Who Was the Man Who Rebuilt Diaghilev's Ballets Russes?

July 14, 2011

René Blum and the Ballets Russes: In Search of a Lost Life
is not easy reading. It’s is an almost unrelievedly sad book. And yet it’s fascinating to read Judith Chazin-Bennahum’s account of the resuscitation of the Ballets Russes, the developments in Europe between the wars, and the life of a dance impresario who’s gone pretty much unrecognized.

René Blum grew up in a cultivated Jewish family in France. But who knew he’d been a major literary figure before he even got interested in dance? An editor and critic of note, he was the first to publish Proust’s writings. And he was active in the visual arts: his pal Vuillard painted his portrait. Like Diaghilev, Blum was multidisciplinary in his passion for art, and like Diaghilev, his last 20 years were devoted to ballet.

As director of the Théâtre de Monte-Carlo, naturally he tried to rebuild the Ballets Russes of his friend Diaghilev after he died in 1929. Blum poured his energy and money into the company, renamed it the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, but was plagued at every step by power battles. He made the mistake of collaborating with Colonel de Basil, who proceeded to cut him out of any credit. When he finally broke from de Basil, the choreographers and dancers constantly shifted allegiance, often depending on where Massine was. 

It’s astounding to read about how prolific both Fokine and Massine were. They both made many successful ballets that we don’t know about today, e.g. Fokine’s Les Elements and Massine’s Nobilissima Visione (St. Francis, in the U.S.). Obviously Blum had a good eye, though no one expected him to lead the revived company to the heights of glory that Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes had reached.

The large-scale sad part is, the insidiously creeping Nazi machine that gradually made all good things in Europe impossible. And on an individual scale, Blum’s life, which began with such promise, carried great anxiety and loneliness. His love life was minimal. There had been one woman, but she didn’t care much for him. They had a son whom Blum was never really close to.

It’s interesting to read about Massine rom Blum’s point of view. Although his symphonic ballets were groundbreaking and he was obviously a charismatic performer, he comes across as opportunistic and dishonest—and not nice to dancers. We also get wonderful descriptions of key dancers like Alicia Markova and Frederic Franklin (yes, our Freddie Franklin).

After years of squabbles with de Basil (by the way, Serge Lifar comes off even worse than de Basil), Blum finally seized on the opportunity to tour the U.S. by selling the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo to Serge Denham and Julius Fleischmann. While in the U.S. in 1940, he was begged by his friends not return to Europe, where he would surely be sucked into the Nazis’ evil vortex. But he wanted to go back to France for the sake of his family.

The true accomplishment of René Blum and the Ballets Russes (published by Oxford University Press) is putting dance in the context of cultural history. I had always heard of the Dreyfus affair but never really knew what it was. This hideous incidence of rampant anti-Semitism set the stage for Hitler’s takeover by showing how easy it was to spread lies about Jews. Chazin-Bennahum delves into the complex aftermath, deepening our understanding of the interdependence between politics, culture, and the arts.

The last chapter is devoted to the period after Blum was arrested, along with other Jewish intellectuals, in Paris and sent to the death camps. Chazin-Bennahum gives evidence that Blum was courageous and kind to those around him right up till the end. His death in Auschwitz reminds you that, to the Nazis, the crime of being Jewish eclipsed all accomplishments. And it makes you wish there were a book like this for every one of the six million Jews and others murdered by Hitler’s monstrous regime.