Kirstein v. Blum: A Jewish Ballet Battle

Kirstein v. Blum: A Jewish Ballet Battle

Every time you watch the New York City Ballet, you are under the heal of George Balanchine, the company’s founding choreographer and the 20th century’s greatest dance-maker. Many people know how he got there: Lincoln Kirstein, the son of a wealthy Jewish businessman and the company’s co-founder, brought him over from Europe. But what many don’t know is that there was another heir to a Jewish fortune–Rene Blum–who tried to get him first.

Blum, the brother of the better-known Leon Blum, France’s first Jewish prime minister, was trying to get Balanchine to come back to Monte Carlo, where Balanchine had worked with the once-famous Ballet Russes, which Blum had taken over from Sergei Diaghilev. Blum failed to get Balanchine back, and the Ballet Russes eventually died too, but a new book makes the case that well before then Blum was a star.

In dance historian Judith Chazin-Bennahum’s new book, "Rene Blum and the Ballet Russes: In Search of a Lost Life" (Oxford University Press), Blum is remembered as an important patron of the arts–not only for dance, but also for literature, helping to launch the career of Marcel Proust. In the early 20th century, Blum was editor of the French literary magazine Gil Blas, and when Proust, a friend, showed him a manuscript of "Swann’s Way," Blum got it in the hands of its eventual publisher.

Blum’s role as an impresario in dance and theater was similar, leaving his fingerprints on the early success of playwrights like Pirandello and choreographers like Nijinkska. In the dance world especially, his impact was pronounced. He took over the Ballet Russes of Monte Carlo, the one-time home of Balanchine, and if he never quite made it his own, he still added an impressive 15-odd years to a company that otherwise might have floundered faster. As Jennifer Homans wrote in her Sunday Times book review: "Not the artistic vision or commercial flair of Diaghilev or Massine, perhaps, but something just as rare: a sense of etiquette and cultivation."

But neither Diaghilev, nor Balanchine, nor Kirstein ended their life like Blum did. When the Second World War broke out, Blum was on tour with the Ballet Russes in America. His family was back in France, though, and he decided to live the war out back home with them. In 1941, after France fell to the Germans, he was round up with 700 other intellectuals and sent to Drancy. A year later, he was cremated in Auschwitz.

His contribution to 20th century art is worthy enough of a biography, but as Adam Kirsch notes in his review: "That one life could include such heights of art and generosity and such depths of suffering is itself enough reason for René Blum to be remembered."

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