Inventors of Gay: Sergei Diaghilev

By: Christopher Harrity

Sergei Diaghilev
March 19, 1872 – August 19, 1929

The legendary ballet impresario founded the Ballets Russes, a collaborative effort of the most talented artists, composers and dancers of the early 20th century. His orientation was fairly well known, as was his relationship with the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. He moved dance away from the formal classicism of the 19th century to a modern freedom, and in doing so liberated the male dancer from his role as tripod for the ballerina to become a focus in his own right.

Jean Cocteau and Serge Diaghilev on opening night of Le Train Bleu, June 20, 1924. A stellar pantheon of collaborators included Picasso, Jean Cocteau (pictured left with Sergei, June 20, 1924), Michel Fokine, Leon Bakst, George Balanchine, Igor Stravinsky, Matisse, Marie Laurencin, Georges Braque, and Coco Chanel, as well as his lovers Boris Kochno (below, right), Léonide Massine, and Serge Lifar.

Doing away with the lugubrious romantic works of the previous century like Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, Diaghilev created a repertoire of works that were not only more natural and modern, but also experimental and controversial exploring gender identity, homosexuality, and incest.

Picasso created cubist sets for Parade. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring caused riots with its challenging rhythms. Nijinsky’s masturbatory performance in L'après-midi d'un faune (or The Afternoon of a Faun) caused a scandal, and his choreography for Jeux, a dance depicting a tennis game, was a thinly veiled depiction of a three-way.Diaghilev & Kochno







The Ballets Russes, ironically enough, never performed in Russia. They toured the globe attracting both the newly forming café society as well as the intellectual and bohemian crowd of the day. And of course interspersed in all that strata were large numbers of gay men and women. The Ballets Russes became a symbol of the avant garde and international chic. 

Friends with:
Misia Sert —artists muse and rumored lover of Chanel
Jean Cocteau —multi-talented poet, artist, and filmmaker
Robert de Montesquiou — The model for the Baron de Charlus in Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu (also known as In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past)

Why we care:
Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes became a locus in itself, attracting large numbers of homosexual men wherever they performed. With his intimate coterie of superbly talented gay artists, Diaghilev invented the gay mafia as they cruised together and swapped boyfriends. His concept of the male dancer as an erotic focal point created the gay male gaze.


"Inventors of Gay" is our series on important people and cultural influences in LGBT history that helped create the culture we enjoy today.