The centenary of a sacred scandal: Diaghilev, the designer of the scandal

Many scholars still argue whether the extraordinary reaction that took place at Le sacre du printemps’ premiere was mainly due to Nijinsky’s choreography or Stravinsky’s score. However, there is one certain fact: the scandal was designed. And the creative mind behind it was none other than Sergei Diaghilev’s.

Diaghilev had an acute sense of the dynamics of the cultural market. He knew very well how to dazzle Les Ballets Russes’ first audience: the high circles of Paris. He just had to put some pieces together to set forward a good amount of controversy. The day before its premiere, Diaghilev allowed a few distinguished members of his public and members of the press to see the final rehearsals of the ballet. Then, he encouraged these people to spread among their peers the shock they had felt–an early and wise practice of word-of-mouth. A solid rumor was born: what the people were about to experience the next day, at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées, would become a modernist tour de force.

May 29th, 1913 would mark the most notorious premiere in the history of ballet. After hearing the first notes of the work played by the oboe, some members of the audience started to express their discontent, and some loud discussions –even fights- originated between the factions of the aristocracy and the Bohemia. The police had to enter to restore the order. Nonetheless, the show went on until its end, becoming an event that is widely considered as a landmark of modernism.

“All the elements of the scandal were present”, Jean Cocteau, who was present at the premiere, affirmed. For him, the clashing between those two groups of the public was inevitable, hinting that Diaghilev had orchestrated it. ‘The smart audience in tails and tulle, diamonds and ospreys, was interspersed with the suits and bandeaux of the aesthetic crowd. The latter would applaud novelty simply to show their contempt for the people in the boxes… Innumerable shades of snobbery, super-snobbery and inverted snobbery were represented… The audience played the role that it was written for it…”

According to Diaghilev and Nijinky’s biographer Richard Buckle, the structure of the Théâtre des Champs Elysées helped the juxtaposition of contrary social groups, hence fitting appropriately for the context of preconceived scandal that Diaghilev had set up for the premiere of Le sacre du printemps: “There were young people –artists, students and ‘fans’- who were prepared to align themselves with Diaghilev on his boldest charges into battle against the old guard. Counting on their support, he had given them free tickets –standing passes. It was the presence of these bloodthirsty enthusiasts in the middle of the elegant occupants of the boxes, which were partly responsible for the battle that took place in the theatre on May 29th.

“On the first night of Victor Hugo’s Hernani at the Comedie Francaise in 1830, of which we have his own description, and at the first performance of Wagner’s Tannhauser at the old Opera in the rue Le Peletier in 1861, the young aesthetes who supported their rising heroes against the academic reactionaries had been isolated in the upper section of the house. The Théâtre des Champs Elysées was constructed in a novel way. Between the logs avec salon and the fauteuils and loges de corbeille there was an ambulatory, and it was here that Diaghilev’s favorite young friends of the avant-garde were standing to applaud and defend Stravinsky and Nijinsky.”

Stravinsky also remarked the fulfillment Diaghilev must have felt with the controversy: “He certainly looked contented. No one could have been quicker to understand the publicity value and he immediately understood the good thing that had happened in that respect. Quite probably he had already thought about the possibility of such a scandal when I first played him the score, months before, in the east corner ground room of the Grand Hotel in Venice.”

I don’t think there’s a better quote to sum up Diaghilev’s satisfaction than Cocteau’s. According to the French writer, when all of the members of the creative team that crafted this masterpiece gathered to celebrate, Diaghilev shouted ecstatically: “Exactly what I wanted!”


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