Book Review: ‘Diaghilev’s Empire,’ by Rupert Christiansen

Book Review: ‘Diaghilev’s Empire,’ by Rupert Christiansen

Christiansen’s book is itself rather perfume-like: Impressionistic and inexhaustive, drawing mostly from secondary sources including those enumerated above, it distills Diaghilev’s life down to its concentrated, aromatic essence. Devoted to his “home team” of the Royal Ballet as others are to the Red Sox or Yankees, the author seems to have undergone the task for the sheer love of it, and his delight is infectious.

Mercifully, “Diaghilev’s Empire” is not divided into “acts,” an increasingly common device even in novels and especially books about show business, but into conceits such as “Triumphs” and “Rivals,” with an arpeggiated chronology that can occasionally but not unpleasantly disorient. Christiansen likens his hero’s origins to a Chekhovian short story; Diaghilev hailed from Perm, the setting that inspired “The Three Sisters,” and subsisted at first on an inheritance from his mother, who’d died soon after he was born in 1872, after the family vodka business his colonel father was tending went bust. He went to St. Petersburg to study law, with a Sontag-like streak of white in his black hair, joined an intellectual set that called themselves the Nevsky Pickwickians and was soon investing in symbolists and impressionists, writing reviews and overseeing a glossy publication called The World of Art. “We must be free as gods,” declared an editors’ letter. (He was only slightly hamstrung by a fear of traveling on water.)

Perpetually restless and ambitious, Diaghilev dabbled in producing orchestral concerts before bringing a “Saison Russe” of opera and ballet to Paris. He refused to put the economically and mentally vulnerable Vaslav Nijinsky on salary, instead seducing him. (Making love to Diaghilev, the ballet dancer later wrote in his diary, “I trembled like an Aspen leaf.”) Subsequent obsessions included Leonid Massine, whose choreographic career Diaghilev shaped and from whom he “wanted gratitude in the form of a cuddle.” He was not very nice about women’s bodies, telling George Balanchine, for example, that one ballerina’s breasts “make me want to vomit.” When it came to backstage dynamics this was decidedly the #PreToo era.

It is exceptionally difficult to describe ephemeral performances that one hasn’t seen, but in doing so Christiansen’s writing takes some exciting flights. On the “curse of respectability” that afflicted ballet in the post-Diaghilev 1940s: “The audience was swelled with enraptured ladies and their prim daughters turning their backs on a hard dirty rude world to live out dreams of swans and sylphs in virginal white tulle courted by slender princelings who attended to them with chivalrous deference.” On Anna Pavlova, the dancer who left Diaghilev’s orbit to form her own company: “She was best seen alone in the spotlight as a fluttering dragonfly, a melting snowflake, a winsome dryad, a will-o’-the-wisp — and, most famously, a dying swan, her arms quivering with a frustrated desire to take wing as the life force fades.” He describes Boris Kochno, the poet and librettist who clashed with Lifar, as if putting away a container of yogurt: “discreet, efficient, emollient, cultured and sortable.” And he has an ear for the alliterative or synesthetic phrase: the “Footlights Fanny” who muscles his way into the Ballets Russes (and Diaghilev’s bed) in Monte Carlo; the “evasively epicene” Kochno; the “macaronic patois” of Nijinsky’s sister in old age.

You may not be bonkers for ballet, as the author is, but “Diaghilev’s Empire” will help you comprehend its allure and — unprimly, with whimsy — the enterprising mogul who made people begin to take it seriously.