“C’est ma vie”: Scenes from the life of Serge Lifar, creator of Suite en Blanc

Serge Lifar called his Suite en Blanc “a true parade of étoiles” and stars the dancers must be to navigate the virtuosic variations in this work created in wartime by the man who directed the Paris Opera Ballet for almost 30 years.

Lifar choreographed many ballets, at least 50 for the Paris Opera Ballet, but most are never performed. Suite en Blanc however is an audience favourite and is in the repertoire of not only the Paris Opera Ballet, but also the Houston Ballet, Hong Kong Ballet, English National Ballet and the Australian Ballet. Next month, the Australian Ballet will dance it once more.

Australia has a special relationship with Suite en Blanc as, in 1981, the Australian Ballet’s then artistic director, Marilyn Jones, invited Lifar to Australia to stage the ballet and it was subsequently performed by the company in 1984, 1988, 1994, 2002 and 2009.

For the world premiere, performed by the Paris Opera Ballet in Zurich in 1943, the dancers all wore white costumes that contrasted dramatically with the black background of the set. Three years later, for the Nouveau Ballet de Monte Carlo, Lifar changed the title to Noir et Blanc to acknowledge that the men then wore black tights.

Lifar kept tinkering with the ballet producing a second Noir et Blanc in 1963. That production was performed two years later in Australia when the Grand Ballet Classique de France toured the country with Maina Gielgud dancing the Cigarette solo.

Gielgud, who first danced in Suite en Blanc as a 15 year old, is the keeper of the flame of the ballet, staging it around the world. She says dancers “need to have arrogant chic” to dance in this ballet and she should know, having performed it many times and coached the work for various companies including the San Francisco Ballet.

Gielgud told Cheryl A. Ossola, who wrote the San Francisco Ballet’s program notes last year: “Wherever I stage it everyone seems to love it. The dancers gulp it up, the audiences, the critics. It’s like, ‘This is what we’ve been waiting for!’”

“She attributes that interest at least partially to the Lifar style, ‘which is very special to him, and nowadays pretty unique, coming through that whole stable that started with the Ballets Russes and [Leonide] Massine and Bronislava Nijinska. And at the beginning you can almost see some bits of Balanchine in there”. *

Lifar, born in Kiev, was 75 when he came to Australia in 1981, more than 40 years since his previous visit. In late 1939 and early 1940 he danced in Sydney with the Original Ballet Russe, the third Ballets Russes’ troupe to tour Australia.

His Ballets Russes’ association had begun when he created roles for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, among them Balanchine’s Apollo. He was Diaghilev’s lover and at his side when he died in 1929.

After Diaghilev’s death Lifar became ballet master at the Paris Opera.

During the 1930s, he also danced with the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo in the United States in 1938. As Jennifer Dunning recalled in her obituary of Lifar in The New York Times, in 1938 he complained of “unfair treatment and challenged the director Mr Massine, to a duel in Central Park at dawn. Mr Massine refused, and the stage manager told Mr Lifar to take an aspirin”.

The following year he flew to Australia to join the Original Ballet Russe.

This is where Lifar’s story grows murky and although he briefly writes about the tour in his autobiography, Ma Vie, it’s an unreliable memoir (to quote Clive James).

In his version of events he puts himself front of stage when it comes to initiating the tour.

Lifar wrote that with Jean Giraudoux, “a friend of long standing” he drew up a plan for a tour of Australia. (Giraudoux was a French novelist, essayist, diplomat and playwright who became the Minister of Information under Premier Edouard Daladier at the start of World War II.)

“I had not thought particularly about Australia”, Lifar wrote. “I just wanted to undertake a propaganda tour abroad. If I did decide on Australia it was because I met [Colonel de] Basil who had a contract with the Australians [J C Williamson Theatres].

“So we made up our minds to work together and form a Franco-British troupe. …I can also say I had the greatest difficulty in organising this tour and right up to the day we left I had to face all sorts of troubles…Basil engaged danseuses and dancers in England and I in France…

“I had great difficulty obtaining permission for the men…However [Juliusz] Lukasiewicz, the Polish ambassador, was most helpful”. (Lukasiewicz ended his term as the Polish ambassador in Paris on 7 November 1939 more than two months after Hitler invaded Poland.)

Apart from a re-telling of Lifar’s story in Kathrine Sorley Walker’s book, De Basil’s Ballets Russes, the only reference I can find to substantiate Lifar’s story is a short article, that seems to be based on an interview with Lifar himself, in Wireless Weekly, an Australian magazine.

In its April 1940 edition, Wireless Weekly reported that “his influence with the French government is said to have been an important factor in enabling Colonel de Basil to organise the company for an Australian tour, gaining exemption for several men from military service and passports for others”.

It’s clear from cables between the Tait brothers who ran J C Williamson that in late 1939 the firm didn’t know of the Lifar-de Basil joint effort.

On 19 November 1939, Nevin Tait in London cabled his brothers in Australia: “Practically certain that Serge Lifar will be in company as de Basil has contracted him”.

“Contracted” doesn’t sound as though they were in a partnership, however de Basil was not known to tell the whole truth to the Tait family.

Lifar’s recollections are also unreliable in that he said he had much help from the Polish ambassador, yet the company engaged few dancers from Poland, perhaps five in total.

Furthermore, the company was hardly a “Franco-British” troupe as it included 25 Russians, 7 North Americans and just three British dancers.

More than 20 of the dancers on the 1939/40 tour were in the United States at the time the tour was arranged and they travelled to Australia from Los Angeles on the SS Mariposa. Close to 40 dancers sailed from Southampton on the SS Orcades on 18 November 1939.

Lifar was the last dancer to join the Original Ballet Russe in Australia, arriving eight days before the company began its season in Sydney.

He had flown from Marseilles by flying boat, landing on Australian soil in Darwin where, as he wrote in Ma Vie, “the weather was tropical and I took refuge under three thicknesses of mosquito-net in my little wooden hotel built on piles”.

Lifar flew from Darwin to Sydney on another flying boat, Champion, captained by W.H. Crowther, arriving on 21 December 1939.

Lifar was greeted at Rose Bay by the press (no doubt invited by J C Williamson). One reporter, from the Telegraph, noted how Lifar’s black beret was worn jauntily on his black hair. The dancer told him he planned a long visit to Australia.

“This is my first visit to Australia, she is grand! I hope to stay for eight months”.

Things went downhill rapidly – as they tended to do when deals were done with de Basil.

Lifar wrote in Ma Vie that trouble “had to happen” with the tour, due to the “self-centred mythomania, almost insane, of Basil.

“First of all when I got to Sydney the posters announcing our performances were headed ‘The Russian Ballets of Colonel de Basil’!

“So the ballet troupe organised and financed by the French and British propaganda authorities was advertised as ‘Russian Ballets’.

(Lifar seems confused about the name of the touring company which is understandable as it was variously known as The Original Ballet Russe, (the most commonly used name), Colonel W. De Basil’s Covent Garden Ballet or Colonel W. De Basil’s Ballet Company.)

“And this at a time when Soviet Russia was attacking Finland after having swallowed half of Poland and was arousing the indignation of the whole world. I foresaw plenty of trouble and ordered the posters to be suppressed. But it was too late. Paris had been informed and began to send furious telegrams. There was nothing to be done. Soon the French embassy informed me I had been recalled to Paris at once”.

He did have time to dance in Sydney however, including in his ballet Icare, and “thus, by the applause they [and other ballets] evoked, to save the whole enterprise”.

On 23 February 1940, Ted Tait cabled Nevin Tait in London: “Lifar returning Paris immediately. Were you aware he only had 3 months leave of absence. His departure will have very detrimental effect Melbourne season”.

Nevin replied: “Definitely understood Lifar’s engagement was for tour Australasia and Basil informed me had long term agreement covering also other countries…consider his withdrawal distinct breach agreement”.

Lifar returned to work in France and within four months was present when, on June 28, 1940, Hitler and his entourage visited the beautiful Palais Garnier, home of the Paris Opera Ballet.

Hitler had decided the Garnier would be his first stop during his trip to Paris.

According to the architect, Albert Speer, “It was Hitler’s favourite and the first thing he wanted to see. Colonel Speidel, assigned by the German Occupation Authority, was waiting at the entrance for us.

“The great stairway, famous for its spaciousness, notorious for its excessive ornamentation, the resplendent foyer, the elegant, gilded parterre, were carefully inspected. All the lights glowed as they would on a gala night. Hitler had undertaken to lead the party”.

Subsequently, Lifar was accused of collaboration and left Paris in 1945.

In her New York Times obituary of Lifar, Jennifer Dunning writes that he then formed the Nouveau Ballet de Monte Carlo, later the Marquis de Cuevas’s Grand Ballet de Monte Carlo.

“During the war years, Mr. Lifar was often photographed with German officers. Although he was cleared of the collaboration charges, for a time his performances drew hecklers or produced boycotts.

“Stagehands refused to work with him and walked out when Mr Lifar returned to the opera in 1947. They went back to their jobs only after being threatened with dismissal.

“When Mr Lifar appeared in New York the following year, a picket line formed outside City Center, where he was to dance. Georges Hirsch, director of the Paris Opera and a former leader in the French Resistance, defended the ballet master, and the performances went on as scheduled”.

Lifar was definitely not lacking resilience or, apparently, charm. He continued to choreograph until 1960 and his social life also continued in its usual buoyant way.

In 1958 he met the glamorous Countess Lillan Ahlefeldt-Laurvig, née Nymberg, the former wife of Carl Ahlefeldt-Laurvig, a Danish count and lawyer, who, during the occupation of Denmark by Germany was accused of collaborating with the Wehrmacht.

Lillan also known as Lilian and Inga Lisa, kept the name Countess Ahlefeldt-Laurvig following her divorce and, before she met Lifar, was also in a relationship with the heir to the kingdom of Nepal, then with Russian Prince Vladimir Romanovsky-Krassinsky, the son of the famous ballerina, Mathilde Kschessinska, and then with an American billionaire.

Lifar and Lillan remained a couple for 30 years. He dedicated his book, Les Memoires d’Icare, “to Countess Lillan Ahlefeldt-Laurvig, a heart of gold and a pure soul, my spiritual muse and faithful friend in all circumstances”.

After his death in Lausanne in 1986 Lillan inherited his vast collection of artworks and memorabilia that were auctioned after her death in 2008, also in Lausanne.

Lifar remains an elusive and mysterious character. As far as I know no one has written his biography, but I fear that as so many of his contemporaries have died, it may never happen.

As for Lillan, what a life! Her story might make an even more intriguing and convoluted biography than Lifar’s.

* Thanks to Rose Mulready of the Australian Ballet for leading me to this quote from the San Francisco Ballet’s program notes for Suite en Blanc.