Asked to think of a great creative director, I invariably name the man currently celebrated with an enticing exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Not that I knew Sergei Diaghilev, but I did get to meet one of his lovers. In the 1950s, as a student journalist, I interviewed two British members of his former company, Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin. (If you’re wondering, it was the latter.)
I was attracted to Diaghilev’s management style by reading a comment he made to an employee, the poet Jean Cocteau – yes, a poet in a ballet company, another influence on me. When Cocteau began his day by walking into the impresario’s office, Diaghilev would greet him with the command, ’Jean, etonne moi’. The young man obeyed and surprised him. A few years later, I decided my job as creative director was ’to be surprised’ and I had to manage the department so that surprise would be encouraged. Inevitably, that would affect both the composition of the department and its structure.
Diaghilev revolutionised the world of ballet by creating, in the Ballets Russes, not a mere dance company, but, in the words last month of the Observer critic Luke Jennings, a ’creative movement’. He attracted diverse talents, artistic, theatrical and musical. These would join his core team, ’borrowed’ from St Petersburg, which was destined to tour pre-World War I Europe without a permanent home. Though he owed much to the Russian heritage, he was determined to create something new, different and, if possible, startling. He recognised the benefits which cross-fertilisation of diverse talents would generate in his intensely creative and pressurised environment. He not only pushed his troupe – Vaslav Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavana and the like – to extend their range, but also encouraged dancers Michel Fokine and Nijinsky to become their own choreographers. Nor was he content merely to repeat successes but insisted on new ones – Firebird was followed by Petrushka. Such rapturous receptions would have satisfied most impresarios. Not Diaghilev. He urged forward the team of Nijinsky (dancer and choreographer) and Igor Stravinsky (composer). They responded with The Rite of Spring. Its first night, in Paris 1913, caused a riot. This was a long way from the sedate image of formal ballet. ’Exactly what I wanted,’ Diaghilev was heard to say afterwards. And there speaks the showman. He relished the publicity creative talents could generate and fed the media with indiscreet items of news and comment.
There was risk in that ,of course, but recklessness was built into his character, that of an unabashed homosexual in the early decades of the century. He would hire unknown artists and move established artists out of their comfort zones. Painters did their first set designs for Diaghilev, composers their first ballet scores and poets had parts to play.
Being a true creative director means that risk is an occupational hazard. Not every experiment might succeed nor every talent stay loyal. For Diaghilev the talent lost was international ballet’s gain/ George Balanchine at the New York City Ballet, Ninette de Valois at Britain’s Royal Ballet and Serge Lifar at the Paris Opera Ballet. Their achievements were his vicarious reward.
So what can I say I learned from Diaghilev? The imperative of talent. The need to juxtapose diverse talents, if necessary to force collision. An appetite for shock and experiment. The fact – and necessity – of risk. And, of course, the importance of surprise.
David Bernstein was founder of The Creative Business and is a creative consultant