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Serge Lifar, 1941
Photo: Studio Harcourt
© ministère de la culture – France


By Patricia Boccadoro

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 Cozette , 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
Photo: Sébastien Mathé


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 King Minos.

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."

Serge Lifar: L'envol d'Icare
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 the occasion.

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 Theseus/Icarus.

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.

Serge Lifar: Mirages
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 company.

Agnès Letestu and Hervé Moreau in Serge Lifar's Mirages
Photo: Sébastien Mathé

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 used to.

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 World

Vive Les Ballets Russes! Thierry Malandain and Ballet Biarritz

Patricia Boccadoro is dance editor at  

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