René Blum & The Ballets Russes

In her newest book, RENÉ BLUM AND THE BALLETS RUSSES: In Search of a Lost Life, dance historian Judith Chazin-Bennahum looks at the tragic story of the theatre producer who was responsible for resurrecting the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo after his friend Sergei Diaghilev’s death, but who was arrested in 1941 during a roundup of Jewish intellectuals and ultimately sent to Auschwitz, where he died.

Based on Chazin-Bennahum’s extensive research of previously undiscovered letters and documents from the Arts du Spectacle, the Archives Sciences Politiques in Paris, and the New York Public Library’s dance collection, the narrative centers on Blum’s life and his key role in the development of dance in the United States. Blum’s efforts to save his ballet company eventually helped to bring many of the world’s greatest dancers and choreographers – among them Fokine, Balanchine, and Nijinska – to American ballet stages, shaping the path of dance in the country.

By courtesy of the author and the publisher, Oxford University Press, below we reproduce a fascinating extract from Chapter 8, focusing on Michel Fokine and the first new work he choreographed for Blum, L’Épreuve d’Amour. The full chapter is also available for free download (see image at the bottom).

Blum Brings Michel Fokine into the Fold

(…) Blum’s Ballets de Monte-Carlo began optimistically on April 3, 1936, with the ballet master Nicolas Zverev and dancers Vera Nemtchinova, Marie Ruanova, Nathalie Krassovska, Hélène Kirsova, Anatole Vilzak, Anatole Oboukhoff, and André Eglevsky. They surged ahead with Blum’s almost divine plans to rescue a company that he so believed in. Soon a new ballet master, George Gué, took over. Other dancers were hired in June: Woizikovsky, Raievska, Tarakanova, and Igor Youskevitch. De Basil kept some of the repertoire and a number of the original performers, including Baronova, Riabouchinska, Lichine, and Danilova, who returned to Blum in 1938. As the company’s performances increased in number and success, Blum engaged more dancers, especially English ones. Soon the company would have more than ninety dancers. The fact that some of his most celebrated soloists stayed with de Basil seemed not to distress the ever-optimistic Blum.

Blum was constantly appealing to his superiors for one thing or another, and in 1936 his tone reflected his oppressive sense of isolation. Writing from Paris on March 3, 1936, he asked Delpierre for more rehearsal time, and said that he was facing more difficulties during the spring season than ever before: “I have a new company, new choreography, and new productions. How can I get six different ballets ready for performance when there is so little rehearsal time in the theatre?” Blum was convinced that a successful opening night was essential to attract the favorable attention of impresarios in London and New York. Once again, he reiterated the enormous sacrifices he had made for the new company, to the sum of 700,000 francs, not to mention the emotional toll it had taken.

Michel Fokine, by then fifty-six, took over as ballet master when René Blum finally extricated himself from his ties to de Basil. Fokine longed to reclaim his fame in European capitals, as his time in America had disappointed and exhausted him. With Fokine and the other Russian dancers, Blum tried to sustain the glorious tradition of Russian ballet despite world economics that stressed the very core of the company’s ambitions. Blum refused to admit defeat, and plowed on to achieve his dream of a ballet company, with Fokine as the inspiration.

Fokine’s first new work for Blum, L’Épreuve d’Amour, premiered April 4, 1936, with scenery and costumes by the exciting artist André Derain. The music, thought originally to be by Mozart, actually was by several composers for a divertissement performed in 1838. The ballet came to be appreciated not as one of Fokine’s most experimental or brilliant productions, but as a charming, beautifully arranged piece of “Viennese Chinoiserie.” Jack Anderson quoted Cyril Beaumont, who noted poetically that “‘it possessed the charm of porcelain vases,’ while Fernau Hall thought that it was ‘expertly crafted.’ Most important, Fokine found a way to disguise the weaknesses of the young Blum company. . . . Unfortunately the American audience did not take to it.”

The ballet’s elaborate story, created by Fokine and Dérain, includes four leading roles: the Mandarin, his daughter Chung-Yang, her lover, and an Ambassador from a Western country. The curtain opens to reveal a group of monkeys whom the pompous Mandarin soon dismisses. Maidens enter with the lover, whose duet with Chung-Yang is interrupted by her father. The Ambassador arrives with gifts, and executes some stunning virtuosic movements. While seeking the affections of the young girl, he is attacked by a dragon who is actually her lover. The Ambassador is frightened away, and then set upon and robbed by friends of the young girl. The Mandarin finally agrees to the marriage of his daughter to her beloved, whereupon the Ambassador’s goods are returned to him. The devious Mandarin, seeing the Ambassador as a better prospect for his daughter, changes his mind. But in the end, the Ambassador refuses the marriage, feeling that he prefers to be loved for himself. The young lovers wed, leaving the Mandarin with his monkeys, a butterfly, and his dreams of a wealthy life. An old silent film L’Épreuve helps somewhat to understand the kinds of movement themes Fokine designed. For example, in the beginning he held close to reality with figurative and gestural motifs, while still using the ballet vocabulary. For the monkey group, Fokine chose stereotypical animalistic imagery. In the same comedic manner, he exaggerated the overweening qualities of the Mandarin, giving him the villainous qualities of a silent-film character.

The movements for the daughter also recall the caprices of film heroines, fawning and meek, with hollow “Oriental” poses, at the same time keeping to the ballet lexicon. Vera Nemtchinova, the original Chung-Yang, admitted in an interview to the “simpering” behavior that Fokine insisted on, in order to give the character a more farcical style. The Dancing Times hailed “Nemtchinova for her brilliant dancing and miming as the daughter, and especially for her turns sur la pointe.” The review extolled the beauty of a lovely pas de deux with Eglevsky and Nemtchinova, and commented, “If the choreography of L’Épreuve d’amour is, as I heard some say, a trifle old-fashioned, then give me old-fashioned choreography. I enjoyed every minute of it.” The Paris journal L’Illustration adored Fokine’s treatment of the music, extolling the ballet’s “finesse, and light touch, following the score with an impeccable awareness of its details.”

Fokine’s several new productions remain important contributions to the repertoire. Critic A. V. Coton spoke of this “resurrection” of Fokine by Blum as the major happening in the spring of 1936 and critics rejoiced on both sides of the Atlantic. Dance writers called Fokine “the father of modern ballet” as he did not approve of using ready-made dance steps, short skirts, and pink dancing shoes. Fokine believed that the time period and character of the nation represented should be researched and reflected in the dance, and that the corps of dancers should be used for expression, not just ornamentation. He believed an attempt should be made to harmonize music, scenery, and choreography.

Fokine, as a dedicated and passionate composer of ballet movement, was praised by Cyril Beaumont who remarked that Fokine knew the music exceptionally well, and worked for days on its sequencing: “He knows what phrase of movement is to be interpreted, where there is to be a pose, and for how long. He composes like a painter, sketching a few movements here, arranging a few details of a pose there; it is one of the most entrancing experiences to see these apparently isolated elements gradually set in their proper order and combined to form a beautiful dance.

Judith Chazin-Bennahum © RENE BLUM AND THE BALLETS RUSSES (Oxford, 2011)

Click on the image to download a free copy of Chapter 8:

RENÉ BLUM AND THE BALLETS RUSSES: In Search of a Lost Life, by Judith Chazin-Bennahum (Oxford, 2011) is out now in hardcover and Kindle edition.

We started The Ballet Bag in April 2009 with the mission to prove that ballet is not stuffy, old fashioned and inaccessible; that it is quite the opposite: relevant, fresh and topical. With the aim to Give Ballet a New Spin we try to show it under a different light. When writing our capsule biographies, ballet fact cards, review roundups and commentary on social media, we cross it over with other art forms and cultural references (pop culture, cinema, rock music – ie. other things we love!).