought concerts, next opera, then in 1909, he was invited to bring a programme of Russian ballet. Paris would never be the same again.

Vaslav Nijinksy and Ida Rubinstein in Schéhérazade, presented in Paris in 1910
© Wikimedia Commons
Imagine, sitting in the stalls at the Théâtre du Châtelet, watching the stage fill with glamorous Russians as stamping Cossacks in the Polovtsian dances from Prince Igor, fluttering sylphs in Chopiniana, sumptuous slaves in Cleopatre. Nobody had ever seen anything like it.

 The Russian dancers had a technique and artistry that was far superior to anything in Europe at the time, and Parisian audiences clamoured for more. The next year, Diaghilev brought a programme of new work, and found such success that he formed a permanent company that toured to the major European cities, the United States and South America. When the revolution of 1917 cut the company off from its Russian roots, the Ballets Russes became something like the archetypal itinerant artists who wandered the world’s theatres, putting on theatrical spectacles that were so far ahead of the cultural zeitgeist that they created it.

But no one can write of Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes just by describing the man himself, for the wealth of his legacy rests in the unique gift he had for talent spotting. He could see a diamond glinting where others saw only dust.

A Jean Cocteau poster for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes performances in Monte-Carlo
© regalorium | Wikimedia Commons

For to speak of the Ballets Russes is also to write about the cast of almost mythical characters who were instrumental in its success. Imagine Diaghilev as a spider, weaving a great web of extraordinary people, keeping them in the orbit of his company until he could use them.

So here I present some - but by no means all - of the key figures of the Ballets Russes, many of whom owed their careers, and their legends, to one man and his far seeing artistic eye.

The rebel choreographer

Mikhail Fokine began as a dancer and choreographer for the Imperial Theatre in St Petersburg, but he clashed with the management for his new vision for ballet. He wanted to move towards a more impressionistic way of dancing that freed up the torso, and he also wanted some dancers to appear barefoot, which the strict hierarchy of the Imperial Theatre did not appreciate. Diaghilev provided an opportunity to realise these ideas when he invited Fokine to become a resident choreographer in 1909. He created some of the Ballets Russes’ most famous works, including The Firebird (1910), Le Spectre de La Rose (1911), and Petrouchka (1911). Fokine and Diaghilev had a tempestuous relationship, but with these early works, Fokine set a standard for the Ballets Russes of expressive, beautifully staged pieces; many of which are still performed today. Fokine moved on to have an illustrious and certainly genre defining career across Europe and in New York (with occasional stints back in St Petersburg).

The legend that lived a hundred years

Vaslav Nijinsky in Le Spectre de la Rose, 1911
© Wikimedia Commons
We know very little about Vaslav Nijinsky the man. Most of our knowledge is of Nijinsky the legend, the kind of artist who burned so fiercely that he still lingers in the imagination, a century later. We know that he leapt onto a stage as the spirit of a rose in the summer of 1911 and thrilled Paris. They tell us he could jump higher than any dancer of his generation and we are quite sure he was Diaghilev’s lover. We know the première of his ballet The Rite of Spring (1913) ended up in a riot, but we also know that Stravinsky must share some of the blame for that scandal. We know that he became estranged from Diaghilev after his marriage in 1913, and left the company only to wander, cut off from the source of his creativity. The story goes that he died a pauper, in the grip of mental illness, but the memory of his dancing, the tenderness of his presence on stage has never completely faded, and the roles he created are still interpreted today.

The music man who changed everything

Diaghilev is widely considered the be the person who recognised Igor Stravinsky’s genius and gave him his first break, with his triptych of ballets composed for the Ballets Russes’s early seasons: The Firebird (ch:Fokine, 1910), Petrouchka (ch:Fokine, 1911) and The Rite of Spring (ch:Nijinsky, 1913).

It was this last score that created Stravinsky’s reputation as a modern maverick, for the first performance scandalised Paris. Perhaps there was something too primal and raw in that music that sounded like the earth awakening beneath the heels of the bejewelled bourgeoisie. Perhaps those first few notes of the wandering oboe caused panic in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées that May evening in 1913, as though the tender shoot of some mythical tree was about to break through the floor of the stage and soar up through the roof. We will never fully understand what the original audience saw to be frightened of in the ballet’s première, but Stravinsky went on to become one of the most important composers of the twentieth century, and the Ballets Russes his springboard.

The ballerinas:

Classical ballet as presented by the Imperial Theatres in Russia revered the ballerina as the apogee of the art form. Fokine, with Nijinsky as his muse, was instrumental in making powerful male dancing fascinating again, but there was a coterie of ballerinas whose personalities and interpretations became so influential that for a long time, dancers had to create Russian stage names for themselves to be accepted by the ballet-going public. Stars included: Tamara Karsavina, Olga Spessivtseva, Alexandra Danilova and Alicia Markova - who was born Alice Marks in Finsbury Park, and became Britain’s first ballerina.

The next generation:

Vaslav Nijinsky in Schéhérazade, presented in Paris in 1910
© Wikimedia Commons
Both Ninette De Valois, founder of the Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, and Marie Rambert, founder of what is now Rambert Dance Company danced for Diaghilev. The generous theatricality and robust tradition of British dance would not have existed without these women’s experiences of working with him. George Balanchine, the founding choreographer of New York City Ballet who created the uniquely American style, joined the Ballets Russes as a dancer in 1924, having defected from the Imperial Theatres on a tour in Europe. These pioneers, and many more, splintered off from the main company and seeded ballet all over the world.

 Legend has it that Diaghilev once heard a prophecy from a gypsy woman that he would die on water, so he avoided going on boats and was always scared of the sea. He died in Venice, in 1929, and his death brought the break up of his company.

But there is a curious paradox at the centre of Diaghilev’s life and death. For although he brought the greatest theatrical talents of the generation together, it was ultimately his death which made ballet an international art form, as different people who had been involved in the Ballets Russes scattered to form companies all over the world, nurturing a global audience for ballet and keeping Diaghilev’s somewhat accidental legacy alive.