It’s possible that Serge Lifar, born right here in Kyiv in 1905, is the most important performing arts celebrity born in the Ukrainian capital in the 20th century. Try to name another one, and perhaps only the great Kyiv-born pianist Vladimir Horowitz comes to mind. Yet ask Kyiv natives who Lifar is and they often won’t know – which is not the case with, say, Mikhail Bulgakov, with whom everyone’s familiar, and who remains a cultural icon in the city in which he was born. Why is this? Probably because Lifar fled the Soviet UNI0N when he was a teenager in 1921, and so never got his due in his home country – he was a traitor to his ‘socialist motherland.’ (Bulgakov, on the other hand, stayed in the USSR even though he hated it and his ‘Days of the Turbins’ was Stalin’s favourite play.) Also, it certainly couldn’t have helped Lifar’s popularity in his home country that he seemed to subscribe to the same right-wing politics that many ‘White Russian’ émigrés after the Russian Revolution did. In France after the war Lifar was denounced for having collaborated with the Nazis. He even once had a pleasant meeting with Hitler. But that was later. As a child, Lifar, who lived then on Tarasivska (his father was a civil servant), grew up among the violence and chaos of the Civil War, when Kyiv changed hands between warring factions more than a dozen times. Stumbling one day when he was 15 onto the dance studio run by the legendary Bronislava Nijinsky (Vaslav Nijinsky’s sister), he found his calling. He was far too old to start learning ballet, but he pushed through anyway, driven by the energy, brazen courage, and talent for self-promotion that would serve him throughout his career. In 1921, jumping at the chance to escape Bolshevik Kyiv, he contrived to get himself recruited to join the legendary Ballets Russes in Paris, run by the émigré Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev. Always one to push himself into the spotlight, the handsome Lifar made sure to make himself the gay Diaghilev’s boyfriend (Nijinsky had previously played that role), and the rest, as they say, is history. Lifar ascended to prominence as a dancer in the Ballet Russes in the 1920s, dancing all the big male roles for the company that had made so many breakthroughs in modern dance. By his dancing peak, the 1930s, when he was leading the Paris Opera Ballet, he was a huge French celebrity, mingling with the likes of Coco Chanel and other fashionable types. He was also acquiring a reputation as an egomaniac who would upstage the female dancers he partnered. Aficionados joked after seeing him dance in ‘Giselle’ that the ballet should be renamed ‘Albrecht.’ No matter – his revivals, such as his version of ‘Giselle’, and some of his own choreography at the Opera, like his ‘Icare’, were making him a cultural force. He became associated with modernist neo-Classicism, and was pioneering in his insistence that dance (and not music or stage decoration) were primary to ballet.
He didn’t do so well during World War II, when the Nazis occupied Paris. Lynn Garafola writes in Dance Magazine that he “openly fraternized with high German officials; attended parties with Wehrmacht officers; choreographed the ballet ‘Joan de Zarissa’ to a score by Werner Egk, who stood high in the Nazi musical establishment; had his bust done by another favoured Nazi artist…; [and] wired his congratulations to the Reich ambassador in Paris on the Nazi ‘liberation’ of his birthplace, Kyiv. He also made two trips to Germany, and on the second met with Hitler. Long after the war ended, Lifar spoke of the golden hours he had spent along with der Fuhrer.” The result was to get him thrown out of the Paris Opera after the Liberation. Lifar then moved south to head the Nouveau Ballet de Monte Carlo, but returned to the Opera in 1949. It’s an interesting tangential fact that throughout his life Lifar was acquiring a serious collection of modern art produced by the giants whom he socialised and worked with in Paris. He owned work by Picasso, Giorgio de Chirico, Andre Derain, Max Ernst, Joan Miro, Juan Gris, and other first-rankers. In his later years and around his death in 1986 critics argued over just how significant a figure Lifar really was. Most agreed that he was a great if unorthrodox dancer, even if he’d marred his art with his egomania. As a choreographer, however, the consensus seemed to be that he wasn’t in the same league as Diaghilev or his acquaintance George Balanchine, even if he’d done some good things. These good things involved adding at least one first-rank work, ‘Icare’, to the repertoire. Which, of course, is nothing to sneeze at. Just after his death, New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff wrote that history “will have to make a place for Lifar as a serious contributor to 20th-century ballet – one who did things his way.” He’s one of Kyiv’s most interesting prodigal sons, and one who’s worthy of his native city’s respect.
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