Ballet comes of age with Sergei Diaghilev

‘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