Les Ballets Russes

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BBC Radio 3, 9 August 2009
In this entertaining feature dance critic Judith Mackrell tried to discover the real Diaghilev, the genius who moved to Paris from Moscow and founded a company which revolutionized the ways in which ballets were choreographed and staged. Like all geniuses, Diaghilev was at once inspiring yet impossible to work with; a bulldog-like character determined to overcome adversity through sheer strength of will, yet liable to drive his dancers beyond exhaustion. He never made any money from his productions - although they became the talk of fashionable Parisian society, any profits Diaghilev made were ploughed back into new work.
Diaghilev invariably confused the personal and professional aspects of his life. Many of his leading men - especially Nijinsky - were also his lovers. This made for an unstable working environment: when Diaghilev's relationships were going well, the company produced some inspiring and original material (for example, Debussy's Prelude de l'Apres-Midi d'un Faune). But if his relationships broke up, the standard of performance could be mediocre.
However this documentary concentrated mostly on his successes - notably Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, which caused a scandal on its first performance because of its apparently risque material. It soon became a succes d'estime, due in no small part to the elaborate costumes (most of which are now stored either in Paris or in London's Victoria and Albert Museum).
Diaghilev continued to produce experimental work right up to his death in 1929 from diabetes. His influence lived on in the work of other great choreographers, notably Dame Ninette de Valois, who began their careers as members of his company and subsequently branched out on their own. Mackrell herself concluded that his work lay at the heart of European modernism - but sadly she did not substantiate this claim very convincingly.