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Russia: Saint Petersburg Remembers Diaghilev

By John Varoli and Jan Cleave

St. Petersburg, April 4, 1997 (RFE/RL) - St Petersburg cultural figures and city officials gathered this week to mark the 125th anniversary of the birth of the Russian art critic and ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev. The celebration began with the unveiling of a small memorial on the facade of the building at 11 Fontanka Kanal where Diaghilev lived from 1900 to 1906.

The day's festivities continued amidst the grandeur of the Tavride Palace, currently housing offices of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). A portrait exhibit of late 20th century Russian cultural figures was opened to mirror a similar exhibit of 3,000 Russian historical portraits which Diaghilev organized at the same venue in 1905.

With trade-mark Diaghilev flare and flamboyance, young actors dressed as different character -- nurses, gentlemen, clowns, night watchmen -- met guests at the door with witty and mischievous pranks. One attractive young nurse caused many a man to blush as she came up to them pretending to be already well acquainted.

The commemorations have been organized by the Diaghilev Art Center, a local cultural association founded in 1990. Vladimir Yakovlev, chairman of the city's Committee for Culture, remarked that the celebrations were in typical Diaghilev style -- "without any help from the state."

Diaghilev was never on stage but rather was the man behind the scenes. A daring and energetic personality, he was well versed in music, painting and choreography. In 1898, he founded the influential journal "Mir Iskusstva." Later, he turned his hand to organizing cultural events. He had an instinct for the new, the innovative, and the daring. And he also knew how to bring out the best in creative personalities.

In 1909, Diaghilev launched the Ballets Russes company, which took up permanent residence there until his death in 1929. The Ballets Russes astounded Europe with its unimaginable concentration of talent, which the American dancer Isadora Duncan described as Russia's "temple of aesthetic joys". The list of cultural figures Diaghilev promoted reads as a who's who of 20th century greats: the ballerina Anna Pavlova, composer Igor Stravinsky, dancer and choreographer Mikhail Fokin, and dancer Vaslav Nizhinsky. He also gave the composer Prokofiev and Spanish painter Picasso their first breaks.

The Ballets Russes was recognized to be the leading modern ballet company of the time and also the most daring. In 1913, the premier of the "Rite of Spring" gave rise to one of the biggest-ever theatrical scandals. Many who attended the opening perfomance dismissed Nizhinsky's choreography and Stravinsky's score as incomprehensible and sensationalist. But soon after, the all-Russian production was recognized as a modern masterpiece. Diaghilev's efforts not only introduced Russian culture to Europe but influenced the course of 20th-century world culture.

This week also saw the opening of two other exhibits commemorating Diaghilev, both of which will continue until the end of the month. The Pushkin museum at 12 Moika Kanal has organized a show of photos, graphics, and sculptures by the great impresario. The Theater Library at 6 Ostovsky Square is showing paraphernalia from the Ballets Russes. The small, one-room exhibit displays a captivating collection of costume drawings by Bakst and Benois, pictures of dancers Nizhinksy and Fokin, as well as personal memorabilia of Diaghilev.