California Literary Review

Book Review: René Blum and the Ballets Russes by Judith Chazin-Bennahum

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July 11th, 2011 at 8:00 am

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René Blum and the Ballets Russes by Judith Chazin-Bennahum
René Blum and the Ballets Russes: In Search of a Lost Life
Judith Chazin-Bennahum
Oxford University Press, 304 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★½☆


Unsung Hero

The story of the Ballet Russes is so bound to the legendary lives of Serge Diaghilev and Vaslav Nijinsky that it is easy to forget the ballet company’s decades of survival and achievement after its glory days before the outbreak of World War I. That the Ballet Russes did survive was due in large measure to a man who has been unfairly relegated to the footnotes of European history.

That man was René Blum. Given his contributions to the literature, theater and dance of the 20th century, it is shocking that this cultural pioneer and victim of the Nazi Final Solution should be virtually forgotten.

In an important new book, Judith Chazin-Bennahum places Blum’s role as a guiding force in modern arts and letters in its true historical context. Along with reviving the Ballet Russes after Diaghilev’s death in 1929 and encouraging the budding genius of George Balanchine, Blum played a key role in the publication of the first volume of Marcel Proust’s Rembrance of Things Past. One of the organizers of the 1925 exhibition that established Art Deco as the signature design style of the period between the world wars, Blum was also a trend-setting journalist and a decorated hero of the French Army on the Western Front.

René Blum was also a French Jew.

Blum’s life spanned the years 1878 to 1942. All of Blum’s many accomplishments were bracketed between the anti-Semitic turmoil of the Dreyfus Affair that tormented France from 1894 to 1904 and the Nazi-led Holocaust in which he perished. To his dying day, Blum thought of himself as a French patriot. Yet it was the complicity of French officials during the German occupation that set him on the road to Auschwitz.

The great mystery surrounding Blum’s lack of renown, however, cannot be chiefly ascribed to his Jewish religion or post-war embarrassment in France over his shabby treatment. Another French cultural hero, the historian Marc Bloch, was a near contemporary. Born in 1886, Bloch served with distinction in the First World War, made significant contributions to French culture, joined the Resistance, was betrayed to the Nazis by French collaborators and executed in 1944. And he was a French Jew, albeit now a celebrated figure in the French national pantheon.
In assessing Blum’s amazing oeuvres, Chazin-Bennahum quotes from a book of tributes compiled in 1950. Roland Dorgelès, a young writer befriended by Blum in the years following World War I, succinctly described him as “an indefatigable dilettante, capable of counseling a director, a painter or a ballerina or musician.”

Dorgelès’ remark was meant as a compliment. But it was also an unintended acknowledgement that Blum lacked the ruthless resolve and autocratic spirit of an impresario like Diaghilev. Blum was a conciliator in the age of dictators. He was a character transplanted from a Jean Renoir film to real life. Worldly yet idealistic, Blum dedicated himself to preserving the core values of Western civilization even as totalitarian regimes set about destroying them.

This tragic dimension to his character should have ensured that Blum, like Marc Bloch, Felix Nussbaum and other victims of the Final Solution, should be well-known today. But the “dilettante” remark by Dorgelès was appropriate for another reason. Blum’s cultural interests and initiatives were so varied and his circle of colleagues and protégés so vast, that to present his wide-ranging career in a “cradle to grave” biography would have been very difficult indeed.

The author, Judith Chazin-Bennahum, chose a thematic style of presentation for recounting Blum’s life. Chapters on his family background and war service alternate with detailed studies of his professional activities: “René Blum, Man of Letters,” “René Blum and the Theatre de Monte-Carlo.” This approach is generally successful in highlighting the scale and range of Blum’s accomplishments. The author’s penchant for including long lists of writers and artists who worked with Blum, many of whom will be unfamiliar to most English-speaking readers, tends to side-track the story, but to err on the side of thoroughness is not without its virtues.

The thematic approach runs into difficulty when the flood tide of Blum’s activities submerges the carefully prepared canals and channels for directing the flow of the story. A good illustration of this occurs with the fascinating account of how Marcel Proust, unable to interest publishers into accepting Swann’s Way, the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past, approached Blum for help. Blum, editor and theatre critic for the literary journal, Gil Blas, agreed to approach a prestigious publisher, Bernard Grasset. Having read excerpts, Blum was convinced of Proust’s genius and willingly took up the task of contacting Grasset.

But Blum’s “task” ended up doing the bulk of the negotiating with Grasset, with the sly, hyper-sensitive Proust trying to control the process while savoring tea and biscuits at home.

“What I want for you to be able to say to me in a week,” Proust imperiously informed Blum in a letter dated February 20, 1913, “is that this affair is concluded!”

Amazingly, Blum succeeded in meeting this peremptory demand. But in a classic case of “no good deed goes unpunished,” Proust contacted Blum in 1916 to secure Grasset’s agreement in sever their contract for the successor volumes. At the time, Blum was acting as an interpreter with a British unit preparing for the Battle of the Somme and Grasset was recuperating from typhoid fever contracted while on active military service! Proust, needless to say, was very much a non-combatant. Since this incident is recounted in the chapter dealing with Blum’s relationship with Proust, rather than the account of his service in World War I, the absurdity of the situation loses something in the retelling.

Chazin-Bennahum’s search for the “lost life” of René Blum began as a continuation of the diligent research by a British historian of dance, Janet Rowson Davis. Chazin-Bennahum’s professional background and experience certainly prepared her for the task of rescuing Blum’s reputation. As a ballerina, she danced with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company and taught dance and theatre at the University of New Mexico. She is the author of several histories of dance, including The Ballets of Anthony Tudor and The Lure of Perfection: Fashion and Ballet, 1780-1830.

Chazin-Bennahum explores the political background to Blum’s life with particular insight. His close relationship with his brother Léon Blum, France’s first Socialist prime minister, 1936-37, is emphasized. Léon Blum had come to political prominence as one of the lawyers who defended Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish officer treacherously accused of being a German spy. The cycle of history turned again when Léon Blum was unfairly blamed for causing France’s unpreparedness in the face of the German blitzkrieg. This may partly explain the willingness of French politicians collaborating with the Nazis to arrest René Blum in 1941 and hand him over to the S.S. Léon Blum’s Popular Front government had acted to defuse simmering labor discontent and other social problems, only to be regarded with hatred by the supporters of the right-wing, virulently anti-Semitic, faction known as Action Française.

While Europe and the world descended into political chaos during the 1930′s, René Blum was involved in the great task of saving the Ballet Russes, the work for which he is chiefly remembered today.

In 1924, Blum was hired as artistic director of the Theatre de Monte-Carlo. Between 1924 and 1935, he produced a staggering 140 plays and dance performances for the patrons at the casinos of Monte Carlo. He worked with Diaghilev, now a homeless refugee following the Bolshevik Revolution. When Diaghilev died suddenly in 1929, it was feared that his brilliant ballet productions would follow him to the grave.

In order to resurrect the Ballet Russes, Blum began an ill-starred collaboration with a self-proclaimed ex-Cossack officer, Vassili Grigorievich Voskresensky, alias Colonel W. de Basil, in 1931. The military record and rank of de Basil are still disputed. But the Russian certainly had a number of hard-edged character traits that Blum lacked. For one thing, de Basil was an accomplished master of intrigue.

“De Basil was an octopus,” George Balanchine stated for the record, in a 1960 New Yorker interview, “a crooked octopus, with bad taste.”

Blum hired Balanchine as ballet master of the Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo. Serge Grigoriev, who had worked very closely with Diaghilev, was brought on board, as a link to the traditions of the Ballet Russes. Blum and Balanchine, however, aimed to do more than merely preserve the repertoire of the old Ballet Russes. Balanchine was given the initiative to produce new works and three young Russian dancers, the “Baby Ballerinas” Irina Baronova, Tatiana Riabouchinska and Tamara Toumanova made a sensational debut.

Balanchine lasted a year. A hard-driving choreographer, Leonide Massine was bought in by de Basil, who favored traditional dance interpretations – popular with audiences and profit making. It was not long before the manipulative ex-Cossack started to clash with Blum.
Blum soon realized that he had made a grave error in joining forces with de Basil. He dissolved his partnership with de Basil in 1934, salvaging some of his private fortune with which he had bankrolled the dance company. Despite the staggering amount of his personal funds already spent on ballet, Blum created a new company called the Ballets de Monte-Carlo in 1936. It was a brave, though financially unsound decision.

A year later, Blum began to negotiate with an American consortium, World Art Inc., to sell his company. To maintain his production schedule, he formed an alliance with Massine who had also broken with de Basil. The resultant tangle is a very complex tale, and a sad one. Colonel de Basil soldiered on with the company that he and Blum had co-founded, renamed the Original Ballet Russe. Blum eventually was dismissed from his directorship of the Theatre de Monte-Carlo and saw control of his second company, renamed the Ballets Russe de Monte-Carlo, pass to the American impresario, Sol Hurok. Blum’s death, at the hands of the Nazis, followed soon after.

The ultimate outcome of Blum’s travail, however, was truly inspiring. During the course of the 1930′s, ballet ceased to be a pastime enjoyed by a select European elite. The international tours of the revived Ballet Russes companies brought ballet to a world stage and to a global audience.

Many creative spirits had a hand in this great undertaking, a phenomenon that can best be appreciated by viewing the 2005 documentary film, Ballet Russes. But Chazin-Bennahum was absolutely correct in her devoted efforts to do for René Blum’s reputation what he had done for the Ballet Russes.

Cultural history, like political history, may place its impresarios and empire-builders at the center stage. But it is the quiet heroes like René Blum, working to preserve the classics and to encourage a rising generation of artists, who often make a more lasting contribution.
Good guys do not always finish last.

  • http://www.gerijeter.com Geri Jeter

    Very interesting and balanced review. The book brings to light how much current ballet companies owe to Blum. Although Blum’s life ended tragically, the company he founded toured America for years under the auspices of Sol Hurok. Former dancers and choreographers founded schools all through the Americas and in Europe, including Balanchine’s School of American Ballet.

    Thanks for the reminder.

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