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

Farrar. Oct. 2022. 384p. ISBN 9780374139698. $35. DANCE
British dance critic and self-professed “incurable balletomane” Christiansen (Faber Pocket Guide to Opera; City of Light: The Reinvention of Paris) traces the history and artistic reach of the Ballets Russes and its mercurial founder, tireless promoter, and creative director Sergei Diaghilev. Drawing extensively on published histories, biographies, and autobiographies, Christensen writes for the curious reader, with or without an extensive dance background, presenting a man with a brilliant eye for talent and a gift for discerning what an audience craved, sometimes before they realized they wanted it. Along with chronicling backstage drama and artistic triumphs beginning about 1909, the book puts Diaghilev’s complicated personal life on full view; he had a chaotic relationship with ballet virtuoso Nijinsky, hired Picasso to design sets, invited Balanchine to choreograph, and collaborated with Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Jean Cocteau, and many others. After Diaghilev’s death in 1929, ballet did not die out as some had predicted. Christiansen argues that the Ballets Russes’ approach to dance remained influential for decades, gradually losing audience as new dance forms and artists emerged.
VERDICT Christiansen’s accessible book is a fascinating cautionary tale for readers with an interest in ballet history and those who enjoy books about visionaries who weather great failures and great successes.
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