Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo Debuts

French critic René Blum and Russian impresario Sergei Denham joined in managing the new company Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which helped to popularize ballet in the United States through its frequent touring.

Summary of Event

The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, aggressively promoted as “The One and Only,” was synonymous with glamorous stars, sumptuous decor, and brilliant dancing for nearly a quarter of a century. An itinerant company with roots torn by war and internal intrigue, the Ballet Russe adopted an accessible approach in its dealings with the American public. Rather than being elitist, inapproachable bearers of high art, the company infiltrated remote corners of the United States, appearing in high school auditoriums as well as big-city opera houses. The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo created a mass audience for ballet with success unmatched by fledgling American companies during the same period. Its contribution to the evolution of twentieth century theatrical dance is extremely significant. [kw]Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo Debuts (Apr. 5, 1938)
[kw]Monte Carlo Debuts, Ballet Russe de (Apr. 5, 1938)
Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo
Ballet companies;Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo
[g]United States;Apr. 5, 1938: Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo Debuts[09750]
[c]Dance;Apr. 5, 1938: Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo Debuts[09750]
Blum, René
Denham, Sergei
Massine, Léonide
Basil, Wassili de
Fokine, Michel
Balanchine, George

Beginning in 1938, impresarios René Blum and Sergei Denham together guided the group’s progress. Blum, formerly Monte Carlo Opera Ballet’s director, managed the remains of Sergei Diaghilev’s legendary Ballets Russes Ballets Russes after Diaghilev’s death in 1929. Denham, a Russian banker transplanted to New York, was vice president of a sponsoring organization called Universal Art (formerly known as World Art). This organization wished to assemble a new company for French choreographer Léonide Massine. Denham turned to Blum.

For roughly forty thousand dollars, Blum sold the rights to the valuable Monte Carlo name and elements of the Diaghilev repertory to Universal Art (which was backed by millionaire Julius Fleischmann). By arrangement, the Ballets Russes continued its annual spring season in Monte Carlo and its U.S. touring under Universal’s management and financial support. Denham assumed the role of business director of the company—renamed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo—while Blum remained its artistic director and Massine its choreographer and principal dancer. (In fact, to Blum’s chagrin, the company was widely known as Massine’s Ballet Russe.) The company’s debut performance was given on April 5, 1938, in Monte Carlo, and on October 12, 1938, the company first appeared in New York City.

The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo led by Blum, Denham, and Massine was one in a series of incarnations of the Ballet Russe name. The success of Blum and Denham’s partnership followed the deterioration of Blum’s earlier efforts to preserve the legendary company created by Diaghilev. Blum initially assumed direction of the Ballets Russes in the country of its patron, the prince of Monaco. In 1932, Russian Colonel Wassili de Basil joined him in his efforts to salvage the dissipated Diaghilev spirit. With new ballets by George Balanchine and Massine, this earlier company created a sensation during its tours of Europe and, in 1933, of the United States.

Blum and de Basil proved incompatible as partners, however. They split the group into two separate enterprises in 1936 with great hostility, dividing repertory, trademarks, costumes, and even dancers. Thriving on intrigue and confusion, de Basil changed the name of his reorganized company six times in less than eight years. Common appellations were “De Basil’s Ballet Russe” and the “Original Ballet Russe.” Litigation over rights of ownership to the ballets continued into the late 1940’s, as did the rivalry between the two companies. These so-called Ballet Wars, often fought across continents, generated tremendous publicity. Newspapers from Europe to the Americas carried frequent updates on the squabbles and traced the dancers’ shifting loyalties.

Indeed, in addition to the exotic company name, the star appeal of the dancers in Blum and Denham’s company was crucial to its popularity. At its inception, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo took with it or hired such foreign favorites as Alexandra Danilova, Alicia Markova, Eugenie Delarova, Mia Slavenska, Tamara Toumanova, Serge Lifar, Michel Panieff, Marc Platoff, and Frederic Franklin. Among those lost to de Basil were premier danseur David Lichine and “baby ballerinas” (Balanchine’s prodigies) Tatiana Riabouchinska and Irina Baronova.

Both Ballet Russe companies continued to tour Europe and North and South America with immense, if independent, success. The partnership undertaken by Blum and Denham ushered in golden years for the new Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and their travels took them from New York to Boston, Toronto, Los Angeles, Kansas City, and Seattle. The company was met by welcoming audiences, impressive box-office returns, and daily reviews. Many historians recall that theaters advertised “standing room only” as much as a month before the company’s arrival in a given town.

Although the Ballet Russe was officially headquartered in Monte Carlo, the company became a permanent fixture at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House Metropolitan Opera House (New York City);Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo as a result of the onset of World War II in 1939. With European tours impossible, the company performed frequently throughout the United States and Canada. Furthermore, when new Russian dancers became unavailable, Blum and Denham began to hire Americans. Many of them, seeking a share of the company’s alluring image, at first adopted Russian stage names.

Portrait of Léonide Massine by artist and theatrical set designer Léon Bakst.

Although many of his previous works were retained by de Basil through court action, Massine created new choreographic masterpieces for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Favoring the avant-garde and the surreal, Massine often commissioned modern artists such as Henri Matisse and Salvador Dalí to create the decor for his ballets. The company came to be associated with colorful, flamboyant, even outrageous results. Blum and Denham employed the Diaghilev formula for an evening’s concert: They presented three or four stylistically or thematically different ballets on one program. One critic compared the Ballet Russe to a three-ring circus in which an audience could pick its pleasure from a variety of interesting acts. Entertainment value aside, the company’s repertoire was the subject of serious and intense scrutiny by patrons who were beginning to gain a critical understanding of ballet.

Despite its continued success, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo soon faced new political and artistic realities. The horrifying state of affairs in Europe dealt a severe blow to the dance company in the United States. Many dancers worried about family members overseas, and some even joined the armed forces. Most distressingly, while his company was touring the United States in 1943, Blum tragically decided to visit France instead. He was arrested by Nazi police in December and sent to the concentration camp at Auschwitz, where he died nine months later.

The prewar glamour of the Ballet Russe, replete with its images of Russian exoticism, started to fade. Indeed, external upheaval seemed to coincide with a change in the company’s internal artistic philosophy. The new modern dance was rising to the forefront of American stages, as choreographers such as Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey sought to translate into movement the emotion of inherently national or personal themes. For example, dances were created about the Great Depression and unemployment, and about the American frontier, freedom, and equality. Denham responded to this outside impetus by inviting the young American dancer Agnes de Mille De Mille, Agnes to create a work for the Ballet Russe in 1942. The result was Rodeo, a spirited depiction of ranch life in the American West.

Massine stayed with the group until 1943, when he left to form yet another offshoot company, Ballet Russe Highlights. Denham then appealed to Balanchine to rejuvenate his company. In contrast with the idiosyncratic ballets of Massine, Balanchine composed “neoclassic” ballets that were closely related to their music and structurally complex. He remained with the company until 1946, when he left to join Lincoln Kirstein in the formation of Ballet Society. These initial years of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, guided by Blum and Denham with artistic direction by Massine and Balanchine, were profoundly instrumental in raising the American public’s interest in the art of ballet.


Blum and Denham’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo made the United States excited about ballet. This was no small achievement, as the country was only slowly gaining an understanding of dance as legitimate entertainment and even art. The way had been paved by the frequent tours of Anna Pavlova’s company and Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in the 1910’s and 1920’s. These dancers introduced the United States to the glamour and artistry of a European and Russian tradition that, until their visits, was mostly unfamiliar to Americans. The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo capitalized on that earlier introduction, performing often enough to help a mass audience cultivate its tastes and emerging aesthetic values. The Ballet Russe’s greatest asset was its familiarity to the public and its recognizable brand of showmanship.

Under Blum and Denham, the company preserved the Diaghilev mystique and kept the lauded Russian tradition before a starstruck public’s eye. In so doing, however, it reinforced the notion that ballet was essentially a Russian art form. While some considered this a negative influence, it had the positive effect of elevating artistic standards for rising national and regional groups that struggled to compete with the Ballet Russe’s established fame. Regardless of its international orientation, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo helped to establish ballet on a permanent, professional basis in the United States.

Probably the best-known choreographer of the decade, Massine created some of his finest pieces for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Gaîeté Parisienne, which premiered in 1938, featured fun-loving cancan dancers and madcap waiters in a Paris music hall. Massine also produced a 1930’s series of notable symphonic ballets set to the music of such composers as Hector Berlioz, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Johannes Brahms. Rouge et Noir (1939), with music by Dmitri Shostakovich, incorporated color-drenched settings and costumes by Matisse. Described as “a vast mural in motion,” the ballet was a discordant allegory representing the forces of destiny in shaping a man’s life.

De Mille made a different kind of contribution to the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, affecting both the company and its audiences. Rodeo, Rodeo (ballet) which premiered to dozens of curtain calls, was the Ballet Russe’s first major attempt to incorporate American themes (although Massine had tried to do this on several occasions as well). Rodeo also employed an American composer, Aaron Copland, Copland, Aaron and American designer Oliver Smith.

Depicting a naïve cowgirl’s fervent crush on a Kansas City cowboy, Rodeo was based on a realistic theme and believable characters—a true departure from the traditional ballet fantasies of swans, princes, and spirits. That this tribute to life in the United States could find success in the repertory of the Ballet Russe signified a new era in the company’s history and the growing popularity of ballet as an American art form.

For his part, Balanchine brought an extensive repertory with him to the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Among them were older works such as Mozartiana (1933) and Serenade (1935); recent works, including the 1941 Concerto barocco (created for another fledgling company, the American Ballet); and new works, such as Danses concertantes (1944), choreographed especially for the Ballet Russe. Over the next two decades, choreographers such as Frederick Ashton, Ruth Page, Ruthanna Boris, and Bronislawa Nijinska added works to the repertory as well.

The Ballet Russe was certainly not the only group competing for audiences’ attention. Often the company appeared in the same city or even the same theater with Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan, a company that overtly attempted a nationalistic outlook. In other instances, the repertory of Blum and Denham’s group overlapped with Colonel de Basil’s Original Ballet. In their last parallel season, 1940-1941, the two companies both boasted versions of Giselle, L’Après-midi d’un faune, Petrushka, Swan Lake, and Schéhérazade. Presenter Sol Hurok, who then managed both Ballet Russe groups, ignored the coincidence because tickets continued to sell. Quite possibly, audiences did not distinguish between the two companies with similar names and repertoire; on the other hand, the presence and popularity of one company probably enhanced that of the other.

Under Denham’s guidance, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo remained active until 1962 (roughly a decade longer than de Basil’s group). During that time, it became an essentially American company, both in its travels and in its repertory. It partly preserved the spirit of the Diaghilev legend while absorbing some of the qualities of its new homeland in the process. Although after Massine’s and then Balanchine’s departure the company lacked definite artistic coherence, its very existence helped the American public to make (as one dancer remarked) “a habit out of art.” Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo
Ballet companies;Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo

Further Reading

  • Amberg, George. Ballet in America. New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1949. An older publication that provides three detailed chapters on the succession of companies called the Ballet Russe. All are useful; Blum and Denham’s group is discussed in a chapter titled “The Ballet Russe II: Massine’s Ballet Russe.” Appendix provides a comprehensive list of the company’s repertoire.
  • Anderson, Jack. The One and Only: The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 2003. An excellent resource. Traces the company through birth, reorganization, and final performances. Contains well-researched information, extensive notes, rosters of repertoire and dancers, and important primary-source material.
  • Clarke, Mary, and Clement Crisp. “History of Ballet: Twentieth Century.” In The History of Dance. New York: Crown, 1981. While this attempts to cover an obviously enormous topic in a comparatively small number of pages, it provides a helpful chronological sequence of developments in the art of ballet. The origins of the Ballet Russe and its implications are discussed in detail. Good for putting the company into the context of the history of dance.
  • Massine, Léonide. My Life in Ballet. Edited by Phyllis Hartnoll. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1968. A complex autobiography of the choreographer, with heavy emphasis on descriptions of works. The influence of Sergei Diaghilev on the author is stressed. Contains a catalog of ballets organized alphabetically.
  • Maynard, Olga. “The Companies: Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.” In The American Ballet. Philadelphia: Macrae Smith, 1959. A look at the evolution of theatrical dance in the United States, with a section devoted to Blum and Denham’s Ballet Russe. Describes company history, repertory, and dancers in detail.
  • Stowitts, H. J., and Anne Holiday. Najinski Dancing! From the Golden Age of the Ballet Russe. Pacific Grove, Calif.: Park Place, 1996. A catalog from an art exhibition featuring images of Vaslav Najinski, one of the Ballet Russe’s most famous dancers. No index.

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