The legendary dancer and noted choreographer Serge Lifar was born in Kyiv 104 years ago, on April 2, 1905.
Lifar’s name was restored to his native land only after his death. Today there is only a handful of people who knew him. One of them is the well-known French film director Dominique Delouche, who created Serge Lifar Musagete. Unfortunately, it has little documentary footage that shows how Lifar danced, and only a few scenes of him working as a choreographer and coach. Delouche builds his film as a mosaic of various film stars’ reminiscences: Yvette Chauvire, Nina Vyroubova, and Cyril Atanasov, who lovingly handed down his choreographic style and technique to the younger generation of performers. The film creates a subtle image of the master choreographer, fragments of which were recently screened during a commemorative soiree at the National Opera of Ukraine in Kyiv.
Not so long ago, during a business trip to Paris, I was fortunate enough to meet with Delouche, who gave me some first-hand information about our celebrated fellow countryman.
Delouche: I first saw Lifar when I was a child. My parents took me to the Paris Opera, and the way he and his troupe danced was fantastic. (Lifar spent more than 30 years as the ballet master and director of the Paris Opera Ballet — T.P.) He was called the King of the Paris Opera. Everybody loved him as a dancer and then as a choreographer. I would say that I fell in love with ballet because I saw the best dancers and choreographers. When I grew up, I decided to make a film about ballet. The first one turned out to be a short film entitled Le Spectre de la danse. Lifar agreed to appear in my film, although he didn’t know me as a filmmaker at all (it was my debut). And he refused to be paid. I am very grateful to him for this.
I must admit that my admiration for Lifar grew as we started to meet each other more frequently while I was working on the film. At this time Serge was wrapping up his choreography career at the Paris Opera. I was not present at his rehearsals, but once I watched him rehearsing the role of Giselle with the beautiful Russian dancer Nina Vyroubova, the star of the Paris Opera. I remember how Serge was helping her to convey Giselle’s mad scene through the language of dance. Getting ahead of my story, I must say that this production would become one of his best, thanks to Nina, who may be described as Lifar’s muse. She inspired him and he staged a number of ballets especially for her. (Vyroubova recently died in Paris at the age of 86. She became famous in 1945, when she was introduced to the public by the choreographer Roland Petit, who was then with the Ballets des Champs-Elysees — T.P.)
Serge Lifar was an extraordinary, spectacular, kind-hearted, friendly, cultured, and courteous individual. He was also an excellent storyteller and he liked to improvise. I remember his excellent choreography for Orpheus, which was set to Gluck’s music. As a pianist, I did the accompaniment to show in advance the limits in which Lifar could stay in front of the camera. Then we did the shooting. In honor of the Opera Garnier (Garnier was the architect of the Paris Grand Opera), Lifar staged a ballet that was filmed on the square in front of the buildings, with cameras mounted on top of the adjoining buildings in order to create a panorama. The result was a spectacular picture a la Napoleon II, reflecting the architectural epoch of the Garnier Palace.
FROM “UNPROMISING” TO A STAR OF THE BALLET
A number of critics have tried to solve the mystery of the Serge Lifar phenomenon. The fact that he became a dancer of the highest caliber can be described as an incredible stroke of luck, considering that he started learning choreography late, at 14 years of age. Lifar wrote in his memoirs that one day he attended a classical dance lesson in Kyiv and realized that ballet was his life’s calling. Although his first professor Bronislava Nijinska, who was the sister of the legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, gave him devastatingly low grades and called him “unpromising,” strenuous training, rehearsals, and Lifar’s fanatic obsession with ballet produced results.
Despite the turmoil of the Civil War, the penniless 18-year-old Lifar made his way to Paris. There he met the manager of the Ballets Russes, Serge Diaghilev, and convinced him that he would be a useful addition to his troupe. Before long the gifted young dancer, who had scarcely any professional training, began to be noticed. Lifar continued to work hard on his technique and choreographic expressiveness, and soon became the premier dancer of the Ballets Russes. Diaghilev, who became Lifar’s lover and tutor, deserves a lot of credit for helping Lifar eventually become a keen expert on music, art, and literature.
The turning point in his ballet career came in 1929, the year that his choreographer’s talent was revealed. That same year Diaghilev died in his arms. Aged 24, Lifar was faced with a dilemma: who would continue Diaghilev’s cause? He had to take this important mission into his own hands. Lifar became the Paris Opera Ballet’s ballet master, choreographer, and premier dancer. This was a desperate decision. He had to revive the French ballet, which had been a trendsetter in the 18th and 19th centuries, when French professors and choreographers brought it to Russia, where the burgeoning of the Imperial Theaters was attributed to the legendary Marius Petipa.
They say that youth and determination can move mountains. Lifar gathered a group of young enthusiasts, who began rehearsing eight hours a day. Finally, a ballet troupe took shape. Among its especially popular productions were the so-called “Ballet Wednesdays.” Spectators were enthralled by Prometheus (choreographed to a score by Beethoven), starring Olga Spessivtzeva and Serge Lifar. He launched a series of training sessions, sharing the secrets of his mastery with the troupe, teaching duets, and trying to make ballet convey a message in addition to entertaining the audience. Lifar added a lyrical expressive touch to ballet techniques and raised the dancer’s role to a level where manliness was combined with finesse. His master classes produced excellent results marked by the stage appearance of such excellent dancers as Yvette Chauvire, Nina Vyroubova, Lycette Darsonval, Youly Algarov, Alexandre Kaluzny, Roland Petit, and others.
“A POET OF MOTION”
His contemporaries described Lifar as a very handsome man. His dancing was captivatingly musical, exalted, masterful, inspired, and filled with energy and artistry. As a choreographer, he was able to reveal every performer’s maximum creative potential. He was cherished by both his colleagues and audiences. The French poet Paul Valery called him a “poet of motion.”
The ballet Icarus (1935) marked Lifar’s creative pinnacle. Critics said it was a remarkable achievement of drama and choreography, an example of the clear- cut neo-classical style that left its mark on several generations of dancers and choreographers. Among Lifar’s other masterpieces are Mirages, Phaedra, A Suite in White, and Romeo and Juliet. He staged and starred in these productions, producing heroic or poetic images; he was Apollo, Alexander the Great, David, Aeneus, Bacchus, and Don Juan. When he staged ballets, he used classical and contemporary music by such composers as Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Ravel. Among his production designers were such renowned artists as Picasso, Bakst, Benois, Cocteau, and Chagall.
“Lifar developed a new neo- classical ballet trend,” Delouche said, adding that “thanks to him, this academic kind of dancing acquired new, modern features. I think that Serge Lifar’s choreography may be considered a continuation of Michel Fokine’s traditions. With his taste, which he owed to Diaghilev, Lifar was able to raise his talent to a high level. Lifar represented French neo- classicism the way Balanchine did the American one. Both were brilliant choreographers, who made exciting, original contributions to 20th-century ballet.” Lifar’s creative heritage is still part of the Paris Opera repertoire, while his productions of Romeo and Juliet, A Suite in White, and Morning Serenade are once again part of the Ukrainian National Opera’s ballet repertoire.
In recognition of his outstanding service in reviving French ballet, Lifar was awarded the Legion d’honneur and elected a member of the Institute of France (with the title of “academician ad infinitum”) and later as rector of the Dance University. On Lifar’s 20th anniversary as a choreographer he won the Oscar of dance, the Golden Shoe, currently on display at the Museum of Historical Valuables of Ukraine in Kyiv, courtesy of Lifar’s widow Countess Lillan d’Ahlefeldt.
It may be said that the French fell in love with ballet thanks to Lifar’s untiring efforts. He gave public lectures, wrote several books on ballet, and founded the Dance University, the Department of Choreography at the Sorbonne, and the International Institute of Choreography. He arranged for a memorial plaque to be hung on the building where the brilliant singer Fedor Chaliapin lived and died. He took part in the ceremony of transferring the remains of the prominent dancer Vaslav Nijinsky from London to Montmartre Cemetery. He held soirees in tribute to Serge Diaghilev.
Lifar was a gifted and charismatic personality, so he had an army of fans, although there were quite a few people who hated him. Delouche believes that Lifar first made enemies because of his careless political statements. During the Second World War he signed a letter welcoming the Nazis as rescuers from the “Bolshevik plague.” (Lifar’s refusal to accept Soviet rule led him to immigrate to France.) Lifar was an extraordinary personality, so the fact that he did not turn away from the Nazi occupiers of Paris eventually got him into a lot of trouble. The fact remains that he never collaborated with the Nazis, refused to meet with Hitler when he was visiting the Paris Opera, and refused to give Renoir’s portrait of Wagner to Goebbels.
Lifar mentions this period in his memoirs: “My public activities were mostly aimed at preventing the Nazi depredations at the Paris Opera, the French national achievements, the Swedish magnate Rolf de Mare’s museum and library, the Rachmaninoff Russian Conservatory, ballet studios, and finally, my private library and collection.” However, word soon spread that Lifar was a Nazi collaborator. The French Resistance condemned him to death, forcing Lifar to flee to Monaco, where he lived for several years.
“I think Lifar made a mistake, but his political shortsightedness was more of an impulse on the part of a creative individual who hadn’t figured out the situation,” Delouche said, “because Serge wasn’t French. As an emigre, he dreamed of returning to his native land, to Kyiv. He thought that the Soviet system would be overthrown by then, thanks to the Nazis. He was an artist and lived in his own world. Very soon he realized that he had been too quick to show his preferences, but many people would remember his words. He was criticized, at times rather harshly, and this made Lifar’s life very difficult.” After the war, the National French Purge Committee, having thoroughly reviewed his case, acquitted Lifar and offered him a formal apology. In 1947 he returned to Paris.
Charles de Gaulle, the French politician who led France’s national resistance movement and eventually became president, was friends with Lifar and admired his talent. Lifar’s antipode was another noted dancer, Rudolf Nureyev, who made no secret of his dislike for Lifar and his choreography, and who adamantly refused to dance in any of his ballets. Nureyev was one of those people who did not talk to Lifar, who had enemies and friends roughly on a 50-50 basis.
RICH MAN, POOR MAN
Incredible as it may seem, Lifar never owned a house and always lived in hotels. Apart from ballet, he was obsessed with collecting, a habit he inherited from Diaghilev, who bequeathed his collection to Serge. Although he owned such rarities as books, paintings, ballet materials, including costumes and stage props, and Pushkiniana, he never learned to save something for a rainy day. He was indifferent to money. Everything he earned he gave away to charity or used to purchase additions to his collection. After he retired from the stage, he lived a very modest life. Poverty made him auction off part of his collections, Delouche believes.
The filmmaker is also convinced that if Lifar had not met Lillan d’Ahlefeldt, he might have ended up in the gutter. “She was a rich woman and she became Lifar’s good fairy. Theirs was a friendly association rather than a marriage on equal terms. Serge adored Lillan’s youth and beauty. She became the guiding star in his creativity. Lillan d’Ahlefeldt can be compared to Peter Tchaikovsky’s muse Nadezhda von Meck. They shared exalted feelings, but only in the world of art.
Serge Lifar died of cancer on Dec. 16, 1986, in Lausanne, Switzerland, and was buried at the cemetery of Sainte-Genevieve- des-Bois near Paris. His gravestone bears the laconic inscription, “Serge Lifar from Kyiv.”