Serge Lifar

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Serge Lifar in 1961
2004 Ukrainian Stamp
Lifar with Tamara Toumanova
Grave of Serge Lifar in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois

Serge Lifar (Ukrainian: Сергій Михайлович Лифар, Serhіy Mуkhailovуch Lуfar; Russian: Серге́й Миха́йлович Лифа́рь, Sergey Mikhaylovich Lifar) (15 April [O.S. 2 April] 1905, Kyiv, Ukraine) – 15 December 1986, Lausanne, Switzerland) was a French ballet dancer and choreographer of Ukrainian origin, famous as one of the greatest male ballet dancers of the 20th century.


Lifar was born in Kiev, Ukraine. His year of birth is officially shown as 1904 (as on a 2004 Ukrainian stamp commemorating his centenary). Serge Lifar was not only a dancer but was also a choreographer, director, writer, theoretician about dancing, and collector. [1] He was the pupil of Bronislava Nijinska in Kyiv. In 1921 he left Soviet Union and was noticed by Serge Diaghilev, who sent him to Turin in order to improve his technique with Enrico Cecchetti. He made his debut at the Ballets Russes in 1923, where he became the principal dancer in 1925.[2]

Lifar was considered the successor to Nijinsky in the Ballet Russes.[1] He was cast opposite Tamara Karsavina in Nijinska's Roméo et Juliette (1926) at the age of 21, Karsavina was twice his age.[1] He originated leading roles in three Balanchine ballets for the Ballet Russes, including 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, Calliope, Polyhymnia, and Terpsichore, and Le Fils prodigue (The Prodigal Son) (1929) with a score by Prokofiev, the last great ballet of the Diaghilev era.[3]

At the death of Diaghilev in 1929 he was invited by Jacques Rouché at the age of 24 to take over the directorship of the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1929 as it had fallen into decline in the late 19th century. He gave the company a new strength and purpose initiating the rebirth of ballet in France and began to create the first of many ballets for that company.[1]

From 1930 on, Serge Lifar was immensely successful, essentially in his own ballet creations, notably with Les Créatures de Prométhée (1929), a personal version of Le Spectre de la rose (1931) and L'Après-midi d'un faune (1935), Icare (1935) with costumes and decor by Picasso, Istar (1941) or Suite en Blanc (1943), which he qualified as neoclassical, all created for the Paris Opera.

As ballet master of the Paris Opera from 1930 to 1944 and from 1947 to 1958, he 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 led the company through the turbulent times of World War II and the German occupation of France. After being forced to resign from the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1958, a famous photograph was taken of him leaving the Palais Garnier, looking somber and clasping the wings from the costume of Icarus that the character puts on in order to fly.[1]

Serge Lifar, due to his cooperation with the Nazis, was rejected by the Paris Ballet theater workers. Balanchine was hired to replace him.[4]

He 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. 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.[1] He undoubtedly influenced Yvette Chauviré, Janine Charrat and Roland Petit.

In 1935 he published his confessio fidei titled Le manifesto du chorégraphe, proposing laws about the independence of choreography. Some of views include: “we cannot, should not, dance everything. Ballet must remain closely linked to dance itself: ballet cannot be the illustration of any other art. Ballet should not borrow its rhythmic shape from music. Ballet can freely exist without musical accompaniment. When a ballet is closely linked to its score, the rhythmic base must be dictated by the choreographer and not the composer. The choreographer must not be the slave of the painter/designer. A free and independent choreographic theatre must be created." [1] He also wrote a biography of Diaghilev titled Serge Diaghilev, His Life, His Work, His Legend: An Intimate Biography published by Putnam, London, 1940.[5]

In 1977 the Paris Opéra Ballet devoted a full evening to his choreography.

He 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."[3]

The Serge Lifar Foundation was set up on 23 August 1989 by Lifar's companion, Countess Lillian Ahlefeldt-Laurvig.[6] In 2012, jewels from the Countess' estate were auctioned at Sotheby's, with the proceeds going to the Foundation.[7]

Awards and honours[edit]

International Ballet Contest[edit]

In the summer of 1994 on the stage of the National Ukraine Opera the First International Ballet Contest was held named after Serge Lifar. The Sixth Lifar International Ballet Competition was held in April 2006 and the seventh in Donetsk in March–April 2011.


  • Jean LAURENT & Julie SAZANOVA, Serge Lifar, rénovateur du ballet français, Paris, Buchet-Chastel, 1960.
  • The Diaghilev-Lifar Library, catalogue, Sotheby's, Monte-Carlo, 1975.
  • Ballet material and manuscripts from the Serge Lifar Collection, catalogue, Sotheby's, London, 1984
  • Alexander SCHOUVALOFF, The Art of Ballets Russes: The Serge Lifar Collection of Theater Designs, Costumes, and Paintings at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Yale University, 1998.
  • Roger LEONG (ed.), From Russia With Love: Costumes for the Ballets Russes 1909–1933, Australian Publishers, 2000, ISBN 0-642-54116-7, ISBN 978-0-642-54116-1.
  • Laurence BENAÏM, Marie Laure de Noailles, la vicomtesse du bizarre, Paris, Grasset, 2001, ISBN 2-253-15430-X.
  • Robert ALDRICH & Garry WOTHERSPOON, Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History from Antiquity to World War II, Routledge, London, 2002, ISBN 0-415-15983-0.
  • Stéphanie CORCY, La vie culturelle sous l'Occupation, Paris, Perrin, 2005.
  • Lynn GARAFOLA, Legacies of Twentieth-century Dance, Weslyan University Press, Middletown, 2005
  • Cyril EDER, Les comtesse de la Gestapo, Paris, Grasset, 2006
  • Florence POUDRU, Serge Lifar : La danse pour patrie, Hermann, 2007, ISBN 978-2-7056-6637-8.
  • Serge Lifar, musagète, DVD, 2008.
  • Frederic SPOTTS, The Shameful Peace: How French Artists and Intellectuals Survived the Nazi Occupation, Yale University Press, New York, 2008.
  • Jean-Pierre PASTORI, Serge Lifar, la beauté du diable, ed. Fame Sa, 2009, ISBN 2-8289-1127-6. .
  • Sjeng SCHEIJEN Sergej Diaghilev, een leven voor de kunst. Amsterdam, Bert Bakker, 2009, ISBN 90-351-3624-1.
  • Alan RIDING, And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-occupied Paris, 2010.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Crisp, Clement (Winter 2002). "ICARE: Remembering Serge Lifar". Dance Research: The Journal of the Society for Dance Research. 2 20: 3–15. doi:10.3366/1290812. 
  2. ^ A Dictionary of Twentieth Century World Biography. United Kingdom: Book Club Associates, 1992, p. 343.
  3. ^ a b Au, Susan (2002). Ballet and Modern Dance. Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0-500-20352-0. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ E.B.; Cyril W. Beaumont (April 1941). "Serge Diaghilev, His Life, His Work, His Legend: An Intimate Biography". Music and Letters 22 (2): 189. 
  6. ^ "About the Foundation". Fondation Serge Lifar. 
  7. ^ "Magnificent Jewels and Noble Jewels". Sothebys. 

External links[edit]