OUR FASCINATION WITH Serge Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes, seems to grow with our knowledge of his unattractive qualities. He was autocratic, jealous, snobbish, vindictive, casual about financial and contractual obligations, ruthless in the treatment of colleagues who failed to remain a la mode. Richard Buckle, in his comprehensive Diaghilev, depicts these traits no less forthrightly than he does the impresario's genius as catalyst and arbiter in the arts of the theater. Yet a poll of the ballet world would probably show that sympathies are more often with Diaghilev than with his critics and adversaries, even when he was clearly in the wrong. How to account for this? Great personal seductiveness. The moral, then, is to beware of such charm, though evidently few can do so when it is exerted on Diaghilev's scale.

Buckle -- also the author of Nijinsky -- perpetuates the Diaghilev myth, in that much of the biography was derived from oral history. But what kind could be expected when the concerns are sexual proclivities and practices, and even physiological details? And although fact and fiction cannot be separated in regard to such subjects, concocted tales can point to true characteristics. Buckle is especially adept at evoking the sexual scene of Diaghilev's kingdom (or principality), partly by introducing numerous observations such as "Frohman was extremely good-looking . . . and it was not long before Diaghilev 'had his eye on him.'"

In Diaghilev's case, both sex per se and sexual politics are of the essence. He was, after all, the first openly accepted homosexual among public figures of the era, and in this respect his career contrasted sharply with, for instance, that of Tchaikovsky, Wilde and the closeted literati of Bloomsbury. In addition, whatever Diaghilev's motives in "exhibiting" Nijinsky in a sexually explicit act in The Afternoon of a Faun -- and the broadening of public taste was not one of them -- this ballet marked a turning point in contemporary mores. Ironically, too, in view of Diaghilev's cynicism about sex, a homosexual affair was elevated into one of the 20th century's great love myths in the tragic relationship with Nijinsky. But how many readers are aware that Diaghilev's sexual conduct was the principal reason his Ballets Russes never appeared in Russia, and that he remains a nonperson there, even today?

Our knowledge of the Ballets Russes is vastly enlarged by Buckle, who brings documentation to light from unsuspected sources, and tracks elusive information to its hiding places. He is particularly learned in the genealogies of the "well-born" and the wealthy who surrounded Diaghilev, more so, perhaps, than many American readers will require. Buckle also writes in an appealingly personal manner, stepping out of his book in brief asides, and sometimes tweaking noses, as, for example, in footnote 91 of Chapter 14, which reads: "I have mislaid my source."

Though Diaghilev is compendious, it has gaps, which could have been closed by reference to Russian primary sources -- as distinguished from the memoirs of dancers, regisseurs, balletomanes and esthetes. To name only the three most important lacunae, nothing is established concerning Diaghilev's St. Petersburg trip in October 1912; concrete information is not supplied about the rapprochement with choreographer Michel Fokine, following the greatest crisis in Diaghilev's life, the break with Nijinsky; and Diaghilev's most valuable statement of his philosophy of dance is omitted.

For the first, the Petersburg Gazette, in an interview with Stravinsky, October 10, 1912, indicates that the premiere of The Rite of Spring was planned in the Russian capital at that time. Among other references to this work, which was to make the Ballets Russes the medium of the modern movement, the composer said that "The Spring will be performed in Paris in Gabriel Astruc's new theater on the Champs-Elysees." But the most remarkable comment in this article reveals Stravinsky's outspoken preference for Nijinsky's sister to dance the role of "The Chosen One": "Nijinskaya is extremely talented, a fascinating ballerina, fully the equal of her brother, and when she and her brother dance together, all others pale by comparison."

As for the reconciliation with Fokine, Buckle offers no more than speculation about the agreement, which, he says, "must have been reached before December 27, 1913." But returning to St. Petersburg from Moscow, December 9, 1913, Diaghilev held a press conference giving full details of the contract. The following excerpt is from the next day's report in the Petersburg Gazette:

"I have settled nearly everything now and can give you my program," Sergei Pavlovich said. "I have signed a contract for two seasons with M. M. Fokine and his wife . . . M. M. Fokine will choreograph seven ballets and dance the leading parts, performing most of Nijinsky's roles . . . As in previous years there will be several new works on the program. First among them is Richard Strauss' ballet The Legend of Joseph . . . We will also do Scheherazade, with Chaliapin as the Shah [sic], Antar, by N. A. Rimsky-Korsakov, a ballet by his son-in-law, Steinberg, based on Ovid, and a new ballet by I. F. Stravinsky, which, as yet, does not have a title [Les Noces] . . . All of these new productions will be choreographed by M. M. Fokine."

In regard to Buckle's third major oversight, that of Diaghilev's declaration of his artistic philosophy, it is not surprising that he chose to formulate it in his native language and for his fellow emigres. It must also be said that a French or English periodical is unlikely to have published the article, since he refers so abusively to Ida Rubenstein, ridiculing her appearance ("her bent figure and hopeless crooked knees") and not veiling his anti-Semitism ("our Biblical Ida"). The piece, which appeared in a December 1928 issue of the Paris newspaper Nozrozhdenie, is long but one passage, still valid and pertinent today, must be quoted:

"Classicism is an antiquated university for modern choreography, yet ballerinas and ballet masters must graduate with degrees in classicism -- just as Picasso had to have a precise knowledge of human muscular anatomy, and Stravinsky had to learn how to avoid parallel fifths. For the development of theatrical art, however, it is not enough to become a professor, and the attitude of the choreographer who supports dress-coat classicism befits the Society for the Protection of Ancient Monuments (whose members should not be giving advice to modern architects). In choreography, the foundation of our plastic and dynamic structures must be that of the classical style, yet be flexible enough to admit new forms. The classical style is a means, not an end."

Buckle has also overlooked a number of other valuable sources. First, Soviet monographs of some of Diaghilev's painters and composers, whose once-banned work is now being "rehabilitated" in the motherland, could supply answers to a number of questions. For instance, Buckle fails to establish Diaghilev's whereabouts after the London season of July 1911, yet correspondence recently published in the USSR indicates that he went to Carlsbad at that time. Also, the collections of Boris Kochno are acknowledged as the principal source of the biography, but Buckle has not always chosen the most relevant material from them. His account of the originals of the quarrel between Leon Bakst and Diaghilev that ended in the permanent rupture of their relationship does not cite the crucial document, the painter's letter to the impresario, April 26, 1922. Bakst had been promised the assignment of designing the sets and costumes for Mavra, the Stravinsky-Pushkin -- Kochno opera-bouffe, but Michel Larionov connived to get the commission for his brother-in-law, Leopold Survage. Mistakenly deducing that Stravinsky was behind the intrigue, Bakst reminds Diaghilev that his commitment was made before witnesses and demands 10,000 francs, suggesting that this sum be subtracted from the honorarium of the "Yankel Shtravinsky." ("Yankel" is a reference to the Shylock -- roughly speaking -- in Taras Bulba.)

The current Diaghilev exhibition at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris has unearthed still another, and extremely important, source: the letters of Ernest Ansermet during his years as chief conductor of the Ballets Russes, which is to say during World War I and extended periods thereafter. Ansermet is a uniquely qualified observer, a man of keen intelligence, who also understood Diaghilev: "His continuing power is explained because, in spite of everything, he is the only impresario who does interesting things, and one is always obliged to return to him." Ansermet had the further advantage of not being part of Diaghilev's entourage; Diaghilev did not like him, in fact, as this snippet from a letter, sent from New York, April 7, 1916, illustrates:

"Diaghilev has not let my slightest mistake pass unremarked, and I have not conducted many ballets without being followed by him with criticism. Nevertheless, his exaggerated and unjust attitude is for the good; thanks to his perpetual criticising, he keeps control . . . Nijinsky is here. If he had come with conciliatory feelings, everything would have been smoothed over, but he has been of an unfeeling hardness ever since his arrival. His first encounter with Diaghilev and Massine was tragic."

Ansermet relished the sarcastic side of Diaghilev's wit, and the letters quote many examples. When the conductor was planning a concert of Stravinsky's chamber music, in London, July 1920, Diaghilev advised him to "Add thirty pounds to your expenses and bring Igor here; if he comes, you will certainly succeed, but that is the one indispensable condition," and Ansermet clearly enjoyed Diaghilev's implication that Stravinsky could readily be bought for thirty pieces of silver.

Can Buckle's book be described as a portrait of Diaghilev? Yes, but in the sense of one of Cocteau's faceless heads: the form is clearly delineated, the person is instantly recognized, and even the hairs are in order, but the eyes, ears, nose and mouth are replaced by a blank. Perhaps Diaghilev's picture frame cannot be filled in for the reason that he did not leave tangible works of the kind created by other artists. Certainly Buckle can draw exact portraits when that is his goal, as, for example, the one of Alexander Benois by pinpointing his chief limitation: "He had rather a literal mind." But nothing quite so concise can be said about the fascinatingly complex personality of Serge Diaghilev.

Synopses of Diaghilev's ballets and accounts of their performance are frequently in contradiction, like the details of his life. Charles Spencer, in The World of Serge Diaghilev writes that "Ida Rubinstein and Cleopatra were the greatest hits" of the 1909 season, but John Percival, in The World of Diaghilev, does not mention Mme Rubinstein in connection with this ballet. Even in minor matters, agreement is remarkably rare. A photograph of Diaghilev, Nijinsky and Bakst in Venice, dated c. 1912 by Spencer, 1911 by Buckle, 1910 (and "on a railroad bridge") in the Bibliotheque Nationale catalogue, is assigned in most other publications to 1909. But, more importantly, none of these books attempts to supply what is most needed -- a complete, 20-year list of all of Diaghilev's programs.

To compare the Spencer and Ercival digests, anniversary-inspired, slightly updated reprints, it must be said that the illustrations in the former are superior, 21 of them in color, and many of the others, especially of posters and programs, not overly familiar. Moreover, the Spencer book contains a short essay by Martin Battersby that touches on the as yet not-fully-explored subject of "Diaghilev's Influence on Fashion and Decoration." But Philip Dyer's three introductory chapters are badly written ("The creation of the review and its succeeding numbers were achieved . . . "; "Benois was a young man already besotted with the theater . . . ") and worse conceived ("Moral attitudes no longer create false perspectives as much as they once did"). Still the study provides a measure of the difference between Diaghilev's day and ours, when, turning to the roster of Ballets Russes artists, Pavlova, Picasso, et al. (and ad nauseam ), Dyer notes that not only did Diaghilev bring these people together, but also that "these often disparate elements were made to cohere." Individuals, in the past, could not be referred to as "elements."

Percival discusses choreographers, designers, composers and productions in separate chapters, which, as might be expected, results in some duplications. Furthermore, in evaluating the legacy of the Ballets Russes, he states that 16 works are "still being given today in substantially the same form as when created for Diaghilev." But most of the ballets named are not among the company's masterpieces, and many are quite faded. And though Percival considers Apollo the greatest of all ballets, his assessment of George Balanchine does not show any perception of the man's true stature. "Neither Anton Dolin nor Serge Lifar can be said to have achieved as much as de Valois or Balanchine," Percival writes. But can the first three, as choreographers, even be mentioned together with the fourth? Many of Buckle's readers will also be disappointed that he did not devote a chapter to Balanchine, but this may be attributed to the lukewarm British attitude toward Balanchine's stripped-down concentration on musical choreography, so remote from Diaghilev's emphasis on decoration and glamorized solo dancers. The Balanchine offshoot, nonetheless, is the one that has dominated ballet in our era.