Plugged In: René Blum and the Ballets Russes (expanded version)

November 29, 2011



René Blum and the Ballets Russes/In Search of a Lost Life

By Judith Chazin-Bennahum

Oxford University Press, 2011.

277 pages. Illustrated. $29.95.

When Serge Diaghilev died in August 1929, his company, the Ballets Russes, immediately came to an end. But there were soon various attempts to revive the company, the most successful centered in Monte Carlo, where the Ballets Russes had been in residence during summers for the past several years. The artistic director of the Théâtre de Monte Carlo since 1924 was René Blum, who set about employing members of the ballet company to perform in the operas presented in his theater, under the direction of Serge Grigoriev, Diaghilev’s régisseur, as a beginning. He also tried to acquire the company’s sets and costumes. But a new Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo did not come into existence for another three years, by which time Blum had acquired a partner, the so-called Colonel de Basil (Vassili Grigorievich Voskresensky), an association, the author sagely comments, “he would later regret.”


The new company’s first performances were in April 1932, with a repertoire consisting of some ballets from the Diaghilev company and new works by George Balanchine and Léonide Massine.  It was not long before de Basil pulled a fast one and Blum was out. Massine, too, seems to have made sure that Balanchine would not remain in charge of the company. It is even possible that Boris Kochno intended Jeux d’enfants, whose libretto he devised and which became Massine’s first ballet for the company, for Balanchine. Balanchine and Kochno, in any case, left to form their own company, Les Ballets 1933, but Balanchine was not able to take with him his creations, the legendary Cotillon and La Concurrence.       

All this history is told in riveting detail by Judith Chazin-Bennahum in her new book. (It is also told, more sketchily, by some of the participants, in the popular documentary film Ballets Russes.) More than that, Blum himself, who has always been a mysterious figure, is revealed to us as noble and finally tragic. An autobiography that was supposed to exist has never been discovered, so the author had to pursue her own meticulous and exhaustive researches. We learn, therefore, that Blum was a member of a cultivated Jewish family, one of five brothers among whom the most celebrated was Léon, a socialist who became head of the French government.


In fact the first third of the book is devoted to the political and literary careers of Blum and his siblings. His adult life was bound by World War I (in which he served with distinction) and World War II (in which he died at Auschwitz). Even as a student he had been involved with literary magazines—this aspect of his life is told in more detail than is perhaps strictly necessary—but what is fascinating is his friendship with Marcel Proust. René was even instrumental in the eventual publication of Proust’s masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time. Theatrical activity seems to have been at first on a dilettantish level, but became professional when he was appointed artistic director of the theater in Monte Carlo in 1924. It was at this time that he met and fell in love with an actress named Josette France, who later bore him a son.


It is of course the convoluted history of the Ballets Russes companies of the 1930s that will be of most interest to dance lovers. Blum tried again to float a new Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo in 1936, incorporating the Lithuanian Ballet led by Vera Nemchinova and Anatole Obukhov, with Boris Romanoff as artistic director. (This company gave a short season in London in 1935 with a repertoire including full-length ballets that had hardly ever been seen before outside Russia, including Raymonda, which was more or less laughed off the stage. Of greater interest was a Casse-noisette by Romanoff, a forerunner of later modernized Nutcrackers.)                             


This time Blum brought in Michel Fokine to stage his old ballets and create new ones, such as Gluck’s Don Juan and the charming L’Epreuve d’amour. (It is one of those misfortunes that can plague an author that the photograph whose caption says it is of Don Juan is actually of Schéhérazade.) No sooner had this new company started to exist when the intrigues began again. Massine quit de Basil and took over the Blum company with another business associate, Serge Denham; Fokine went to de Basil. In the summer of 1938 there was the famous farcical London season when de Basil was at Covent Garden and Massine was at Drury Lane, and balletomanes were running back and forth between the two companies. There was even talk of a merger, which of course came to nothing. Fokine staged a new Coq d’or, which he had done as an opera for Diaghilev in 1914, as a ballet, but otherwise managed only to make a negligible Cinderella. The result of all this was of course that Blum was once again without a ballet company of his own.


Chazin-Bennahum manages to sort out all this confusion, with a further chapter on Blum’s attempts to salvage something from the wreckage in the first years of World War II. Curiously, she quotes Frederic Franklin (whose first name is consistently misspelled) as saying that after the company managed to get to New York after the outbreak of war in Europe, “we never saw him again,” yet according to this further chapter, Blum “toured America with the ballet company in March 1940.” This is perhaps a minor discrepancy.


The book is a major achievement in dance history. But Chazin-Bennahum’s finest work is her last chapter, a harrowing account of Blum’s final days. His heroism and selflessness in an appalling situation will bring tears to your eyes.