Russian artistic impresario, who founded the Ballets Russes and brought the contemporary arts of Russia to Europe. He inspired musicians, artists, and dancers and revolutionized the ballet.
Born into an aristocratic family from Novgorod, he studied law at St Petersburg and travelled around Europe, meeting such artists as Verdi and Émile Zola. His ambition was to become a patron of the arts; however, as a homosexual with no private income this was an unlikely goal in turn-of-the-century Russia. Nevertheless he did manage to launch a review in 1899, called The World of Art, of which he was the editor; in 1905 he organized a well-publicized exhibition of Russian art treasures in St Petersburg.
The following year he took this exhibition to Paris, where he also organized a series of concerts devoted to the music of Russian composers. The climax of these performances was the western première of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, given in Russian at the Paris Opéra in 1908. With this success behind him he was able, in 1909, to form his own ballet company, the Ballets Russes, with Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, and Michel Fokine as dancers and Massine and Balanchine as choreographers in addition to Nijinsky and Fokine. Following the inspiring guidance of Diaghilev, the new company drew on the innovations of Isadora Duncan as well as drama and the decorative arts to produce an entirely new tradition that broke away from the stereotyped work of the Russian Imperial Ballet. Diaghilev commissioned such composers as Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, and Prokofiev to provide the music for his ballets and was thus responsible for introducing the works of these musicians to a wider audience. In their revolutionary new ballets, which include Stravinsky's The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913), Ravel's Daphnis and Chloë (1912), and Falla's The Three-Cornered Hat (1919), the sets were designed by such avant-garde artists as Picasso, Braque, and Matisse. The Ballets Russes toured Europe and North and South America from 1909 until 1929 and produced altogether sixty-eight ballets, many of which are still included in the modern repertoires. Diaghilev continued to introduce new ideas but the diabetes from which he had suffered for several years led to his decline and death in Venice at the age of fifty-seven.