Serge Lifar on working with Yves Brayer

I first met Yves Brayer when working on Joan von Zarissa. Jacques Rouché had just picked him to design the production at the Opéra. I still remember going to his exhibition to meet him. I saw right away that he had a keen eye for theatre and the ballet.

Brayer instinctively understood the particular blend of colours required for the ballet and what the choreographer and dancers needed. He considered angles and observed not just movement but also the moments of stillness, which are every bit as important. Joan von Zarissa was a huge success. I posed for a portrait in my dressing room, wearing Joan’s black doublet, and Brayer and I have been friends ever since.

The next time we worked together was on El Amor Brujo, in which I danced with Teresina. Yves Brayer’s set – an immense, mysterious cavern – gave a hint of his future depictions of the Val d’Enfer, on display at Les Baux-de-Provence.

Some time later, I was invited to listen to Lucifer (or Le Mystère de Caïn), an oratorio composed jointly by Claude Delvincourt – then director of the Conservatoire National de Musique – and the music critic René Dumesnil.

When the music came to an end, I jumped at the chance to turn it into a ballet. The score was fiendishly challenging, however, and I was well aware of the difficulty of the task I had taken on.

I had full confidence in my corps de ballet and got straight down to work on some initial ideas. But the scale of the production meant it was dogged by hold-ups and doubt. Meanwhile, Yves Brayer had been tasked with designing the perfect backdrop and costumes. As his work began to take form and colour, I found that the movement naturally followed, filling the space he had begun to create. Disconnected groups came together; souls prayed and suffered as one.

I’m sure he still remembers our collaboration as I do: our shared passion, our arguments and reconciliations at the Opéra Garnier, the Opéra de Monte Carlo, where we put on Richard Strauss’s Salomé, and then back at the Opéra de Paris for the premiere of Nautéos with the sublime Yvette Chauviré.

For both of us, space represents the counterpoint of movement. That led to endless debates: ‘Too near... too far... The staircase must be here and nowhere else... Argh! These masks... Mine’s too small... Maître, please let me stick to simpler make-up: this is just impossible...’

Between us, we created the perfect blend: a bit of Lifar here, a bit there... a little Brayer here, a little there...

Yves Brayer was frequently to be found sat on the floor in the rehearsal room, sketchpad in hand, between costume fittings or appointments with the wigmaker and the prop master, or while the carpenters worked on the sets he had designed. He was especially taken with the particular quality of the light in the Rotunda, with its round bullseye windows high up in the opera house. He would watch as I put a group of dancers through their paces, while others warmed up at the barre, waiting their turn, or rested nearby.

He would always be there when a new problem arose. And we certainly had our fair share of those… As stage director, I was responsible for deciding where to place the choirs. I caused quite an uproar by announcing that I wanted to put them in the first four boxes, including the presidential box. But Georges Hirsch (director at that time) was a theatre man who understood the needs of the stage. He backed me up unhesitatingly, and so it was that the French President watched the ballet from the back of the auditorium!

The night of Lucifer’s premiere finally arrived. The ballet took on a life of its own: one moment it was a stained-glass cathedral window, the next a monster-filled hell, before metamorphosing once again to evoke the vast expanse of nature. The work emerged from Brayer’s designs, which, like the choreography and the music, managed to distil order from chaos and find stillness in movement.

And when the applause finally died down, when the curtain had been lowered for the last time and the stagehands had taken down the lighting rigs, leaving nothing but the STAGE, laid bare in all its cruel starkness, we understood as never before that that particular stage was a world unto itself: it was our world. It had, after all, been created solely for us, and it raised us to heights far above the Himalayan summits.