07 September 2013

Serge Lifar

Serge Lifar (1905-1986) was a French dancer, choreographer and ballet master of Ukrainian origin. He was one of the greatest male ballet dancers of the 20th century and considered the successor to Nijinsky in the Ballet Russes. From 1930 on, he was immensely successful, essentially in his own ballet creations. During three decades he lead the Paris Opéra Ballet and enriched its repertoire, re-established its reputation as a leading ballet company, and enhanced the position of male dancers in a company long dominated by ballerinas.

Serge Lifar
French postcard no. 148. Photo: Studio Harcourt. Collection: Didier Hanson.

Ballets Russes

Serge Lifar (Сергій Лифар) was born Serhіy Mуkhailovуch Lуfar in Kiev, Russian Empire (now Ukraine) in 1905. His year of birth is officially shown as 1904 (as on a 2004 Ukrainian stamp commemorating his centenary), but other sources say 1905. He was the son of a civil servant. Lifar had a late start as a dancer. He was introduced to dance in 1920 by Bronislava Nijinska, under whom he began to study.

In 1921 he left the Soviet Union to join Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Diaghilev sent him to Turin in order to improve his technique with the eminent teacher Enrico Cecchetti. Lifar made his debut at the Ballets Russes in 1923, and became premier danseur of the company in 1925. The company revolutionized ballet by merging modern dance, music and art into a dynamic whole. At first a vehicle for bringing Russian art to the West, it was ostracized by the Revolutionary Soviet government, and became a platform for collaboration between Russian and Western artists.

Lifar was very handsome, had an athletic body, and a great desire to be liked. He was clearly the impresario's favourite and was considered as the successor to Nijinsky. At the age of 21, he was cast in Nijinska’s Roméo et Juliette (1926) opposite Tamara Karsavina, who was twice his age. In George Balanchine’s comic ballet Barabau (1925), Lifar was a police sergeant chasing an Italian peasant.

He originated leading roles in three ballets by Balanchine for the Ballet Russes, La Chatte (1927) with a score by French composer Henri Sauguet and based on an Aesop fable, which featured Lifar’s famous entrance in a ‘chariot’ formed by his male companions, Apollon Musagète (1928) with a score by Stravinsky depicting the birth of the Greek God, Apollo and his encounter with the three muses, Callipe, Polyhymnia, and Terpsichore, and Le Fils prodigue (The Prodigal Son) (1929) with a score by Prokofiev, the last great ballet of the Diaghilev era.

Anna Kisselgoff in The New York Times about his charisma: “His dark exotic looks and athletic body gave him an animal intensity. A child's-eye view is unreliable, but in 1949, on a trip to Paris, I saw his portly but still-dramatic presence dominate the stage in Icare. The image remains.“

Serge Lifar
French postcard no. 257. Photo: Studio Harcourt. Collection: Didier Hanson.

Paris Opéra Ballet

At the death of Diaghilev in 1929, Serge Lifar was invited by Jacques Rouché to take over the directorship of the Paris Opéra Ballet. Lifar was 24 at the time. The Paris Opéra Ballet had fallen into decline in the late 19th century. He gave the company a new strength and purpose initiating the re-birth of ballet in France and began to create the first of many ballets for that company. In 1932 he was awarded the title of 'professeur de danse' and began reforms of the Opéra’s school to enable its dancers to perform the more modern ballets.

Lifar was immensely successful, essentially in his own ballet creations, notably with Les Créatures de Prométhée ('The Creatures of Prometheus) (1929), a personal version of Le Spectre de la rose (1931) and L'Après-midi d'un faune (1935), Icare (Icarus) (1935) with costumes and décor by Pablo Picasso, Istar (1941) or Suite en Blanc (1943), which he qualified as neoclassical, all created for the Paris Opera.

He also worked as a choreographer for some films. Examples are Nuits de feu/Nights of Fire (Marcel L'Herbier, 1937), starring Gaby Morlay, and La Mort du Cygne/The Death of the Swan (Jean Benoît-Lévy, 1937), the first feature film set entirely in the ballet world.

As ballet master of the Paris Opéra from 1930 to 1944 and from 1947 to 1958, Lifar devoted himself to the restoration of the technical level of the Paris Opera Ballet to return it to its place as one of the best companies in the world. During those three decades as director of the Paris Opéra Ballet, he lead the company through turbulent times during World War II and the German occupation of France. In 1945, charges of collaboration with the Germans had caused him the first time to leave and become director of the Nouveau Ballet de Monte Carlo. Lifar, cleared of the charges and given a year's suspension, returned as director of the Paris Opera Ballet in 1947. In 1958, he left the Paris Opéra Ballet.

Gaby Morlay
Gaby Morlay. French postcard, no. 69. Photo: Film Pathé-Natan.


During his career, Serge Lifar made an effort to revitalize dance and thought the basic principles of ballet and the five positions of the feet denied mobility for the dancer and invented sixth and seventh positions with the feet turned in not out like the first five positions. In 1935 he published his confessio fidei titled Le manifesto du chorégraphe, proposing laws about the independence of choreography. He proclaimed that dance, as an independent art, could exist without music.

He also wrote a biography of Diaghilev titled Serge Diaghilev, His Life, His Work, His Legend: An Intimate Biography published by Putnam, London, 1940. He brought the Paris Opéra Ballet to America and performed to full houses at the New York City Center. Audiences where enthusiastic and had great admiration for the company of dancers. According to Wikipedia, he undoubtedly influenced Yvette Chauviré, Janine Charrat and Roland Petit.

During his life he also appeared in a few films. The best known is Jean Cocteau’s Le testament d'Orphée, ou ne me demandez pas pourquoi!/Testament of Orpheus (1960), in which he played Orphée's Friend. Two years later he could be seen in a segment of Le crime ne paie pas/Crime Does Not Pay (Gérard Oury, 1962) with Rosanna Schiaffino.

In 1977 the Paris Opéra Ballet devoted a full evening to his choreography. In 1983 he was made a Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur (1983). Serge Lifar died in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1986, aged 81 and was buried in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois Russian Cemetery. Editions Sauret published his memoirs titled Les Mémoires d’Icare posthumously in 1993. The title references one of his greatest roles in the ballet Icare, “the story of the ballet is based on the ancient Greek myth of Icarus whose father Daedalus builds him a pair of artificial wings. Disobeying his father’s orders, Icarus flies too close to the sun, which melts the wax in his wings and causes him to plunge to his death.”

The Serge Lifar Foundation was set up in 1989 by Lifar's devoted companion, glamorous blonde Swedish countess Lillian Ahlefeldt-Laurvig. In 2012, jewels from the Countess' estate were auctioned at Sotheby's, with the proceeds going to the Foundation.

Sources: Anna Kisselgoff (The New York Times), Colin Gleadell (The Telegraph), Michael Minn (Andros on Ballet), Encyclopaedia Britannica, Wikipedia, and IMDb.

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