Who can ever forget the scene? The flashing-eyed, hot-tempered impresario, Boris Lermontov, consoles his leading dancer, Vicky Page, who has just lost her lover and with him, her tantalising glimpse of a happy, normal life. “Sorrow will pass, believe me,” he reassures her. “Life is so unimportant. And from now onwards, you will dance like nobody ever before.” He is, as luck would have it, spectacularly wrong. Miss Page, unimpressed, dives off a balcony and throws herself into the path of an oncoming train, unable to live for her art, but unwilling to live without it.
So torridly ends Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 masterpiece The Red Shoes, one of the greatest movies ever made about any art form, and inspired by the life of Sergei Diaghilev and his leadership of the Ballets Russes. Goodness knows what all those repressed and tired British audiences of the immediate postwar years made of it all: the temper tantrums, the declarations of love, the almost biblical discussions of sacrifice, devotion and life’s inner meaning.
And what on earth would they have made of Lermontov/Diaghilev, the dashing figure at the centre of the emotional maelstrom, charming and cajoling his way around the world as he moved his art into a different realm? They would have seen a figure who was not only ahead of his own time, but also of theirs. Diaghilev was way too modern for that world. His pan-cultural scope confused lovers of the arts; his ability to hustle for money helped provide them with untold aesthetic riches.
“He was a snob,” says Jane Pritchard, co-curator of this autumn’s major exhibition on Diaghilev at the Victoria and Albert museum, London. And yet, she says, he did more to make his art popular than anyone. Admittedly, that wasn’t always down to him. Even Diaghilev’s hustling had fortuitous results. One of the sponsors of the Ballets Russes, Lord Rothermere, made it his condition for sponsorship that the famed troupe would play a popular season at London’s Lyceum. High art began to find a mass public.
But Diaghilev’s mind was on higher things: he believed in bringing all the outstanding artists of his time together, to create a new “total theatre” that would simply blast the senses. His co-conspirators were a classy bunch. Among the treasures on show at the V&A is Picasso’s huge front cloth for Le Train Bleu, owned by the museum but rarely shown. Other artists of world renown – Matisse, Stravinsky – similarly fell under his spell.
The result was transformative. The infamous Paris premiere of The Rite of Spring by the Ballets Russes in 1913 has become a template of what artistic modernism should provoke when it rubs up against bourgeois complacency: criticism, chaos, civic unrest. The romantic part of us that wants art to matter more than anything else – that made Vicky Page throw herself under a train – continues to celebrate those riots in the Champs Elysées.
Yet our own sense of the modern is tame by comparison. The cutting edge of artistic innovation has been blunted by mass acceptance. Anything goes today. Groundbreaking cultural institutions, plump with state subsidy and teeming with sensation-seeking visitors, struggle to outrage their public. They have become the shock-absorbers of the new.
That is why we have such nostalgia for Diaghilev and his stormy era. These were the times in which a chance meeting in a Parisian café could change the course of art. There was more to the charismatic maverick at the heart of it all than a rakish way with a moustache. He was a true cultural entrepreneur and a true leader. He gave people what they wanted, which is what he wanted them to want.
Such were the dimensions of Diaghilev’s greatness that, rather than spawn a host of eager imitators, his death caused art to regress. It couldn’t cope with the pace of change. There was never, for many years, another company like the Ballets Russes, touring the mass markets of the world with high culture that was designed to shock. Artists stopped collaborating with such enthusiasm across the borders of their art forms. They retreated into the safe embrace of academic specialism and snobbery. Cultural promiscuity became an impure impulse.
Yet if he were alive today, Diaghilev would surely recognise a world that he had helped to create. He would see dancers in galleries, fine art in restaurants, acrobats in theatres, string quartets in the pop charts. He would smile wryly as the world’s new cultural entrepreneurs – the festival directors and London 2012’s Cultural Olympiad programmers – tried everything they could to commission exciting new mixes of art forms, in order to attract an informed and appreciative mass public.
Will any of those have the same impact as the Ballets Russes? Of course not. Apart from anything else, Diaghilev was simply lucky to have lived in a turbulent time and place that were ripe for his talents. The contemporary cultural world is altogether less fraught; more measured in its ambitions, less prone to be carried away with itself. It is the world in which Vicky Page should have found herself, and lived happily ever after.
‘Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, 1909-29’, V&A, opens on September 25, www.vam.ac.uk