Thursday, December 23, 2010

Favorite Reads of 2010: Diaghilev: A Life

It's that time of year again--your friendly neighborhood librarians are eager to tell you about their favorite reads of 2010. Here is Por H. with a review:

My selected book is Diaghilev: A Life, by Sjeng Scheijen, translated by Jane Hedley-Prole and S. J. Leinbach.

I was still in New York in 1981 when I watched a WNET-TV, Channel 13, program of the Nureyev-Joffrey Ballet tribute to Nijinsky. The imaginative recreations of Petrushka--music by Stravinsky, choreography by Fokine; Le Spectre de la Rose--music by von Weber, design by Bakst, choreography by Fokine; and L’apres-midi d’un faune--music by Debussy, choreography by Nijinsky himself--introduced me not just to Diaghilev and Ballets Russes, but to all the elements of modern art. I used to think Martha Graham represented modern dance, and nothing could compare to Marc Chagall’s set for The Magic Flute for the Met, but Diaghilev did it all decades ago!

Thousands of books have devoted themselves to Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev’s later success as the impresario of Ballets Russes. In Schejien’s biography, however, readers have more access to Diaghilev’s inner emotional world and his earlier mental developmental process. It is very interesting to know, for instance, that Diaghilev gave up his dream of being a composer due to the fact that his music professor, Rimsky-Korsakov, told him plainly that he had no talent for composition. His studies in the law did not launch him into a judicial profession, nor did his education in the vocal arts promote an operatic profession; it was his involvement with his artistic circle of friends that introduced him to visual art and art history in general, which finally created the giant we know as the maestro of Ballets Russes.

The book presents a large amount of correspondence between Sergei and his stepmother, who had a tremendous influence over his artistic exposure. It tells of Diaghilev’s incredible relationships with international personalities such as Leo Tolstoy, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Emile Zola, Alexandre Dumas, and Giuseppe Verdi, during his time as a student. (I am nearly 60, and I have not met either George Balanchine or Philip Glass in person...) Of course, the reader will also learn all the juicy gossip involving Prokofiev, Picasso, Matisse, and Nijinsky.

In 1993, I watched Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, performed by the Los Angeles Opera. David Hockney designed the stage set. It was a magnificent production. And somehow I know Diaghilev would have approved the show. I fully enjoyed this book, and recommend it to everyone.

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