6 SEPTEMBER 1997, Page 31

The art of Big Daddy

John Bowen

SPEAKING OF DIAGHILEV by John Drummond Faber, £20.00, pp.357 Some years ago a radio play of mine, The False Diaghilev, was reviewed on Kalei- doscope by the ballet critic Clement Crisp, who did not greatly care for it. 'But surely,' the interviewer said, 'Bowen has sources for all this?' I know his sources,' said Mr Crisp balefully. I doubt he did. One was the tape of a radio documentary broadcast in 1973, Big Serge by John Drummond, con- taining extracts from the interviews collect- ed in this book.

The interviews were recorded for two television films about Diaghilev made for Omnibus in the 60s. The BBC destroyed the films some time after they were trans- mitted, but luckily Drummond had kept the sound tapes. The first part of the book tells the story of the making of those films and is extremely gossipy and enjoyable. Boris Kochno at 70, drunk and wearing an 18th-century Chinese mandarin coat over the waistcoat and trousers of a grey three- piece suit which he has not changed for two days, stumbles downstairs to make a pass at Drummond's assistant. Massine lodges him in a guest-room with no lights, an only par- tially completed wall and the sea 100 feet below, then feeds him on marinated squid and charges him the rates of a five-star hotel. Anton Dolin lands him with the bill for drinks in a sleazy bar for rent boys in Cannes: `no one,' Drummond writes, 'was more delighted than he about his eventual knighthood.' Even Drummond's little touches of unselfconscious amour propre are endearing, as when he tells us how hurt he has been that over the years Dame Ninette de Valois has never been able to remember his name. The second and longer part of the book consists of the interviews themselves. When Lifar asked him how he came to be inter- ested in the project Drummond replied, `Par jalousie,' to Lifar's delight, but Drum- mond meant that he had been born too late to see any of the Diaghilev ballets in their original productions, was fiercely jeal- ous of those who had and was trying to know the man and the work at second- hand. He never managed to record Stravin- sky or Balanchine (though he talked to Stravinsky in Paris), but many of the rest are here, Sokolova the longest and best, as gossipy and good fun as Drummond him self, with a quick intelligence and a gift for descriptive detail, says of the Prince's The- atre that it was built over a plague pit and the rats used to run about and play the harp.

How far do these memories manage to recreate Diaghilev for us? His appearance? — well, we know already about the white streak in his hair which Sokolova says was the real colour, with the rest of the hair, dyed. He was a big man with a big head; his face was said to resemble the death-mask of Peter the Great. Karsavina describes his gait, rolling his head from side to side like a sea-lion; with Dolin this becomes 'he ambled gracefully along'. Benois's daughter describes his laugh 'like an ogre.' Cyril Beaumont says that when Diaghilev wanted something 'he would just brush your arm with his hand, which was rather plump and warm': with the dancer Errol Anderson this becomes 'the softest, flabbiest hand I have ever shaken'. Already we notice that the interviews tell us as much about those interviewed as about Diaghilev. Lifar, describing himself as Diaghilev's spiritual heir, spouts high-flown generalities non- stop, but the only personal anecdote in the interview is of Diaghilev cruelly taunting and teasing his elderly cousin.

The Diaghilev Ballet lasted for 20 years; Diaghilev died of diabetes in 1929. Ballet is the most evanescent of the arts, yet Diaghilev's work remains a touchstone, not Fokine's or Nijinsky's or Massine's or Picasso's or Bakst's or Stravinsky's or Ravel's. Each of those was a contributor, but the whole ballet was a coming together of music, design, choreography and the skill and passion of the dancers. To make that coming together of disparate artists was Diaghilev's art. He had trained as a composer, had organised exhibitions of paintings and edited a magazine, The World of Art, and had worked in the administra- tion of the Maryinsky Theatre. He had experience, judgment and enthusiasm, a respect for tradition and an appetite for what was new, and to these qualities he added an ability to coax money out of the rich and a flair for lighting.

And one more: he was a father-figure. The dancers remember the company as a kind of family with Diaghilev as the father who must always be pleased: 'projects began with his encouragement and existed only with this continued support.' Nicholas Nabokov says that when one began to work for him his manner changed: 'it was the manner of someone who somehow owned you.' At first his collaborators were estab- lished artists; later he worked with surro- gate sons whom he had educated, taken to art galleries, set to read books and listen to music. The last, the composer Igor Marke- vitch, says of working under Diaghilev's supervision, 'Sometimes you had the idea that he was creating ... per personne inter- pose.'

When the all-knowing, all-enabling father dies, the family breaks into pieces. The third section of Drummond's book is called 'The Legacy'. The would-be succes- sors, the touring companies of Colonel de Basil and the Marquis de Cuevas, fell apart. Choreographers became dominant over composers and designers, running their own companies which performed mostly their own work. Only in the USA did private patrons — Lincoln Kerstein for the New York City Ballet, Lucia Chase for American Ballet Theatre — still cover the difference between costs and box-office receipts. In Europe building-based compa- nies were controlled by government bureaucrats and the choreographers answered to quangos.

Speaking of Diaghilev ends as an elegy. Drummond wishes to be optimistic, but still he mourns. There has been only one Diaghilev, and even if he were to come again, he might have a little difficulty with the Arts Council.

All this — the-house, the grounds, the lake — instills a feeling of wonder in me. I wonder how I manage to pay for it all