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“IMPRESARIO” CONJURES up the image of a larger-than-life individual, not just an artistic director of something or other, but one whose influence extends considerably further. Serge Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes, was the prototypical impresario. Yet, as a youth he had been told he had no talent—and years later he was denounced by the widow of his earlier detractor. No matter, because the work criticized, Ballets Russes’ Schéhérazade, also had influence far beyond its ballet stage.


Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev, 1872 – 1929, Russian ballet patron and impresario, founder of Ballets Russes. Portrait of Diaghilev and his nanny by Léon Bakst, 1906.

Diaghilev was born to a wealthy Russian family, his father a cavalry colonel, their wealth attributed to vodka distilleries. His mother died shortly after his birth and in time his father’s second wife gave Serge great affection and strong cultural influence.

Diaghilev started studies in law, but got caught up with artistic types including Léon Bakst, who was to play an important role in the Balletts Russe tale. Diaghilev graduated from the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music in 1892, though not exactly with high honors. In fact, his professor, composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, told Diaghilev he had no talent for music.


The world of Serge Diaghilev, by Charles Spencer with contributions by Philip Dyer and Martin Battersby, Penguin Books, 1979. The cover shows a poster by Erté for Theodore Kosloff’s Hollywood ballet school.

In The World of Serge Diaghilev, Charles Spencer shares a note Serge wrote to his stepmother in 1895: “I am, firstly a charlatan, though rather a brilliant one; secondly a great charmer; thirdly frightened of nobody; fourthly a man with plenty of logic and very few scruples; fifthly, I seem to have no real talent. Nonetheless, I believe I have found my true vocation—to be a Maecenas. I have everything necessary except the money—but that will come.”

Gaius Maecenas, 68 B.C. – 8 B.C., gave help to Roman poets Horace and Virgil. Merriam-Webster cites a maecenas as a generous patron, especially of literature or art.

Once Diaghilev found his angels, this definition fit him perfectly. In 1909, he produced a Saison Russe of ballets in Paris; the name Ballets Russes followed a year later. During the next 20 years, he worked with the likes of composers Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie and Igor Stravinsky; artists/set and costume designers Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Joan Miro, Erté and Salvador Dali; and a corps of dancers who would define 20th century ballet for many years after his death in 1929.

Fearing death through drowning, ironically Diaghilev died (of diabetes) in Venice and is buried on Isola di San Michele nearby.


Cover of the Ballets Russes supplement, 1910. A costume by Léon Bakst from Schéhérazade. Image from The World of Serge Diaghilev.

In 1910, Diaghilev, Bakst and choreographer Michel Fokine presented the ballet Schéhérazade, based on Rimsky-Korsokov’s 1888 symphonic poem. Yes, the same R-K who had berated a young Diaghilev back at the Conservatory.

This time around (R-K died in 1908), it was widow Nadezhda Rimskaya-Korsakova who dissed him, likely just on general principals as she was notorious for speaking her own mind. Despite her criticism (or aided by its buzz?), Schéhérazade astounded and delighted its Paris audiences. In particular, it raised production, set and costume designer Bakst to star status.


Schéhérazade sketch by Léon Bakst, 1910.

Orientalism was already popular in European culture. As an example, Carlo Bugatti (Ettore’s father) had already achieved fame with his ornate furniture and cabinetry. Scents like sandalwood and patchouli were the rage. And Bakst’s brilliant colors, lapis-lazuli, corals, hues of emerald and ruby, all combined with gold and silver, became fashionable in clothing as well as interior design.


Left, The Fiddler by Marc Chagall, 1912, an inspiration for the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof. Right, a characteristic setting by Joseph Urban for the Ziegfeld Follies.

Austrian-American Joseph Urban brought the influence of Diaghilev and Bakst to America in productions he designed for the Ziegfeld Follies and the Metropolitan Opera. Artist Marc Chagall paid homage to Bakst, his teacher and mentor.

Following the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Soviets considered Diaghilev and his crowd the utter worst of bourgeois decadence. However, I suspect he didn’t fret about this. He resided in Monte Carlo; his reputation as an impresario was already firmly established. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015


  1. paulydeathwish
    November 29, 2015

    Well-done! I am a fan of Bakst. You enlightened me regarding Diaghilev’s life. Very interesting about the fear of drowning and then the death in Venice. Thank you! –Paul

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