The seminal chapter of modern cultural history that includes Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes has been mined extensively for meanings, for hints of everything that came after, and for the excitement of its own now-mythic romances. It’s a nexus. In founding Les Ballets Russes, Diaghilev (1872–1929), like so many modernist icons, had only wanted to bring his own favorite art, Russian ballet, into the twentieth century, to free it from its seemingly endless immersion in a static nineteenth-century backwater of fairy-tale plots and white tutus.
The modernist movement that Diaghilev found himself spearheading threw all that accumulated affectation of prettiness away by simultaneously moving forward and very far back. Artists at the turn of the century weren’t afraid to reach backward into the primitive while exploring progressive attitudes and technological advances. After 1910, Diaghilev’s Russian Ballet became the artistic world’s central terminal and meeting ground. Having taken Paris, London, and New York by storm with the rich colors and bold shapes of Léon Bakst’s designs; the startling dissonances of Stravinsky’s music for The Firebird and Petrushka; and, above all, the sensual, acrobatic intensity of the young dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, Diaghilev’s troupe found itself cosmopolitanizing. Debussy, Ravel, Satie, Poulenc, and Milhaud provided their music; Jean Cocteau was among those who supplied scenarios. The young Spaniards and Frenchmen revolutionizing modern painting — Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Juan Gris — joined Bakst and Alexandre Benois on their design roster.
Everybody who believed that art could progress went to the Ballets Russes, sometimes getting more progress than they bargained for. Nijinsky raised eyebrows with the erotic explorations that suffused his choreography for Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun (1912) and Jeux (1913). Satie and Cocteau drew hisses from the purists by including a typewriter, pistol shots, and an Irving Berlin tune in the score for Parade (1917). The peak moment of outrage, of course, came with the premiere of Stravinsky’s ferocious Rite of Spring, choreographed by Nijinsky in 1913. The audience’s shouts of protest, hoots, and whistles drowned out the orchestra; Nijinsky had to stand in the wings, shouting the counts of the constantly changing rhythms for the dancers.
Terrence McNally’s new play, Fire and Air, directed by John Doyle at Classic Stage Company, gives a hasty and superficial guided tour of this rich but heavily worked-over material, while striving to explore — like far too many of its predecessors — the intense, troubled relationship of Diaghilev and Nijinsky. Such a focus may be inevitable: Diaghilev imposed his sexual-romantic infatuations on his company to such a degree that the line between gossip-column dish and aesthetic discussion becomes extremely indistinct. Steeped in dance from childhood, the charismatic nineteen-year-old Nijinsky not only became an international sensation through his Ballets Russes performances but within a few years had also begun to reveal remarkable originality as a choreographer. That he owed both his opportunities to Diaghilev’s fixation on him, and much of his cultivated sensibility to the impresario’s unremitting tutelage, does not mean that he was merely a pretty boy obeying orders. Nijinsky clearly had a personality and a vision all his own, which a less obsessive mentor might have nurtured for a longer time. As it was, Nijinsky’s abrupt marriage to a would-be dancer, while the company was touring South America, precipitated an irreparable breach with Diaghilev. Coupled with the onset of schizophrenia shortly thereafter, it destroyed Nijinsky’s career.
It did not destroy Diaghilev’s. Despite all the emotionally fraught memoirs, novels, movies, and plays that describe Nijinsky as the never-forgotten love of Diaghilev’s life, the impresario pressed on for another sixteen years, finding a new lover–cum–lead dancer, Léonide Massine, who was also quickly revealed as a resourceful choreographer, with perhaps less magic but more staying power and mental stability than Nijinsky. Obviously, Diaghilev cared not only for boy-hotness but for intellectual capacity, imagination, and artistic sense. Obsession alone could not have enabled him to make the Ballets Russes the key artistic enterprise and symbol for a time of such tremendous ferment. Diaghilev’s far-reaching knowledge, his sensitivity to every field of art, and the skill set that enabled this notoriously hard-driving, free-spending, and temperamental man to deal successfully for decades with the most distinguished artists, thinkers, social leaders, financiers, and statesmen of his day must have contributed something to the iconic role he plays in cultural history. It wasn’t all just Nijinsky’s ass.
This more deeply cultivated and complex Diaghilev is intermittently discernible in McNally’s text, which jumbles times together and hurries through familiar high points of Diaghilev’s story while returning, again and again, to the opening moments of Afternoon of a Faun and to Nijinsky’s unforgivable betrayal of his mentor by marrying. McNally manages to sandwich in a good bit of artistic discussion, squashed into précis form but rarely inaccurate. It barely registers, however, because Doyle and actor Douglas Hodge have built a Diaghilev who is almost maniacally unappealing and unmagical, a coarse-voiced, shouting, nonstop talker who never seems to do anything but bully except when he pauses to whimper. Far from having the world at his feet and Europe’s entire artistic tradition at his fingertips, he seems the least impressive and artistically sensitive person onstage — one starts to wonder why the others let him go on so. Hodge, who musters great energy here, has displayed in other roles a technical finesse and subtlety that might have allowed the play a more nuanced reading. Their absence is to be lamented.
The rest of the cast largely does better. Doyle’s staging is stark and formalized; the company enters in two lines down the mostly bare stage. A mirror with ballet barre occupies the upstage wall; another, above it, is angled to reflect the full stage, so that spectators can look up and view the tops of the actors’ heads as they move in and out of formation. Marsha Mason as the elderly servant who dotes on and nurses Diaghilev; Marin Mazzie as Misia Sert; and John Glover, wasted on the thankless role of Diaghilev’s old ex-boyfriend and business manager, all do as well as they can with material that mainly seems predictable. Two young actors, James Cusati-Moyer as Nijinsky and Jay Armstrong Johnson as Massine, seem chiefly called upon to pose languidly, most often shirtless; both periodically get the chance to show they can also act.
But the bulk of the text belongs to Diaghilev, and while McNally has loaded it with data, far too much of the data is familiar. I can recall three previous Off-Broadway plays that have gone over this ground: Robert David MacDonald’s Chinchilla, Richard Crane’s Clownmaker, and Lynne Alvarez’s Romola and Nijinsky; there are probably others, as well as a few movies. I don’t doubt that a ballet or perhaps even an opera on the subject exists. (Michael Cristofer was an effective Diaghilev in Chinchilla, a frigidly mannerist piece whose casual hopping from era to era and topic to topic had much in common with Fire and Air.)
Ironically, the most convincing representation of Diaghilev I can think of is in the work that has the least artistic substance and the most tenuous connection with the great artistic upheaval at the center of which Diaghilev placed his company: John Barrymore as the jealous, crippled impresario in Michael Curtiz’s pre-Code film The Mad Genius (1931). Here one gets no Russianness, no modernism, and — though it’s all about the older man’s desire to dominate the younger one (a startlingly youthful Donald Cook) — no explicit homosexuality. But the emotion comes through raw and clean, as does its way of entangling itself into the artistic ambitions involved. Hollywood at its best, back in the day, knew how to tell the simple part of this story. The theater, which should be able to tell the more complex part, keeps using that as window dressing while it dives for the gossip — a sure way to stifle the fire, leaving only air.