Book review / A heavyweight who always won on pointes

Picasso, Stravinsky, Nijinsky: they all danced to the great impresario' s tune. Michael Church searches for his secret

Diaghilev died in 1929. In 1967 John Drummond persuaded 22 Ballets Russes survivors to speak about him on film. Thirty years on, Drummond has transcribed their interviews for a book, which thus represents a double time-warp. It begins oddly, with a series of swipes at long-dead BBC colleagues who failed to appreciate Drummond's youthful genius, and with an astonishingly personal attack on the dance critic Richard Buckle, his adviser for the film.

Buckle is the author of what is generally regarded as the definitive Diaghilev biography. This Drummond condemns as containing too much fact and "too little judgment". He acknowledges the scale of the Diaghilev industry, but justifies this new contribution to it by claiming that key questions have yet to be posed.

Diaghilev was the supreme collector and shaper of talents, enthusing Picasso and Cocteau and presenting to the world Stravinsky and Satie, Benois and Bakst, plus a host of dancers. Wagner may have been the first exponent of the Gesamtkunstwerk - the fusion of music, drama, and spectacle - but what this Russian impresario did with music, dance, and visual art was no less original. After much huffing and puffing about "the nature of authority", Drummond's unposed questions boil down to one simple one: how did he do it?

Of course we'd like to know, but most of us have long assumed we never shall. Art is mysterious, and collaborative creation particularly so. In a letter to his stepmother, Diaghilev himself acknowledged the mystery: "I am, first, a great charlatan, though with dash; second a great charmer, third cheeky, fourth a person with a lot of logic and few principles, and fifth, someone afflicted, it seems, with a complete absence of talent." Setting aside that last defect - which referred to his failure as a composer - his self-diagnosis is still the best to date.

Can Drummond do better? To be frank - and his pre-emptive arrogance demands nothing less - the answer is no. Speaking of Diaghilev leaves the mystery virginally intact.

But there are still nuggets to be mined from these unedited conversations, provided you overlook the ploddingly unctuous questions which punctuate the text. Provided, also, that you don't mind being told endlessly about Diaghilev's grey suits, gliding gait, frightening aloofness and fear of water, and the enormous size of his head.

Some descriptions are evocative. His laugh was "like thunder rolling around"; his handshake was so soft that "you seemed to disappear into it". When, surrounded by acolytes, he made his entrance into a restaurant, "it was like a ship entering a harbour, with little ships around him". For Karsavina he had the lazy grace of a sea-lion. For Cecil Beaton he had a mouth like a shark, and "a marvellous poreless complexion".

We gather a lot about the control he exerted over his company by alternating cruelty and kindness. We get some sense of his magic ability to seem boundlessly rich, while possessing little more than the clothes he stood up in.

Every so often, an anecdote illuminates a work. Serge Lifar's Prodigal Son was so effective because it coincided with the errant dancer's private reconciliation with his master. Sokolova's description of what it felt like to dance L'apres-midi d'un faune - "pushing your hands forward from the wrist" - speaks volumes.

We learn from the composer Igor Markevitch how deeply Diaghilev immersed himself in the scores he commissioned. His interventions were so forceful that Markevitch found it "very difficult to know exactly who was the creator". The composer Nicholas Nabokov, speaks of his infallible musical intuition, and gets closer than anyone else to identifying the quality of risk which infused everything Diaghilev did. This, says Nabokov, derived from the fact that "he was perhaps the first grand homosexual who asserted himself and was accepted as such by society".

But Speaking of Diaghilev is really three books, not one. The second recounts Drummond's pursuit of his sacred monsters and their fascinating reactions to him. Some screw him for every penny they can; some become his devoted friends; some deliver monumental snubs, which he reports in masochistic detail.

The third book, in the form of an extended afterword, is the least satisfactory, being the autobiography of a balletomane who is also one of the most powerful arts grandees in Britain. Drummond is properly contemptuous of what passes these days for innovation, and shows why Diaghilev would not have been happy running the Royal Ballet. But he also has scores to settle and alliances to cement, and seems incapable of disentangling these from the serious points he wants to make about the condition of dance today. Did this book not have an editor?

Between a literary amateur like Drummond, who lets it all hang out, and a professional like Richard Buckle, who keeps his eye on the ball, there is no comparison. Speaking of Diaghilev is a patchy and querulous postscript to Buckle's magnificent Diaghilev (Weidenfeld, pounds 14.99, and still in print). That's the book to get hold of.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own