Diaghilev: A Life

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Featuring an eight-page gallery of full-color illustrations, here is a major new biography of Serge Diaghilev, founder and impresario of the Ballets Russes, who revolutionized ballet by bringing together composers such as Stravinsky and Prokofiev, dancers and choreographers such as Nijinsky and Karsavina, Fokine and Balanchine, and artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Bakst, and Goncharova.

An accomplished, flamboyant impresario of all the arts, Diaghilev became a legendary figure....

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Diaghilev: A Life

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Featuring an eight-page gallery of full-color illustrations, here is a major new biography of Serge Diaghilev, founder and impresario of the Ballets Russes, who revolutionized ballet by bringing together composers such as Stravinsky and Prokofiev, dancers and choreographers such as Nijinsky and Karsavina, Fokine and Balanchine, and artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Bakst, and Goncharova.

An accomplished, flamboyant impresario of all the arts, Diaghilev became a legendary figure. Growing up in a minor noble family in remote Perm, he would become a central figure in the artistic worlds of Paris, London, Berlin, and Madrid during the golden age of modern art. He lived through bankruptcy, war, revolution, and exile. Furthermore he lived openly as a homosexual and his liaisons, most famously with Nijinsky, and his turbulent friendships with Stravinsky, Coco Chanel, Prokofiev, and Jean Cocteau gave his life an exceptionally dramatic quality. Scheijen's magnificent biography, based on extensive research in little known archives, especially in Russia, brings fully to life a complex and powerful personality with boundless creative energy.
A New York Times Editor's Choice

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Editorial Reviews

Jennifer B. McDonald
Diaghilev, as one gathers from Sjeng Scheijen's meaty and rigorously researched new biography, could never have been any other than he was—a brilliant promoter of innovation, an unapologetic lover of chaos, an impeccable judge of both art and the public's hunger for it…The dominant facets of that life…are well chronicled. The contribution of Scheijen…is a scholarly synthesis of previous accounts, buttressed by material from heretofore unplumbed archives. His Diaghilev: A Life is especially excellent on its subject's formative years, on how the chubby boy became the hedonist to whom, as Cocteau once wrote, "life was tolerable only to the extent to which he could summon up marvels."
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
In Scheijen's words, Sergey Diaghilev (1872-1929), the brilliant impresario who created the Ballets Russes, both revolutionized and scandalized the worlds of art, ballet, and music by presenting "subversive art in a lavish setting." Beginning with exhibitions and publications in czarist Russia, he combined artistic vision with a genius for talent spotting and cajolery that enabled him to produce avant garde ballets from Fokine's Firdbird to Nijinsky's Rite of Spring; his last great choreographic discovery was Balanchine. Scheijen, a specialist in Russian art, intertwines excerpts from the diaries and correspondence of artists, patrons, and Diaghilev's family to convey the tumult of Diaghilev's personal and professional life. From homosexual entanglements with his artists to the financial difficulties that beset him throughout his career, the impresario relentlessly pursued his revolutionary artistic vision, often at the expense of others' feelings. The parade of great dancers, composers, and artists through Diaghilev's life give this book the sweep of a Russian novel with a fascinating, brilliant, and complex protagonist who, according to the author, lived a very public life, but kept his most intimate feelings hidden. 8 color and 64 b&w photos. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
"Sjeng Scheijen's biography of Ballets Russes impresario Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929) has been universally welcomed as the best to date...[This] biography of Diaghilev is indispensable and a well-written 'page turner' besides...Scheijen's command of the subject resounds on every page. Ninety years after his death we have the first scholarly biography of Serge Diaghilev in English and it is a winner." —Slavic Review

"The parade of great dancers, composers, and artists through Diahilev's life give this book the sweep of a Russian novel with a fascinating, brilliant, and complex protagonist who, according to the author, lived a very public life, but kept his most intimate feelings hidden." —Publishers Weekly

"A vivid portrait of this morbid, nomadic, charming-yet-secretive visionary." —Classic FM Magazine

"Drawing on a great deal of new research, and relying wherever possible on contemporary journals and letters, Scheijen puts Diaghilev into a different frame to any of his previous biographers.... Scheijen masterfully recounts the phenomenal way in which Diaghilev contrived, under virtually impossible circumstances, to nurture a sequence of works, from Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Debussy, Ravel, Falla, Milhaud, designed by Bakst, Picasso, Derain, Matisse, Miró, danced by Nijinsky, Karsavina, Massine, Lifar, choreographed by Fokine, Nijinsky, Nijinska, Massine, each more audacious than the last, many of them still in the repertoire."—Simon Callow, The Guardian

"An expansive, immensely readable text... A must for anyone intrigued by the Ballets Russes and the ingenious impresario indelibly linked with its achievements." —Times Higher Education

"Sergei Diaghilev was a transformative force in the history of 20th century culture thanks to his promotion of Russian art, Russian opera and, of course, the Ballets Russes. After exhaustive research in Russian, European and American archives, Sjeng Scheijen presents us with a multi-facetted and synthetic portrait of Diaghilev, adducing much new biographical and critical material. With important sections on Diaghilev's family, education, esthetic criteria and psychological makeup, Sergei Diaghilev: A Life is a luminous, engaging and refreshing study of Diaghilev's national commitment, international mission and deep influence on the evolution of the visual and performing arts."—Professor. John Bowlt, University of Southern California

'Sjeng Scheijen's new book about Diaghilev is absolutely wonderful. It is filled with the most fascinating information and is a completely intriguing read.... [An] exceptional book'—Dame Monica Mason, DBE, Director of the Royal Ballet

"No biography is definitive - yet I cannot imagine any book that will supersede this account of how Diaghilev ballets came into being. It is an astonishing achievement."—Michael Holroyd

"Previous biographies... have said little or nothing of the family Diaghilev left behind in Russia. Mr. Scheijen, a Dutch expert in Russian art, demonstrates, however, that Diaghilev made repeated efforts to contact them... Mr. Scheijen draws happily from a wide range of sources that have become available in recent years in Russia and the West... an important addition to the large shelf of Diaghilev literature." —Alistair Macauley, The New York Times

"...new document enable Scheijen to sweep out many cob-webbed corners in the Diaghilev story... The leading edge of Scheijen's revisionism, however, is not his fact-correcting but his reinterpretations... An admirable book. Apart from its revisionism, its most striking quality is its avoidance of clutter, and hence its rhetorical force... Above all, [Scheijen[ has tried to provide a deep and unified account of Diaghilev's personality. It's not a soul laid bare - Diaghilev was secretive - but something closer than we've seen before."
Joan Acocella, The New Yorker

"Diaghilev's Ballets Russes attracted devotees who behaved as if under the spell of an almost cult-like intoxication. The rapture of art at its most transformative seemed to infect everyone connected to the impresario. The major achievement of Diaghilev: A Life is probably its detailed portrait of Diaghilev's private life, but at the same time Mr. Scheijen helps us to feel something of that rapture." -Joel Lobenthal, The Wall Street Journal

"[A] meaty and rigorously researched new biography...Diaghilev: A Life is especially excellent on its subject's formative years... Scheijen dexterously plays his sources against one another to examine the erotic and professional dynamics between Diaghilev and his stars." -Jennifer B. McDonald, The New York Times Book Review

"Diaghilev was larger than life, and this biography is an absorbing and dramatic account of an extraordinary individual and his time." -Library Journal

"In Scheijen's hands, this is quite a read, quite a life, and quite a book." -Playbill.com

"Scheijen provides a comprehensive, well-balanced chronicle of the professional and personal life of the famous, and infamous, Russian impressario Serge Diaghilev... A substantial addition to the literature on Diaghilev and his Ballet Russes, the book benefits from Scheijen's access to and selective use of materials from previously inaccessible Russian archives." -Choice

"An admirable biographical study, and a fascinating overview of the Russian art world and its European connections in the early twentieth century." —Times Literary Supplement

"The epic life of the impresario of the Ballets Russes is captured in Sjeng Scheijen's Diaghilev, which... proves that 'design by committee' is not necessarily doomed." —Harper's Magazine

Library Journal
Sergey Pavlovich Diaghilev (1872–1929) personified the word impresario: he did not sing, dance, choreograph, compose, draw, or paint, but, by the force of his personality, impeccable taste, and keen knowledge of the arts, he influenced (and sometimes manipulated) a group of artists who changed the course of European culture in the early 20th century. Today he is known primarily as the founder of the Ballets Russes, a company that showcased the talents of dancers Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina and choreographers George Balanchine and Michel Fokine, as well as artists and composers. In this scholarly work, Scheijen, an independent scholar and Russian art historian, illustrates impeccable research drawn from materials in archival collections in France, Russia, and the United States as well as many other primary sources. Throughout the text there are personal and family photographs and sketches by many of the artists involved with Diaghilev productions. There is also an eight-page section of full-color illustrations of set designs (not seen by this reviewer). VERDICT Diaghilev was larger than life, and this biography is an absorbing and dramatic account of an extraordinary individual and his time.—Carolyn M. Mulac, Chicago P.L.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199891788
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 3/1/2012
  • Pages: 560
  • Sales rank: 970,054
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.60 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Sjeng Scheijen is a Senior Research Fellow and Veni-laureate at Leiden University in The Netherlands. He is a historian of Russian art, an exhibition curator, and a former cultural attaché at the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Moscow.

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Table of Contents

Translators' Note

Introduction: Death in Venice 1

1 A Big Head, 1872-1880 8

2 The Fruits of Enlightenment, 1879-1890 19

3 Rise and Fall, 1890-1891 33

4 Student Years: A Visit to Tolstoy, 1891-1893 41

5 Student Years: Alexandre Benois, 1890-1894 50

6 'The Serge Diaguileff Museum': St Petersburg, Rome, Genoa, Paris, 1894-1896 62

7 Charlatan and Charmer, 1895-1898 73

8 'I'm full of big plans!', 1897-1898 85

9 The World of Art, 1898-1900 97

10 The Sylvia Debacle, 1900-1902 111

11 The Hour of Reckoning, 1902-1905 124

12 The 'Homosexual Clique', 1906-1907 140

13 Tsar Boris and Tsar Sergey, 1907-1908 153

14 The Rise of the Ballets Russes, 1908-1909 170

15 Bakst and the Art of Seduction, 1909-1910 188

16 Emergence of a Genius, 1910-1911 206

17 Petrushka, 1911-1912 220

18 Prelude to a Scandal, 1911-1912 234

19 A Year of Risky Experiments, 1912-1913 251

20 Time of Troubles, 1913-1914 274

21 'Let us be resolute and energetic', 1914-1915 294

22 A Parade of Revolutions, 1915-1917 309

23 A Letter from Nouvel, 1917-1919 333

24 To the Brink of Catastrophe, 1919-1922 351

25 A Lifeline from Monte Carlo, 1922-1924 374

26 The Soviet Union Strikes Back, 1924-1927 395

27 The Final Curtain, 1928-1929 418

Notes 445

Bibliography 505

Illustration Credits 518

Author's Acknowledgments 521

Index 522

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 2 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 10, 2011

    For lovers of the ballet ---

    I enjoyed this very much. I love the ballet and Prokofiev, Debussy, Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, etc. are among my favorite composers.
    When George Balanchine had his ballet company at the New York Stste Theatre on 55th St. (before Lincoln Center was built) I went nearly every week. Maria Tallchief was the prima ballerina at the time. I saw the infamous Afternoon of a Faun twice. The music is lovely. This book brought back fond memories.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 25, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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