PARIS, 2 November 2006—The tribute to Serge Lifar (1905 - 1986), the Russian /French dancer, director
and choreographer largely credited with the revival of 20th century French
ballet, began with Suite en blanc. Created in 1943 while Lifar
was at the height of his fame, it is one of the masterpieces of 20th
century dance and is almost a dictionary of academic dance at the time.
The ballet consists of a series of particularly difficult variations,
pas de trois and pas de cinq, adages and ensembles which
display the brilliance, virtuosity and elegance of the French
company. Made for the great dance personalities of the era, each
short sequence tells a story in the style Lifar affected. Whether or not the
man, and not Fokine, actually invented certain positions of the
feet, the 6th and 7th as is claimed, remains a polemic, but
what he did was to give a name to them.
Since its premiere, Suite en blanc has become one of the company's showpieces, having been
danced, to date, on 382 occasions. However, over the years, some casts
have been brighter and more sparkling than others and for this performance
the work, although as visually attractive as ever, lacked lustre.
Performances of individual dancers were uneven. Fortunately there was the
radiant presence of Emilie
, a ballerina
who possesses that most elusive quality of all, that of class. She is a
dancer with a soul as well as a beautiful technique.
Serge Lifar: Suite en blanc
In the second ballet, L'envol d'Icare, Thierry Malandain's
first creation for the Paris Opéra Ballet, the director of the "Centre
Chorégraphique National" in Biarritz played around with his subject.
Finding the music by J.E. Szyfer and Arthur Honegger used in Lifar's own
1935 ballet, Icare, somewhat dated, he substituted a score by
Schnittke created for The Labyrinth, a ballet which tells the
story of the seven young girls and seven youths sent from Athens to feed
the Minotaur, that half-bull, half-human creature imprisoned in Crete by
Theseus, aided by the king's daughter and Dedale, the architect who
built the maze, overcomes the bull, but Dedale is punished and shut in the
maze with his son, Icarus. The work ends when Icarus, escaping from his
prison with wings of wax, goes too close to the sun, melts them and goes
crashing back to earth.
"While my ballet springs from the tale of the Minotaur", Malandain told
me, "it's an abstract work with, for example, movements which recall the
horns of the bull."
Photo: Sébastien Mathé
The French choreographer had already created a ballet some years ago,
Les creatures, also inspired by Lifar's 1929 work, and his
familiarity with the style of Les Ballets Russes as well as with the
qualities of the Paris dancers was evident. He had also staged his
personal versions of Bolero, Pulcinella, L'après-midi d'un faune,
and Spectre de la rose successfully for his own company, and this
new work was a harmonious ballet, ideally suited to the interpreters and
Malandain is a choreographer with a language of his own who can adapt
it to the dancers he's working with, and while they initially did not have
his style, they soon absorbed it, he told me. Jérémie Bélingard, a dancer
with an untameable wild streak, was particularly well-cast as
As a company member himself nearly 30 years ago, the choreographer's
knowledge of the troupe showed in his use of jumps, lifts, and groupings.
Movements were pretty, large and generous without excess. It was most
agreeable on the eye. The costumes themselves, in true Ballets Russes
style, were colourful and attractive, in rust, orange, green and black,
with short fluid, swinging skirts.
Much less can be said of the costumes for Lifar's Mirages,
premiered in 1947, the last work on the programme. With memories of candy
floss coloured tights, pale pink and green tunics and silly hats with
feathers sticking out all over the place, not to mention the
multi-coloured jackets and black-ink tutus edged in sparkles worn by the
corps de ballet, they were execrably hideous whilst the ballet as a
whole has suffered from the ravages of time. Only the two central figures
escaped, both choreographically speaking, and in their costumes.
Photo: Sébastien Mathé
The work, inspired by Alfred de Musset's poem, A December
night, is full of symbolism and meaning. And although Lifar
undoubtedly created an atmosphere and set an example which Roland Petit
and Maurice Béjart later followed, developed and improved, much of the
choreography is stilted and artificial.
The young man was interpreted by Hervé Moreau, the anti-hero who loses
everything he has each time he thinks he has it, whether it is his shadow,
himself, his destiny, or the woman he loves. As his shadow, Agnès Letestu,
in the role she had coveted since dancing a variation from it on her
promotion to première danseuse in 1993, was sublime and their central pas
de deux breathtaking. Moreau is proving to be one of the company's most
gifted interpreters; It seemed such a pity that this masterpiece had to be
surrounded with all the rest, impossible to stage today with a lesser
Agnès Letestu and
Hervé Moreau in Serge Lifar's Mirages
The real merit of Lifar's genius lies in the reforms he made within the
company, paving the way for Rudolf Nureyev. On his arrival, Nureyev simply
did away with what he called all the "chi-chi and whipped cream."
When Serge Lifar, a man of great personal magnetism, took over the
directorship of the Paris Company on December 29th, 1929, he wrote in his
biography that "there was no troupe, no audience, and no living tradition
worth speaking of".
He began by dimming the great chandelier as soon as a performance
began, forcing spectators to concentrate on events onstage rather than
off; no one was allowed to enter once the show had begun. Moreover, in
1934 he instigated the first complete evening of ballet, once a week,
every Wednesday evening in July that year; dance was no longer light
entertainment between well-known operatic arias and society could no
longer enter and leave at will.
On a practical level, he banned tights with holes, personal jewellery
and elastic on shoes, and as for the male dancers, they were asked to
shave! Professional make-up was introduced and the women obliged to dance
on pointe, rather than the slovenly sort of demi-pointe they had grown
Once he had begun his process of cleaning up, he began his most
important work; training dancers who could ally a faultless technique to
their other qualities. Considered to be the outstanding European male
dancer of his generation, and anxious to give his knowledge to others, he
created a class d'adage which he taught himself, while ensuring that
promising students in the opera school went to study with the great
Russian teachers including Preobrajenska and Kchessinska who had settled
in Paris after being driven from their homeland.
The result was ballerinas of the status of Darsonval, Schwartz and
Chauviré for whom he choreographed works with the collaboration of people
such as Cocteau, Derain and Bakst. His friends were Picasso, Max Ernst and
Prokofiev and, drawing inspiration from sculptures, history, mythology and
the bible, he brought a whole new serious audience to dance.
But as a choreographer, however, he could not resist creating works for
himself underlining his "beautiful body". Moreover, Lifar's ballets were
very much a product of the time. The reason perhaps why so few of his
works are performed today, particularly by other companies, is probably
because they were so personal and have aged so badly. With just a few
exceptions, they are curiosities, a sentimental stroll backwards in the
history of ballet.
Related CK Archives:
Book Review: The Ballets Russes and Its
Vive Les Ballets
Russes! Thierry Malandain and Ballet Biarritz
Patricia Boccadoro is dance editor at