cover image Diaghilev’s Empire: How the Ballets Russes Enthralled the World

Diaghilev’s Empire: How the Ballets Russes Enthralled the World

Rupert Christiansen. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35 (384p) ISBN 978-0-374-13969-8

Sublime art leaps from great showmanship in this vibrant chronicle of early 20th-century ballet. Dance journalist Christiansen (The Complete Book of Aunts) centers his narrative on Sergei Diaghilev, the Russian impresario who took Paris and London by storm before and after WWI with his Ballets Russes troupe, which showcased Russian dancers and choreographers in ballets that revolutionized the form. His Diaghilev is a larger-than-life rogue forever summoning reluctant male employees to his bed; an avowed charlatan with no talents except the ability to galvanize talented people into putting on a show; and with a restless, fertile sense of boredom that made him push the avant-garde. Surrounding Diaghilev and vividly sketched are such Ballets Russes geniuses as the preternaturally gifted (and possibly autistic) Vaslav Nijinsky—whose settings of modernist lightning bolts Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun by Debussy and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring almost caused riots with their strange movements, eroticism, and cacophony—brilliant choreographers Leonide Massine and George Balanchine, and set designer Pablo Picasso. Christiansen writes about ballet as evocatively as one can (prima ballerina Anna Pavlova was “a fluttering dragonfly, a melting snowflake, a winsome dryad, a will-o’-the-wisp—and... a dying swan, her arms quivering with a frustrated desire to take wing as the life force fades”). The result is a stimulating recreation of a cultural watershed. Photos. (Oct.)