To be openly gay in the latter days of the Russian Empire was exceedingly risky. The celebrated composer Tchaikovsky, most famous for his music to the ballets “Swan Lake”, “The Nutcracker” and “Sleeping Beauty”, had agonized all his life whilst keeping his homosexuality private. His death in 1893 was officially due to cholera. Some researchers now believe he was forced to commit suicide after a threat of being ‘outed’ by a group of princeling students. He was just 53.
One Russian had few concerns about keeping his gay life private. An avowed homosexual, he was destined to change forever the way the world looked at the performing arts. Born in 1872, Serge Diaghilev, son of a bankrupt vodka distiller, spent his early years near the Russian city of Perm. At the age of 18 he moved to the capital, St. Petersburg, where he soon managed to find himself part of an artistically-inclined gay clique. With these new friends, he would socialize, swap boyfriends and occasionally cruise for trade in the city’s parks. According to the composer Nicolas Nabokov, “he was perhaps the first grand homosexual who asserted himself and was accepted as such by society.”
In the first decade of the 20th century, St. Petersburg was the place to be if you wanted to work in the classical arts. Following defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, the Tsar was anxious to maintain Russia’s European prestige, especially with his main ally France. In 1906 Diaghilev was asked to mount an exhibition of Russian art in Paris. Two years later he was asked again to visit Paris, this time with a production of the classic Russian opera, Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” featuring the most famous bass voice of the age, Fyodor Chaliapin.
But it was ballet the French really wanted to see, for the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg was famed as the finest in the world. Ballet companies rarely travelled in those days. So in 1909 Diaghilev persuaded the Imperial Ballet’s best dancers to spend their holidays in Paris where he would find the cash to mount a short season under the title Les Ballets Russes. Diaghilev had a burning desire to change the ballet experience, to strip away the cobwebs of tradition and replace them with not just incredible dancing but also more contemporary music and avant-garde scenery and costumes. Diaghilev’s ballets were to become a mélange, a meeting ground for all the arts. In this, he was a revolutionary.
Serge Diaghilev painted by Leon Bakst
Although he had little knowledge of management of a ballet company, Diaghilev quickly reinvented himself as the greatest impresario of all time. Before his Company’s first performance, he invited critics to one of the final rehearsals. On the morning before opening night, Le Figaro splashed over its front page, “Tomorrow Paris will see, conjured up by magic, one of the finest spectacles with which it has ever been presented.” The premiere was packed and greeted with an “earthshaking” roar of applause.
Unsurprisingly, the entire season thereafter was a massive success. The exciting new choreography and bold new designs had a far more general appeal than to just the usual aristocratic ballet audience. As important was the astounding virtuosity of the lead dancers. Anna Pavlova (the Pavlova dessert of meringue, fruit and lashings of whipped cream came to be named after her) was one of the leading prima ballerinas. But it was the male dancers the Parisians really wanted to see. In France for most of the 19th century male dancers had been relegated to small roles, reduced to pretty adornments setting off the beauty and artistry of their female counterparts.
News of the extraordinary strength and astonishing athleticism of the Russian male dancers had Paris transfixed. In particular everyone wanted to see for themselves the star power, stage charisma and sexual allure of the young, withdrawn and, until recently, innocent star Vaslav Nijinsky. Other than showing Paris the virtuosity of his extraordinary leaps creating an effect of his flying in the air and his emotional involvement in a character, Diaghilev had another reason for wanting Nijinsky on this tour. The two had become lovers with the 37-year old Diaghilev holding an almost Svengali-like hold over his 20-year old bisexual protégé.
Diaghilev was not Nijinsky’s first gay lover. It was the tradition of the time that young male dancers would frequently find an older patron. Two years earlier another dancer, no doubt for a fee, had introduced Nijinsky to the 30-year old, extremely wealthy and handsome gay playboy, Prince Pavel Lvov. The relationship which followed probably gave him his first homosexual experience. Lvov introduced the unsophisticated 18-year old into a life of fabulous luxury showering him with the gifts of an apartment, splendid clothes and diamond rings – and, in common with the times, decadence. Since by all accounts Nijinsky was bisexual rather than exclusively homosexual, it is hardly surprising that he would later write merely, “I loved him because I knew he wished me well.”
Perhaps oddly, he had entered the relationship with the blessing of his mother. Less odd, since swapping boyfriends was part of the city’s gay culture, Lvov ‘lent’ him occasionally to his friend Diaghilev. After two years Nijinsky rejected the kindly Prince in favour of the much more domineering Diaghilev who, even as Nijinsky’s fame soared into the stratosphere, kept him more like a caged pet. Lvov was desperately sad but understood that Diaghilev was better able to help his lover’s career than he. He even gave Diaghilev money to help finance the upcoming Paris season.
So successful was that first season that Les Ballet Russes were to continue to appear in Paris before and after World War 1, soon becoming a full-time company that would tour to various countries in both Europe and the Americas. The scope of Diaghilev’s achievement was enormous. Many major composers like Prokofiev and Stravinsky, artists like Picasso, Joan Miró and Matisse, and fashion designer Coco Chanel were engaged to help realise Diaghilev’s dream.
As a larger than life figure often flying by the seat of his oversize pants, almost inevitably scandal was never far from Diaghilev. Nijinsky wanted more artistic freedom. Although he had little experience as a choreographer, Diaghilev let his lover create a work to the music of Claude Debussy. In “L’après-midi d’un faune”, Nijinsky caused a sensation when he appeared to be slowly masturbating with a scarf prior to a brief orgasmic shudder. But that outcry was nothing compared to the riot which took place during the first night of Nijinsky’s choreography for Stravinsky’s brutal, pagan-like “Rite of Spring” which ends with a human sacrifice. The police had to be called. Naturally Diaghilev had tipped them off in advance! Paris was in uproar. No one was more pleased that Diaghilev. “Exactly what I wanted,” he exclaimed!
Nijinsky as the Faun with the long Scarf in designs by Leon Bakst
Diaghilev had a premonition he would die at sea. So when the company travelled to South America in 1913, he did not go. Unknown to him, one of the company’s aspiring students had her eye on Nijinsky. She made sure they became close on the long sea voyage and then arranged their marriage in Buenos Aires. On learning the news Diaghilev was incandescent with rage! He immediately fired his lover. What did he care? There were plenty more young men in the company and he was to be involved in affairs with several of them.
For Nijinsky the break was a total disaster. His career in ruins and bereft of a patron, he quickly realised his marriage had been a grave mistake. At his wife’s urging he attempted to run his own company – without success. Soon he started suffering from schizophrenia. Over the years he was examined by many psychiatrists, including Sigmund Freud. To no avail. After his last public performance aged just 27, the greatest male dancer the world had ever seen, a dancer whose contribution to the world of dance has been called “titanic”, spent the rest of his sad life in an out of asylums.
The First World War not only played havoc with the Company’s schedules. It and the Russian Revolution shattered Diaghilev’s network of contacts within the ballet companies in St. Petersburg and Moscow. On the point of collapse, a London impresario booked Les Ballets Russes for a six-month season. This enabled the Company to rebuild and refresh its repertoire. But Diaghilev ended up taking too many risks and the money ran out again. He fled back to France to evade his creditors.
Afflicted by diabetes, Diaghilev died penniless in Venice aged 57. He had absolutely no money. Coco Chanel stepped in to pay for his funeral. His Company died soon after. Without Diaghilev it could not survive. His career with Les Ballet Russes had spanned a mere 20 years. In that time he unleashed a whirlwind of celebrity, scandal, glamour and innovation that transformed the worlds of music, dance, theatre and the visual arts as no one else in history.
Anything and everything about gay life anywhere in the world, especially Asia, other than Thailand.
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