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Sergei Diaghilev: Ballet's master networker provocateur

Before Sergei Diaghilev, it was possible to dismiss ballet as a frivolous excuse for showing pretty girls and dresses without anybody getting too upset. The Ballets Russes changed all that. Formed by Diaghilev in 1911, this extraordinary company unleashed a 30-year whirlwind of scandal, celebrity, glamour and innovation that is now being celebrated in a major exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

It is rare for ballet to get such attention, but Diaghilev's accomplishments were many and his story is a joy. This is a man of charming and compulsive creativity who made a dancer change her name from Hilda Munnings to Lydia Sokolova (via Munningsova) so that she would sound more Russian, who dined with James Joyce and Marcel Proust, and whose passionate homosexual affairs with his chief dancers invariably began in scandal and ended in disaster. '

Part Falstaff, part Zelig, part PT Barnum, Diaghilev was a Russian blueblood born in 1872 with an interest in music and art that he transferred to ballet when he realised it was a discipline ripe for transformation. "In Russia, Diaghilev was working with artists such as Alexandre Benois and Leon Bakst who got him interested in ballet," says Jane Pritchard, the V&A's curator. "He sensed that ballet was ready for reform, as opera had done with Wagner. He saw that this where he could make his mark."

And that's what he did. Diaghilev's company – featuring the young dancer and future lover Vaslav Nijinsky – toured Paris in 1909 and became the Ballets Russes in 1911. They scandalised Paris four times before 1918, simultaneously delighting the avant-garde by introducing concepts such as Modernism, Cubism, communism and masturbation into sedate Parisian theatres.

Diaghilev had a gift for controversy, but he also transformed the notion of what ballet was about, creating what his biographer Richard Buckle has described as: "Gesamtkunstwerk [total artwork]: an entertainment, not more than an hour long, in which all the elements, story (if any), music, décor and choreography, were commissioned by himself to form a complete whole."

"People didn't expect to see ballet on its own," Pritchard elaborates, "it was something that was performed during interludes at the opera. But Diaghilev introduced short ballets with not a lot of narrative and featuring smaller companies, who all danced rather than stood in the background."

Central to this was Diaghilev's gift for collaboration. He worked with some of the greatest talents of the era: artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Jean Cocteau, composers from Sergei Prokofiev to Igor Stravinsky, dancers such as Vaslav Nijinksy and designers including Coco Chanel.

Diaghilev maintained such company in his private life as well, at one time attending dinner at the Majestic Hotel in Paris alongside Stravinsky, Picasso, Proust and Joyce, which could be classified as the most impressive – or most intimidating – dinner party of all time. By all accounts, it was a bit of a wash-out: Joyce was late and drunk, and Proust even later, turning up at 2.30am and upsetting Stravinsky by banging on about Beethoven.

This was one of the few occasions when Diaghilev's alchemic touch failed to produce memorable results. But that takes nothing away from his rather more impressive networking successes...

Vaslav Nijinsky

Diaghilev had used the young dancer Nijinsky in performances in his 1909 and 1910 Paris seasons and the public had adored his lithe athleticism and prodigious leaps. As had Diaghilev, who promptly got him into bed (Léonide Massine, one of Diaghilev's dancer-lovers, described sex with Diaghilev as like "going to bed with a nice fat old lady").

After the brief Parisian season, Nijinsky had to return to Russia to fulfil his contract with the state's Imperial Ballet. What to do? It has never been entirely clear how much Diaghilev had to do with what followed, but many suspect his canny hand. For some reason, Nijinksy performed in St Petersburg having "forgotten" to wear his groin-screening "modesty trunks". Uproar followed. Nijinsky was fired and Diaghilev pounced.

Nijinsky soon demonstrated his own talent for controversy when he choreographed his first ballet, L'Apres-Midi d'un Faune, in 1912, which culminated in him pretending to have sex with a scarf. "Masturbation on stage wasn't something people expected to see at the time," says Pritchard of Nijinksy's ribbon-rogering. In 1913, Nijinsky married a Hungarian dancer. Diaghilev was furious at the betrayal and fired him, and although the pair reconciled, they never worked together with quite the same impact again.

Igor Stravinsky

The premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring on 29 May 1913 was the second great scandal of the Ballets Russes. In Diaghilev, the book accompanying the V&A exhibition, the writer, broadcaster and composer Howard Goodall writes: "The three ballets for Diaghilev in which Stravinsky laid out his stall were The Firebird in 1910, Petrushka in 1911 and The Rite of Spring. When he was commissioned to compose the first of these he was unknown (and third choice for the job). By the morning after the premiere of the third, he was the most notorious and the most eagerly championed composer in all Europe."

The Rite of Spring provoked a riot at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées among an audience horrified by Stravinsky's brutally discordant composition, Nijinsky's anarchic choreography and Nicholas Roerich's vibrant costumes. The writer Gertrude Stein – possibly exaggerating – reported that the music

could not be heard above the din from the audience and noted a fight in the box next door, one chap walloping another on the head with his cane. Stravinsky's reputation was assured, while Diaghilev would have noted with satisfaction that the furore had proved to be great for the box office once again.

Pablo Picasso

When Diaghilev met Picasso in Montparnasse in 1916, the artist had never seen a Russian ballet. Within three months he'd agreed to create the fascinating Parade.

Stravinsky, Jean Cocteau (see right) and Picasso decamped to Rome to work on the first Cubist ballet, which debuted in Paris on 18 May 1917, a week after Diaghilev had sparked outrage when the Ballets Russes unfurled a huge red flag after a performance of The Firebird, alarming rich Parisians terrified about what was going on in Russia. Parade was equally radical, if not quite so controversial, incorporating bizarre characters, a score by Erik Satie that utilised typewriters, gunshots and sirens, and costumes by Picasso that looked like animated Cubist collages. Picasso went on to design Le Tricorne in 1919 and Pulcinella in 1920. He was also responsible for the image on the front cloth of Le Train Bleu in 1924, which will go on display at the V&A. At 10.4 metres by 11.7 metres, it is Picasso's largest signed canvas, based on a painting Diaghilev admired while visiting Picasso's studio.

Henri Matisse

Diaghilev worked with other noted artists, including Joan Miró and Henri Matisse, whose hand-painted silk costumes for 1920's Le Chant Du Rossignol are in the exhibition. "Matisse was more interested in costumes than the set and almost certainly hand-painted them himself," says Pritchard. "Matisse was more established than Picasso and took convincing to work with Diaghilev, but it appears that it wasn't as ghastly an experience as he had feared it would be."

When Matisse was first approached by Diaghilev he had complained: "Diaghilev is Louis XIV. He's charming and maddening at the same time – he's a real snake – he slips through your fingers. At bottom the only thing that counts is himself and his affairs." Later his opinion softened, writing to his wife: "You can't imagine what it's like, the Ballets Russes. There's absolutely no fooling around here – it's an organisation where no one thinks of anything but his or her work – I'd never have guessed this is how it would be."

Jean Cocteau

Cocteau was one of those congenitally creative people whose talents are not easily pigeonholed. He was a writer, an artist, a designer, a playwright and a poet. He was also a great facilitator, bringing disparate personalities together. It was through Cocteau that Diaghilev met Picasso and it was through Cocteau that Diaghilev became part of the Parisian homosexual scene that included Proust. Cocteau was present at the Rite of Spring riot, noting: "There, for the expert eye, were all the makings of a scandal." He designed two posters for that 1913 season, including an iconic Art Nouveau image of Nijinsky in Le Spectre de la Rose. An almost constant presence in Diaghilev's life, Cocteau also wrote three librettos for the company – Le Dieu Bleu in 1912, Parade in 1917 and Le Train Bleu in 1924. Of the latter, he said: "[It] is more than a frivolous work. It is a monument to frivolity!"

Coco Chanel

The designer made costumes for a number of ballets and advised on many more, but her key creations were the clean, simple and thoroughly modern clothes for Le Train Bleu, Cocteau's ballet about young tennis-playing, swimsuit-wearing, fashionable Parisians in the Riviera. Cocteau said she was to couture what Picasso was to painting. Her relationship with Diaghilev began in 1920 when she funded a revival of The Rite of Spring on the condition that Diaghilev never mentioned it to herself or anyone else again. It ended when she was summoned to his deathbed in Venice in 1929, where she paid for the penniless impresario's magisterial funeral.

'Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes' opens at the V&A, London SW7 , on 25 September (020 7942 2000, vam.ac.uk)