Serge Lifar by Attilio Labis (November 2001).

A great name in the dance world and a great master for those who had the privilege of navigating through their art under his benevolent guidance…
An inspired choreographer and a consummate artist.
A performer who was transfigured by the figures that he personified.

When he played Napoleon, he was Napoleon. When he played a pharaoh, he was a pharaoh, and in Icarus he burned his wings in the sun and symbolically died on the earth, consumed by the ambition to exceed human potential… In this connection, we could speak of his mystical side, which might go unnoticed by those who knew him only superficially, for in these moments of transfiguration, he was overwhelmed by the fact of having another, impalpable inner life. At such times he lived inwardly, detached from the world. During a tour in Egypt, we were both inside a pyramid and contemplating the room that had contained the sarcophagus of a pharaoh. Since Lifar was not saying anything, apparently lost in the mystery of the place, I broke the silence and said: “Your place is here, master”. He looked at me and replied: “”Do you think so, Labis, do you think so?” At that moment, he was the pharaoh. We see a person according to our own criteria and memories.

Personally, I have the memory of a charming, kind and good-natured person, sometimes touchingly so. He had a poetic way of talking about the dance, like the feel of the tip of a dancer’s toe on the ground. We talk of classical ballet, a universal art… he attached a great deal of importance to the rise of this French invention called classical ballet, which he emphatically sublimated.

One day, he told me that the “Italians and Russians have interesting temperaments for the dance [he meant the extremes that characterise great sensitivity and a passionate, at times, uncontrollable expression], but you, the French, you have something that is rare and that no one else has: that is, a sense of measure”. He was obviously not talking about music, but of the precise gesture, where it has to be in order to maintain balance and the sense of movement. He had a genius for never forgetting himself when he wrote a dedication. He once dedicated a superb photograph from his Gisèle of the 1930s “To Attilo Labis, a magnificent Albert Loïs in the Lifarian tradition”. It was a generous compliment for me, but also for himself…

Lifar was scientist of the stage, with a perfect knowledge of the artists who had to be in such or such a role. And if he was upset when the dancers had botched their entrance or lacked musical feeling, he would say—and this was the supreme insult—”Go dance in Angoulême!” In his eyes, Angoulême was the worst of all provinces, yet, one day several years later, during a trip of the Paris Opera, he performed in Angoulême. Lifar stands for developing instinct before thought, aesthetics before placement, combined with knowledge and the mastery of his art.

The great encounters

In Lifar’s own words

“In his choreography, George Balanchine avoided academic positions, which was a departure from the classical canon, probably because of the acrobatic tendencies of his teacher Goleizowsky that had influenced him in his youth in Leningrad. Balanchine’s contribution to contemporary American ballet is unquestionable. His fertile creative imagination was inexhaustible and precious, but only for woman dancers…”
Les Mémoires d’Icare

Serge Diaghilev was art itself, he had the ability to change life, transmute reality. He was an inventor and the one we dreamed of having as a teacher. We did not know him, we lived from his legend which had spread throughout the world. And now he was there, near us. Diaghilev sat, and when he had spoken for a few seconds, the emotion that I felt and that kept me from understanding anything that he had said dissipated in the light of his strangely clear and youthful eyes. Now he made us talk. He asked for our impressions of a land that we had just left and already seemed for us to be on the other side of the world. While we talked to him of a Motherland that had become inaccessible to him, he remained motionless, his face dark, his gaze lost in the distance, beyond the barbed wire of the Soviet border…”
Ma vie

“I often met Cocteau at the Ritz, where, before the war, he spent months as Coco Chanel’s guest, and also at La Pausa, at Chanel’s estate near Menton, on the Mediterranean coast, where he lived in the fog of opium…”
Les Mémoires d’Icare

“I had nothing to fear at Coco Chanel’s, where I was fed and lodged, in the only house in Paris that greeted me and perhaps saved me, because I was undesirable everywhere else, a sort of living dead.”
Ma vie

“I knew Greta Garbo well and admired her like mad… Fate had me meet her again in 1949, while she was passing through Paris. She was invited to my loge at the Opera and her enthusiasm for dance warmed my heart…”
Les Mémoires d’Icare

“It was in Paris, in 1923, that I saw Picasso for the first time. There were many people around Diaghilev on the stage of the Théâtre de la Gaieté Lyrique. The following year, Picasso was again amid the Olympian coterie of the Ballets Russes. Diaghilev, Picasso, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Juan Gris, Poulenc, Cocteau, Marie Laurencin were all together on the stage of the Mogador theatre… By showing his sketch for the curtains of Darius Milhaud’s Train Bleu, Picasso dazzled the audience, then, staring at me with plum-coloured eyes, like burning coals, Picasso ‘the Sorcerer’ whispered to Diaghilev: “Look at that dancer, he has classic forms… he will be your dancer”. My heart was pounding, I blushed for my timidity, and so Picasso became my “godfather”. I stepped into the arena of life and, from that moment on, all along my whole life, I had the privilege of being accepted by the artist and being his friend.”
Mon hommage à Pablo Picasso, ce sorcier divin

“From then on, I was accepted into Picasso‘s family and I often went with Diaghilev to his apartment-studio in the Rue de la Boétie, where Picasso liked to show us his unfinished compositions, with the paint still fresh. He had an insatiable curiosity and always wanted to be informed about everything that was happening in the company. Olga, the painter’s wife, had practiced dancing and been part of Diaghilev’s troupe, which is where she met Picasso. He had gone to Rome at Diaghilev’s invitation to make the sets for Cocteau and Satie’s ballet Parade…»
Les Mémoires d’Icare

“As for Picassos creative genius, it was the very essence of life. He had this instinctive power of perpetual movement that sprang from his heart of hearts and that manifested itself in forms and colours, in which all logic is overturned by the negation of the laws of normality and in which a new world takes shape and is born in its artistic truth. Picasso transforms and transfigures the present and reality… Whenever I visited his studios, in the Rue de La Boétie or the Quai des Grands-Augustins, La Californie, or Notre-Dame-de-la Vie, I always found the atmosphere of a monastery or cathedral, in which the magic of this new Faust dazzled me constantly… Always slender, athletic, merry, mocking and timid, extraordinarily young, Picasso was a genial peasant who lived very naturally in folklore, without any scientific or theoretical ambitions…”
Ma vie

“The first time that I met Igor Stravinsky in the low, dark and humid rehearsal room of the Ballets Russes, I was surprised by his thin and hunched appearance, his balding head, his wide intelligent forehead, his heavy horn glasses, and especially his large ‘musician’s paws’. Who was this monkey? I thought. For he moved with great agitation, hammered on the piano, huffed, replaced the missing chords by kicking the pedal, or hitting the keyboard with his elbow to keep the tempo. It was fascinating. At times, he would suddenly stop, and then would take up the storm of sounds even more loudly. It was miraculous, diabolical, and also very Russian… Subsequently I often visited Stravinsky, either in Nice, or in Paris, Rue Saint-Honoré, or in London, Albemarle Street. The most striking thing about him was his bourgeois, mystical, almost monarchic side—and hanging on the walls, icons and the portraits of Czar Nicholas II and his august offspring…”
Ma vie

“The rehearsals for Les Noces were conducted under the control and even direction of the composer, Igor Stravinsky. At the beginning, he would merely give a few general indications, and then, gradually, he would get into the swing of things, take off his jacket, sit at the piano and play at breakneck speed. All the while he played, he would sing in a cracked voice, as unpleasant as they get. But there was nothing comical about this—his passion sprang over to us and so we began to really dance instead of going through the motions of a rehearsal”.
A l’aube de mon destin

“[In Giselle] Arthur Honegger proved to be not only the most diligent of friends but also the most understanding, the most enlightened, the most disinterested artist, the one most determined to push on for the sake of art. On this occasion, concrete music was born. We worked in very close communion then, like merry accomplices…”
Ma vie

Lillan Ahlefeld-Laurvig, the countess with a heart of gold and pure soul, my spiritual muse and faithful friend under all circumstances…”
Les Mémoires d’Icare

What they say about Lifar:

“Whenever Lifar dances, I see blood: his knees are wounded, his mouth is a wound, his veins open. It literally flows, not the red blood that the crowd and families quickly hide in sheets, but the soul’s blood, the loss of which exhausts us and which is the perspiration of love… When this supernatural, stigmata-like privilege is compounded with the grace of youth, then dance, instead of being a somewhat ridiculous art, finds its sublime and religious character again…”
Jean Cocteau

“Bravo, I applaud you with all my heart, so happy for your success. Everything that you have done is so sincere, so real, so moving, and so new! I wait very impatiently to see your naked King.”
Louis Jouvet

“Can the ballet exist without music? Lifar’s idea is a powerful one because it meets with truth. And what’s more astonishing for me is that I have begun to write poetry that is born only of rhythm… the dancer’s feet can not only speak and write but also think…”
Paul Valéry

“It is probably you, Lifar, who is the closest to what the original dance of the Greeks may have been…”
Jean Giraudoux

“Imagine a young boy who pretends to be eighteen, but looks fifteen, a slender and hard body with the shoulders of a child, the darkish and slant-eyed face of a Tartar, burned by quick, tender and merry green eyes, the eyes of a puppy amused by everything… His gestures have this abruptness that time has not yet eliminated. The smile is charmingly trusting… On top of all this, naiveté, joy, triumph”.
Joseph Kessel

“At the moment when you are leaving the Paris Opera, to which you have devoted all your artistic activity for so many years for the greater fame of our National Ballet, I want to repeat my admiration for your great talent and express my thanks for the personal part that you have played in spreading French culture abroad”.
Charles de Gaulle

“Serge Lifar was an idol and a genius for me. I became his pupil when I was very young and later was his partner for many years. I have admired all of his creations. He had the gift of being able to bring out the personality of his partners. His neoclassical language has borne fruit and among his disciples are such stars as Roland Petit, Maurice Béjart, Françoise Adret, Claude Bessy… and many others”.
Lycette Darsonval, Star Ballerina of the Paris Opera

“His good humour, his enthusiasm, his patience, his amazing presence and his magnetism caused us to give him our best, the clock no longer mattered. We breathed an atmosphere of constant creativity. All this contributed greatly to my preserving an engaging and highly respectful memory of him. The Master remains the great choreographer, the author of a glorious period for the French dance”.
Yvette Chauviré, Star Ballerina of the Paris Opera

“Serge Lifar, at first ‘crown prince’, then ‘ruler’ over Paris, undergoing grandeur and servitudes, love and hate, humility and ‘glamour’, now has a worldwide influence. He is eternal”.
Alexandre Sombart, Star of the London Festival Ballet

“Since you left the terrestrial stage for a world that I know nothing about, but in which you have surely found a place in keeping with your aura, every day I have felt the need to express my gratitude for the privilege that you gave me of sharing thirty years of your life, which flew by like an unreal and fleeting moment. Beyond the intense emotions occasioned by your art and its influence in the world, I appreciated above all the diversity of your personality: your sensitive and generous soul in both private and public life, and the nobility of your heart that stood above human pettiness. Not long before your last departure, I will never forget the words you uttered with such gentleness and courage:
‘I am not afraid of dying
I have never speculated
I have only loved’.
Very dear Serge, whether in light or in shadow, you were always a great master”.
Lillan Ahlefeldt-Laurvig, his companion