Speaking of Diaghilev

Literary Review, August 1997

If John Drummond really did set out to investigate the alchemy by which Diaghilev facilitated perhaps the most creative period in dance this century, then, by his own admission, he didn't quite succeed. Alchemy rarely gives up its secrets to analysis. But although that may have been his intention thirty years ago when making the BBC films upon which his book is based, I believe that Speaking of Diaghilev has an aim which is altogether different.

The book is something of a three course feast. The first part serves to whet the appetite and create a sense of anticipation for the main course which is to follow. Yet it manages to have a validity of its own. Drummond is no mean story teller: Even though the outcome is never in any doubt - we know from the table of contents just who talked and who didn't - he still succeeds in involving the reader in his quest to interview the Diaghilev 'survivors'. And there are moments of humour: The story of Lydia Sokolova, incensed by the incessant chattering of Marie Rambert during an Opera House performance grabbing her by the chignon and shouting, 'Silly little bun! Silly little bun! Wouldn't stop talking, would it?' had me laughing out loud. It conveyed more eloquently than an entire thesis the irritated intimacy which grows out of the years dancers spend in too close proximity, both physical and emotional.

The central section is made up of the transcripts of a series of interviews with those dancers, artists, choreographers, composers and conductors who worked with Diaghilev during the twenty years of the Ballets Russes' existence, a list which reads like a roll call of the great and the good of Twentieth Century Art.

These interviews testify to the crucial role he played in raising ballet from the depths to which it had descended in Britain at the turn of the century, and the extent to which his influence can be felt even today. Indeed, with the exception of a few nations where dance was already well established, Drummond makes the case for a family tree of dance with every one of the branches having its roots in Diaghilev.

It is both interesting and unusual to hear dance history from the perspective of the dancer. Until recently, dancers have seldom been encouraged to believe they can do anything other than dance, and yet this book clearly demonstrates the articulacy of several dancers, notably Rambert, Sokolova and Tamara Karsavina. Through discussions with these and other artists a remarkable three dimensional portrait of Diaghilev emerges, alive with details which flesh out the man within that famous frame.

Historical figures are always handed down to us an absolute - he was this, that or the other - but in reality, none of us are quite so black or white. We are all multi faceted, and the strongest impression which remains for some of our contemporaries may equally be the weakest for others. So it was with Diaghilev. The eye witness accounts tell a contradictory story of a man who was by turns gentle, overbearing, restrained of temper, violent tempered, opulent, poverty stricken, averse to pale grey, or the owner of a pale grey suit. No-one seems quite sure whether he dyed his white hair black, or his black hair white, which seems to me a perfect example of the dichotomy which was Diaghilev.

Drummond succeeds in drawing these contrasting threads into a coherent tapestry which reveals a more complete personality than I, for one, have ever considered before.

What does emerge without a doubt is the absolute nature of his artistic authority, and the book raises interesting and topical questions of how creative genius can flourish without that authority. Where art is a solo enterprise, perhaps the issue does not arise. Yet in the collaborative arts, of which dance is the supreme example, combining as it does with music and design, there must be an overriding vision for the artistic intent to succeed. Diaghilev's entire philosophy was based on the belief that it is the balance between these elements which causes great theatre, and perhaps his real genius lay in persuading others, whose talent in one particular field was infinitely greater than his own, to subjugate their skills to his artistic objective.

Drummond goes on to ask whether such a situation could exist today. He obviously doesn't feel compelled to leave a sweet taste in the reader's mouth. Instead, he poses some meaty questions about the status of dance today, and unlike many writers, is unafraid to come up with answers. The constraining hand of relativism seems for the most part to have passed Drummond by, and it is enormously refreshing, for once, to read what are closer to judgements than opinions.

In the preceding sections, he has shown us the Utopia which was the Diaghilev era, and in doing so, provided a stark contrast to the reality of the dance world today. Unlike Diaghilev, who was the recipient of patronage rather than funding or sponsorship, directors of dance companies nowadays have their hands ever more firmly tied by funding bodies, boards of directors and the increasing necessity of appealing to the market place. Drummond asks how artistic vision can possibly flourish under these stultifying factors.

And funding is not the only difference. I have questioned elsewhere just how many of Balanchine's achievements could have been realised in the current dance world, with young people in general and dancers in particular increasingly aware of their rights, and union regulations dictating the hours and conditions under which the theatre operates. Drummond addresses the same issues. Could an autocrat such as Diaghilev survive in the modern work place?

And yet despite all these negatives, Drummond still retains an optimism about the way things could be. He has a vision of a world where we are all educated to understand innovation in the arts, and a world where dancers and, by extension, choreographers are given the sort of education Diaghilev gave his company: Education in the broadest sense of the word, the fertile soil in which the germ of an artistic idea can grow, its roots conjoint with the whole spectrum of artistic knowledge.

Whilst arguing for this cultural climate where dance can go beyond mere entertainment, Drummond asks whether we should in reality just be pleased that ballets like Swan Lake are still performed, and that audiences come to see them. For the moment, yes, given an education system where dance is included only as a minor adjunct to the Physical Education curriculum, and where governments are afraid to take steps to counter the philistine influence wielded by some parts of the media. For the future, no. We have become pathetically grateful that anyone at all comes to the ballet, let alone demand that they come with a sense of the historical and cultural context of the work they're about to see.