He managed to be "at home" both in the world of European ballet and in the emigre environment. At the same time, he never lost a spiritual connection with his Motherland and introduced himself as "Lifar from Kiev".
A path to ballet: teachers and mentors
Sergei Lifar was born not far from Kiev in 1905. His family was far from ballet art: his father worked as an assistant forester, his mother was taking care of four children - three boys and a girl. Sergei was the third child.
At the age of 17, the young man had a watershed meeting. He met Bronislava Nijinska, a ballet dancer then. So, Lifar entered the Kiev Dance School of Movement that was headed by the sister of the famous Vaslav Nijinsky. During this period, she was actively working with Diaghilev's Russian Ballet company. However, their cooperation in Kiev didn’t last long: in 1922, Nijinska left for Paris, and a year later Lifar moved there along with her other students.
In France, Serge continued his ballet studies. His mentors at that time were such choreographers as Nikolai Legat and Enrico Cecchetti. It is known that Bronislava Nijinska, who opened the world of big ballet to the young man, didn’t really believe in Lifar's success and called him “unpromising”. Nevertheless, he became a principal dancer in Diaghilev’s company.
Thanks to the great impresario, Serge Lifar's ballet career went uphill: he debuted on stage in Les Noces, a production by Stravinsky, then skyrocketed from a corps de ballet dancer to a soloist. He performed the title role in Leonid Massine's ballet The Steel Step (1927), as well as the leading parts in George Balanchine's productions of The Cat (1927), Apollo (1928) and The Prodigal Son (1929). Diaghilev once said about the dancer:
A choreographer and director of European ballet companies
After the death of Diaghilev, Serge Lifar joined the Grand Opera Ballet company in Paris. This stage became his home for many decades: from 1930 to 1945 and from 1947 to 1958, he held the position of ballet master and headed the ballet company.
One of the examples of Lifar's work as a choreographer was the production of Icare (1935) to the music by Arthur Honegger. Serge danced the title role himself, and this mythological image of the winged dreamer turned out to be so close to him that it was noticed by both critics and spectators. The journalist and ballet historian Alexander Pleshcheev wrote about this role as follows:
In 1939, Serge Lifar was invited by the Original Russian Ballet to go on a tour with them. Their destination was Australia, where the choreographer staged Icare once again and prepared his own interpretation of Leonid Massine's The Beautiful Danube. Serge was actually not in demand as a dancer at that time: he got out of shape. However, he never stopped practicing and after a while began to enjoy greater success with the audience. Despite this, Lifar didn’t stay with the touring company for a long time and decided to return to France.
During the war years, he didn’t give up ballet and stayed with his troupe: in 1942, the production of Romeo and Juliet was released; in 1943, it was followed by Black and White that received many positive reviews from the audience. Serge Lifar combined his work as a choreographer with journalism: he regularly wrote articles for the Parisian Vestnik newspaper.
His relationships with contemporaries during the war were difficult. We know that Lifar organized a tour of the Grand Opera for Hitler and communicated with Goebbels. Representatives of the Parisian Resistance accused the choreographer of collaboration with the Nazis and even wanted to shoot him.
After the war, he became the head of the New Ballet of Monte Carlo and in 1947 managed to return to Paris, which had long become his home. The charges against him were dropped, and Lifar worked at the Grand Opera for another 11 years.
In the last years of his life, he was suffering a serious illness and died in 1986 in Lausanne.
Recognition of the controversial artist
The path of Serge Lifar as a dancer wasn’t easy but his name as a choreographer was widely known worldwide during his lifetime. The choreographer created more than 200 productions, and left a significant mark on the ballet theory, writing 25 books. Lifar's teaching activity deserves a special mention: in 1947, he opened the Institute of Choreography at the Paris Opera; from 1955, he was a lecturer at the Sorbonne. He also had an impressive collection of awards, among which were, for example, the French Order of the Legion of Honour, the Golden Shoe ballet award and even the Oscar. The famous dancer and choreographer was also singled out in his homeland. The Kyiv Municipal Academy of Dance is named after Serge Lifar.
Alexander Balabko, a publicist and author of a documentary story about the choreographer, once said that Lifar had a dream that never came true:
The things Serge Lifar was doing received contradictory assessments of his contemporaries: while in Paris he was believed to be a genius of ballet, at home, they called a traitor. Nevertheless, contemporaries applauded the choreographer's work, later generations admired his performances too - in this sense, the Parisian with Ukrainian roots became a world-class choreography star.