Swellboy on… ballet hooligans

Diaghilev and the glory days of ballet hooliganism

Image: Brijesh Patel

I am looking forward to visiting the exhibition about the Ballets Russes at the V&A. At a distance of a century or so, it is hard to imagine the cultural impact that this Russian dance troupe had. I suppose that its effects on fashion, the visual arts and so on can be likened to the arrival of rock and roll about half a century later.

Today ballet is enshrined as one of the grand arms of the arts – a bona fide, card-carrying sophisticated cultural pleasure. But it would seem that in the early years of the last century it was rather more tempestuous and, as the young people now say, edgy. Moreover, it really got people worked up. While it might seem a trite comparison, the passions that it aroused were akin to those experienced by ardent football fans. And without stretching too much, it can be said that just as some of the rich today choose to flex their financial muscle through ownership of a football team, so it was the thing among 20th-century plutocrats to have a ballet company. Being a ballet impresario was something of a social passport.

Etienne de Beaumont tried his hand at it and, plainly seeking to outdo the Ballets Russes, involved Picasso and Massine, causing Diaghilev concern over the defection of two of his highest-profile collaborators. In the event, he need not have worried. The opening night in June 1924 was a fiasco and degenerated into a riot between rival groups of fans of Picasso and Satie, complete with a pitch… sorry, stage invasion and police intervention.


But the best ballet bust-up was surely between the Marquis de Cuevas and Serge Lifar in 1958, when a disagreement over changes to a ballet called Black & White escalated into a duel. Yes, that is right: a duel with swords, seconds and all the rigmarole of a true affair of honour.

The atmosphere was by turns tense and comic.

The encounter had been scheduled to take place in a disused factory but, stepping out of his car in his trademark cape, Cuevas took one look, wrinkled his aquiline nose and announced with an aesthete’s disgust that he had no intention of dying in such a “décor de merde”. The combatants, now with a sizeable press entourage in tow, went to the grounds of a private house and fought what was probably the last duel on French soil, the Marquis simply advancing with his sword held out in front of him and Lifar, an athletic former ballet dancer, prancing about until he was wounded in the arm. Honour then satisfied, emotion overcame them, and the two men fell into each other’s arms.


Instead of sending Arsenal and Chelsea out on the pitch to play Association football, perhaps oligarchs Alisher Usmanov, Roman Abramovich and their seconds should stage a series of high-profile duels in front of a stadium crowd.

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