‘What exactly is it you do?’ asked a bamboozled King Alfonso XIII of Spain upon meeting Sergei Diaghilev at a reception in Madrid, while the Great War raged on in Europe. ‘Your Majesty, I am like you,’ came the impresario’s quick-witted reply. ‘I don’t work, I do nothing. But I am indispensable.’ At first glance, the Russian expatriate’s estimation of his own worth may seem theatrically grandiose, but as the dance critic Rupert Christiansen shows in Diaghilev’s Empire, his new history of the Ballets Russes and their buccaneering onlie begetter, ‘indispensable’ was really no overstatement.
Now, 150 years after Diaghilev’s birth, the story of the Ballets Russes, its temperamental director and the wild programme of scandals and intrigues that played out both on stage and off is of course well known. But where Christiansen’s book comes into its own is in its description of the radical and lasting changes that Diaghilev brought to bear on the art form – changes made all the more striking by some extended, insightful considerations of what came before and after the fact. Part biography, part history of ballet in the 20th century, the book looks at how the larger-than-life impresario was able to take what was at the end of the 19th century the ‘childish business’ of ballet and not only drag it, often through sheer force of will, into artistic maturity, but also establish it as ‘a crucial piece in the jigsaw of western culture’.
Strange though it may seem, ballet was not the obvious choice for the young Diaghilev. His first experience of it, in Vienna, had left him cold. But he was drawn to artistic circles and was convinced that his talents could be put to good use there.