The Russian Whirlwind

Lost in their particular chrysalises, many artists elude a global vision of the great circus of society. Although their works relate to the world, artists don’t always care about the future or the trajectories of these works as much as they care about the creative orgasm. Some specialties – choreography, orchestral conducting – combine talents and manage to lift the gaze a little from the tunnel of obsession, but there is a supreme being who shines by his very absence in today’s bureaucratic arts world (although some believe incorrectly that the cinematographer has assumed this role). Consider the great dilettante impresario who embodies all defects: whim, danger, recklessness, craziness – a person who sells the idea of a performance before a single note exists, who commits venues and troops to adventures that may become box office successes, but almost certainly will be racing against the debt clock. Consider characters like the Canadian, Garth Drabinsky, who succeeded in creating a huge network of venues in North America and who, flying from coast to coast overseeing every detail of each of his musical theater productions, managed to increase considerably the cultural offerings of many cities until he succumbed to justice in 2009 with multi-million-dollar debts.

The modern archetype of this character is the great Serge Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes: a man without whom 20th-century art would not be what it is. After reading his latest biography (Scheijen, Oxford University Press), it is clear that everything that rose to fame did so because he knew how to place it at the center of the cultural arena with his tantrums, crises, whims and follies, making innovation an absolute necessity. In two decades (1906-1926), he enabled Picasso, Derain, Matisse, Bakst, Marinetti, Gabo, Stravinsky, De Falla, Ravel, Prokofiev, Satie, Cocteau, Goncharova, Nijinsky, Massine, Balanchine and dozens of others to work in productions that were completely imagined, informal, invented on the fly between tours, hotels and train stations with no fixed headquarters and no guaranteed money, pursued by creditors, celebrating in palaces or hovels, driven by an obsession: avant-garde creation based on pure talent, coupled with rigorous  supervision of every tiny detail. Most of these artist’s lives shifted entirely after working with the Ballets Russes. In today’s sorry world, governed by computerized accounting and the Protestant ethic of frugality, the magical Russian Diaghilev would probably be behind bars.

Today, we wonder why stage creations are so weak compared to those of decades past. We distance ourselves from blaming the uniqueness of the dawn of the 20th century – a fragile explanation. That era was marked by the particular willpower of a man who found and moved talent, breaking conventions with the supreme justification of artistic content. The interaction between librettists and composers, choreographers and artists that Diaghilev stimulated with every fiber of his being and imagination, forcing them to excel in a whirlwind of productions and practice without fear of failure, was his great achievement. If nobody today takes on that role, promoting and defending interdisciplinary creation tooth and nail, the hallmark of our time will be little more than a pale memory.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland


About pauldesenne

Composer / Writer
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