Paul Parish

Serge Lifar

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Someone called Nickwallacesmith is posting lots of clips of Lifar on Youtube -- kind of a revelation to me. His musicality is remarkable. Much is in French or Russian, bt the clips are very interesting, intriguing --

San Francisco Ballet will stage Lifar's Suite en Blanc next season; his work is not well-known in htis country, and some dismiss it right away -- but the scholar-critic Mark Franko champions him, and we may come to see his virtues.

Be on the lookout...

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I saw Paris Opera Ballet perform Suite en Blanc (three times!) in Chicago earlier this summer, and ADORED it (as did everyone else in my group). It has to be performed with technical perfection, I think, but when it is, it is mind-blowing.

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Nickwallacesmith also re-posted a lot of the Soloviev videos, many of which disappeared, maybe when Ketinoa's entire channel was shut down when the Balanchine Trust objected to a tiny minority of the videos.

NY audiences got a chance to see POB dance "Suite en Blanc" this summer.

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Edited; Just taking a quick look at the comments on his videos, and wow...such hate and animosity toward him. No wonder the little interest in staging his ballets-(aside from the general perception of their low qualities...)

Anybody seen "Icare"...?

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The comments are partly motivated -- some of them -- by attitudes towards his collaborating with the Nazis during the occupation of Paris. Many condemn him for this -- but others say that his APPARENT collaboration allowed him to protect his Jewish dancers. He was certainly condemned right after the war, but after a year he was exonerated and brought back to Paris and put back in place. Mark Franko even suggests that the apparent coldness of Suite en Blanc has hidden defiance of the Nazis encoded in it.

I have seen "Icare" and it was stunning.

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Paul Parish:

...others say that his APPARENT collaboration allowed him to protect his Jewish dancers.

Serge Lifar's activities during the war don't really look too good - out of sheer naiviety or who knows what. Look at this press release from Lifar in 1940:

NYT Jul 5, 1940

Goering Invites Parisian To Stage Ballet in Berlin

Paris July 2 (Delayed; via Berlin) – Serge Lifar, director of the Paris Opera Ballet, said today that Field Marshal Hermann Goering had visited him yesterday and invited him to stage a production in Berlin.

The Marshal appeared at M. Lifar’s office, where he is preparing to revive the ballet. M. Lifar said he told Marshal Goering he could make no plans for trips until the company has been reorganized.

Jean Babilee, whom Lifar claims to have saved, says of Lifar, “He was a mythomaniac. I admired him enormously as an artist, he was amazing, but he was a rather ordinary human being. He didn’t save me at all.”

Alan Riding in "And the Show Went On" says that even though Lifar sought out the Germans, he was not completely safe:

Yet Lifar was not safe from vicious attacks by the collaborationist press, with anti-Semitic weekly Au Pilori accusing him of being a Jew whose real name was Rilaf, an anagram of Lifar. The terms of his denial were not to his credit. He noted that he had studied at the Imperial Lycee in Kiev, which excluded Jews; that he had belonged to an anit-Jewish youth movement during the Russian Revolution; that his origins excluded all possiblity of Jewish blood; and that he was of pure Aryan blood. He added: “As for my ideas about Jews, they are well known.”

Another reason Lifar gets bad notices on Nickwallacesmith is that his dancing technique is not the most sterling. John Martin noted in the NYT in 1933 that "his elevation is good, but in no wise exceptional, and his balance is actually bad" - which you can see here in the Bluebird coda:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vPIhUFFBZow

It will be interesting seeing Suite en Blanc here next season at the San Francisco Ballet, which looks, at least in video clips, like it creates an interesting art deco, bas relief arrangement of space. Reading old reviews in the Times of his works from John Martin to Alastair Macaulay doesn't seem to be too encouraging though. Martin say his Giselle - "which might be called 'Albrecht'" - "is by no means rich in poetry, and needs to be played with the greatest sense of style." High style what it all hinges on.

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Suite en Blanc was danced here in London to great acclaim a few months ago by ENB with the divine Glurjidze in the ballerina role and Yonah Acosta in the mazurka - really thrilling stuff, but I saw Lifar's Phaedre in Paris last autumn and apart from the dramatic opportunities for the ballerina it was pretty dire.

Regarding the occupation, it was a grey area all round. I've read a biography of Colette by Judith Thurman and she writes at length on the subject, though sadly Lifar isn't mentioned, but Colette wrote an anti Semitic novel at the time whilst desperately trying to save her Jewish husband from the Nazis. He was in fact arrested and interned at one point with only Colette's personal pleas to the French wife of the German ambassador gaining his release.

Jean Cocteau for example, attracted a large number of German admirers although the official Nazi line towards him was condemnation, as I said, a very grey area.

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Quiggin, all I can say is don't be deterred by Alastair Macaulay's trashing of Suite en Blanc during POB's latest visit to NY. My jaw literally dropped when I read his review; I couldn't believe he and I (and all the other people who were on their feet cheering in Chicago) had seen the same ballet. I was at the ballet with some very experienced ballet teachers and when I asked them if I had missed something that should have made me hate it like Macaulay, the word they used was "hogwash".

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Regarding the occupation, it was a grey area all round.

I think it's pretty much black and white in many cases. It was a long war and people did waffle. However artists like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Samuel Beckett joined the Resistence - Cartier-Bresson escaping from German prisions twice.

With Lifar and his invitations to Goering and Hitler, it was much more than what he needed to do just keep the Opera Ballet going - which would have anyway been an attractive tourist destination for German soldiers. It was part naiviety but also Lifar's extreme vanity, which manifested itself rather dramatically on a 1938 tour when he challenged Leonide Massine to a duel in Central Park. Lifar was disgruntled that Massine wouldn't cut the solo part of a well-received dancer in Swan Lake. According to this October 1938 New York Times article with the long spooled title:

Lifar off to Paris; Threatens to sue / Reveals That He Challenged Massine, Head of Ballet, to Duel in Central Park / Charges He Was Miscast / He Denies He Was Jealous of the Success Achieved by Alicia Makova:

Mr. Hurok, the impresario, who has brought the Ballet Russe to America for several seasons, said the trouble between Serge Lifar and the direction of the ballet started at Drury Lane Theatre in London on July 12 over the performance of Giselle when the audience gave an ovation to Markova, as they were proud of her being English and the first ballerina of their nation since Taglioni appeared at Covent Garden in 1855.

“Lifar kept coming forward,” Mr. Hurok continued, “and trying to get the audience to applaud him, but they would not do it. The people wanted Markova alone. Finally two of the dancers held him back and the ballerina went to the footlights and the audience shouted themselves hoarse.”

Interestingly in Lifar's second duel, with Marquis de Cuevas in 1958 over changes made in Noir et Blanc, Jean Marie Le Pen was one of the seconds of the Marquis. It was fought out with swords and though Lifar lost and had been "pinked" with a scratch, he was happy enough and cried, “Blood has flowed! Honor is saved.”

Perhaps Neumeier missed the boat by building ballet around Nijinsky's life rather than Lifar's!

Quiggin, all I can say is don't be deterred by Alastair Macaulay's trashing of Suite en Blanc during POB's latest visit to NY.

I actually look forward to seeing it, thanks for the correction to Macaulay.

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"mythomaniac" -- no kidding, as Newman's short interview with him in "Striking a Balance" shows.

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Interestingly in Lifar's second duel, with Marquis de Cuevas in 1958 over changes made in Noir et Blanc, Jean Marie Le Pen was one of the seconds of the Marquis. It was fought out with swords and though Lifar lost and had been "pinked" with a scratch, he was happy enough and cried, “Blood has flowed! Honor is saved.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-D9faD0KVks

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THis was officially a secret.... only 30 newsmen attended."

Thank you Christian. This was priceless.

And thanks, Quiggin, for that awful Bluebird. His musicality isn't bad, but his form is.... ouch. I thought at first it was just from hacving to see it en face,, from the wings -- but in fact from the front it was worse.

He was wonderful in Apollo, though, the snips I've seen.

And his partnering is very musical in the second half of this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RFkHU5JLSHo

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Balanchine was a defender of Lifar's dancing -- for example in Apollo -- and that is certainly good enough for me when it comes to Lifar's importance as a dancer especially at the most important time of his career. And I would love to see Suite en Blanc: critical descriptions and reports by fans, its lasting role in the French repertory, and even youtube excerpts suggest it is well worth seeing!

The Bluebird excerpt posted above is quite embarassing but it's a particular performance/rehearsal from a particular point in Lifar's career and also at a particular time in history. (What did Lifar's contemporaries look like in the role? I hope better, but perhaps not or not often, so...) However, I have always been a little skeptical one could judge musicality very well on youtube since I assume the sound and the image may not be perfectly coordinated. I guess one might get a hint.

I'm afraid, though, that I don't see much "grey area" (for example) in Lifar's more or less boasting of having been involved in an anti-Semitic organization during the Russian Revolution--even if he was making it up, which he may have been. I can feel human sympathy for the fears and pressures he experienced when called a "Jew" during the occupation and I can wonder how I myself would have behaved under similar pressures, but...

Regarding people who fought to protect a Jewish husband/wife, best friend, lover during WWII--that, in and of itself, does not prove much to me. To put it a bit brutally, antisemitism has never precluded having a 'favorite' Jew. A letter from Himmler recently turned up showing that Hitler [sic] intervened on behalf of his Jewish former commanding officer. And even if the issue is not someone's antisemitism, but public and private collaboration with an antisemitic regime in order to save a Jewish friend or lover, that's hardly unequivocally ethical behavior whether or not one finds it humanly understandable.

For obvious reasons, looking for prominent people with perfectly 'clean' hands in occupied Europe during WWII is not an altogether easy task. I have no particular animus against Lifar; I certainly don't think he is one of WWII's great villains. Not at all. And I myself do not believe one should judge his career as a choreographer or a dancer with an eye to these ethical/political questions. But one can still see the ethics/politics involved as pretty ugly.

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Domininique Delouche produced a film some years ago called "Serge Lifar: Musagete" available on the French Amazon site. It has subtitles in English. It consists of interviews with the likes of Yvette Chauvire, Nina Vyroubova, Jean Babilee and teaching sessions with them using POB etoiles like Legris, Guerin and Loudieres.There are short films of Lifar teaching and films of two dances: 'L'Adage' and 'Le Spectre de la Danse'.I was marginally better disposed towards Lifar after it. I still don't warm to his portentious style.

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Balanchine was a defender of Lifar's dancing -- for example in Apollo --

Balanchine fashioned his own choreography around a dancer's strengths and weakeness and so perhaps in Apollo and Prodigal Son Serge Lifar was at his best - and most beautiful. And maybe the rest of his career was an attempt to recapture that moment of great beauty – as with those moments of our the pasts that many of us try to restore.

So the later ballets are static and make the dancers look "pompous" - as Edwin Denby notes - and are perhaps similar in spirit to fascist productions, such as Albert Speer’s, that want to monumentalize something and freeze it in time. That’s maybe where Lifar’s real collaboratist tendency lies.

In 1950 Denby also says that with exception of Suite en Blanc, Lifar’s ballets have an “antimusical and desperate pound” and none would last. He does say earlier that Lifar in Icare has a a kind naturalness "that goes beyond the gestures required," and that his dancing moves him (this is in 1938).

Denby also tries to get a handle on the Paris Opera style, and maybe this is a key to Suite en Blanc and some of the others. An Open Letter About the Paris Opera Ballet:

Their conception of rhythm and of phrasing inclines away from that of music and toward that of speech. The dancer shapes her phrases by giving them point, as one would in speaking. She selects a step in the sequence and points it up, giving it a slight retard and a slight insistence, and she lets the other steps drop around it, casually and a shade hastily ... [There are] virtuoso subtleties and ingenuities in the phrasing of rhetoric, tiny gusts of inspiration that hurry her forward ...

The Paris style doesn’t mean to transport you so far from the appearances, the awkward graces and characteristic reserves of normal sedentary city life. The point ... is to make the dancer look less like a marvelous vision and more like an opinionated Parisian with all her wits about her whom one might meet in a room full of conversation.

And here is an announcement (I don’t know if it’s been posted here before) of another bit of foolishness:

New York Times Oct 15, 1949 Garbo May Appear in Ballet

Greta Garbo, film star, may appear at the Paris Opera House in the title role of Phedre new ballet by Jean Cocteau, Georges Auric and Serge Lifar. Auric, composer of the music, said today, “Miss Garbo, who is at present in America, has accepted in principle. She is at present in possession of the manuscript. * * * We are awaiting her definite decision. If she accepts she will mime the role. She will not dance.”

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Balanchine was a defender of Lifar's dancing -- for example in Apollo --

Balanchine fashioned his own choreography around a dancer's strengths and weakeness and so perhaps in Apollo and Prodigal Son Serge Lifar was at his best - and most beautiful.

My impression was that Balanchine didn't enjoy composing for Lifar - it was Diaghilev's casting and not his and even though it was very early days Balanchine didn't like that, although obviously it didn't affect his creativity or his ability to make Lifar look good. I think it was William Weslow in "I Remember Balanchine" who recalled the master saying of Lifar (from memory): "He was like woman. And so I liked him because he was like woman. He was very pretty, very girly, beautiful legs and feet and poses. I used to pose him. Like I do with girls. I used to pose him." That's praise after a fashion, I suppose, but if I were Lifar I wouldn't use it as a blurb for my bio.

wow...such hate and animosity toward him.

Nureyev told Gore Vidal there was a Lifar Room at the Paris Opera Ballet that he tried to avoid entering. "Bad ghost."

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Some of Balanchine's praise for Lifar was reported by Lifar himself.

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I have also read that, asked if Lifar "really" performed certain difficult passages in Apollo (with the implicit suggestion that he could not possibly have done them because they were too difficult), Balanchine said yes.

I have always had reservations about Apollo in performance. I have never doubted its historical importance, but I've never seen a performance that seemed 100 percent alive to me. The leads in Apollo and Prodigal Son still remain two of the the most important male roles in the repertory and have been danced by major dancer after major dancer in the generations following their creation. Lifar was their originator. That doesn't mean he gets the credit that rightly goes to Balanchine (and notably Stravinsky in the case of Apollo and Rouault in the case of Prodigal Son), but in my eyes, it counts for quite a bit more than nothing when I assess Lifar's place in ballet history and importance as a dancer.

It's very true as Dirac and several others have noted that Balanchine was a master at working with dancers' strengths and weaknesses and knew how to make Lifar look good, but it's not as if Villella, Baryshnikov, Nureyev, D'Amboise, Martins, Hallberg, Stiefel, Gomez, etc. have not found these roles interesting and challenging to dance and interpret. And not because they were too easy or only required good looks and girly poses. Nor have I ever read that the male roles were massively re-choreographed for these dancers or others.

For the rest, I don't think anyone -- certainly not any American ballet fan I know of -- has ever doubted that Lifar comes through as more than a tad ridiculous in anecdote after anecdote. (Worse in some other respects already discussed above.) As originator of Apollo and Prodigal Son--for me, not so ridiculous.

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Are these particularly technical roles, though? And given the time period -- much lower expectations for turnout and extension, for example -- would his technical flaws have been that apparent? There are no other men to whom to compare him in "Apollo," and only the troglodytes (dancing and characterization) and the Father (characterization) in "Prodigal Son." Apollo as Greek god only represents the second half of the ballet's history, and which shows him as a work-in-progress, not fully formed and sprung from the head of Zeus. To look at "Serenade" we'd never think that the original three movements were made for adult students at SAB "to teach them to dance" based on the performances we've seen for decades. Almost every major ballerina whose company has performed "Serenade" has found the roles interesting and challenging.

There's a lot of characterization in both -- self-absorption being primary -- especially in the full-length "Apollo," and perhaps this, and the contrast to the women, is what Balanchine exploited.

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And here is an announcement (I don’t know if it’s been posted here before) of another bit of foolishness:

New York Times Oct 15, 1949 Garbo May Appear in Ballet

Greta Garbo, film star, may appear at the Paris Opera House in the title role of Phedre new ballet by Jean Cocteau, Georges Auric and Serge Lifar. Auric, composer of the music, said today, “Miss Garbo, who is at present in America, has accepted in principle. She is at present in possession of the manuscript. * * * We are awaiting her definite decision. If she accepts she will mime the role. She will not dance.”

Fascinating story, Quiggin. Dirac has already responded to your post on the newest Hollywood's Golden Age thread.

Alas, Phedre was fated to open in 1950 without Garbo -- but with Tamara Toumanova. .

I was encouraged to do a little Google research, and came across some interesting material on the danzaballet.com site, including a ghastly photo of Toumanova and Lifar emoting -- and a gorgeous head shot of Claude Bessy -- from this production. There's a summary of Cocteau's libretto, as well as a selection in which Lifar discusses his choreographic ideas, such as they were. Google Translate does a respectable job of turning Lifar's pompous French into comprehensible -- if sometimes unintentionally comic -- English. The concept of a "deaf theatre dance" is priceless..

http://www.danzaball...e=News&sid=4820

BALLET BY SERGE LIFAR

We presented Phaedra in 1950. It was not my first encounter with Phaedra. This theme has long attracted me by its plastic values ​​and the contrast made between purity Athletic Hippolyte and tragedy of Phaedra.

Having composed myself a book by Euripides, I settled in 1938, the opera, a ballet choreography called Hippolyte, carrying wreaths, with music specially written by Vittorio Rieti. Various circumstances, then the war, prevented my job to face the public. In 1942 and 1944, during demonstrations devoted to dance and poetry, I remembered my drafts and I returned to the own of Racine, including the story of Theramenes.

These were the preliminary choreography that I composed for a "cutting" by Jean Cocteau, with music by Georges Auric, whose simple power chords and accentuate the dramatic action with happiness. It is a "choreographic tragedy" and a true reflection of Racine's Phaedra. The verb declaimed, almost incantatory poet, replaces the body that speaks, the gesture that says. All this is possible only with a high concentration, tighter, very thorough recount regarding dances soloists highlighted - effect of contrast - the dynamic sets.

The faces of the dancers is a screen, a series of tragic masks: it not only mimics, but he dances. Most of the time, part expressive "narrative" in a way, is confirmed in the facial features, which, in a sense separates from the body, plastic and dynamic element. The choreography of Phaedra, I tried to make a fusion of the two separate plans of these two people who come together here more closely than usual, so much so that the face and body dance speaks!

The plastic lines are deliberately very simple, with a geometric simplicity, sometimes hieratic, as befits the grandeur tragic characters, however, they remain fundamentally musical (because it is a real musical gesture, because the dancer's body must "know how to sing ! '). The elevation of Hippolytus opposed to "down to earth" Phaedrus, a "down to earth" tragic and full of dynamic pressure and plastic cruel to Oenone: only pure Aricie can follow in his flown by!

The action unfolds in waves, through a series of crescendo that abruptly diminish, stop, better bounce, like the breath tragic as the frequency and intensity of breathing drama. This is not a linear, horizontal, but a series of ups and downs, which causes anxiety and gives deaf theater dance its true aspect of tragedy.

-- The Book of dance, musical French Journal Publishing, Paris 1954.

That last sentence -- with its bizarre "deaf theater dance" is a botched translation on multiple levels. The actual sentence in French is: Ce n’est pas un développement linéaire, horizontal, mais un enchaînement de hauts et de bas, qui provoque une angoisse sourde et confère au théâtre chorégraphique son véritable aspect de tragédie.

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When I was in Paris in the early 80's Michel Denard collaborated with a French stage actress on a Phedre piece (I can't get the accent over the 'e' to appear). She read a major speech or speeches from the play and he danced the role of Hyppolite around her. I have forgotten who the choreographer was. It was an interesting event to me, but not a great ballet event (though Denard was beautiful to watch), and I don't remember much else about it. The idea of an actress collaborating with a male star on some sort of Phedre 'ballet' must have stuck in someone's mind.

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2011-08-30_155022.jpg

The image from Bart's link to the Danza Ballet's Phèdre / Psyché entry: Tamara Toumanova et Serge Lifar à la création / photo Lipnitzki

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2011-08-30_155022.jpg

The image from Bart's link to the Danza Ballet's Phèdre / Psyché entry: Tamara Toumanova et Serge Lifar à la création / photo Lipnitzki

What does the grafitti say?

What does Esmerelda write on the wall with chalk in the Bolshoi version?

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It seems to say 'Faedra'.

In Esmeralda, the writing on the wall is transcribed "Feb", or "Phoebus", the name of the captain she's in love with.

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