They Are at It Again, Bashing French Ballet: Serge Lifar’s Suite en Blanc by the Paris Opera at Lincoln Center Festival

Lincoln Center Festival was unable to give me a press seat for the Paris Opera Ballet’s French Masters of the Twentieth Century Program (David H. Koch Theater, Wednesday, July 11, 2012). I am wondering how happy they are about having given press seats to Alistair McCauley. After reading his review in the New York Times I felt compelled to write. Amidst an incredibly ungenerous, almost xenophobic, reception to the Paris Opera Ballet’s season McCauley found Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc (to excerpts from Edouard Lalo’s 1882 ballet score Namouna) unequivocally empty. “Lifar’s vision of classicism,” he wrote “is formalism as a mere façade: stylish and empty . . . Lifar’s universe looks hollow.” (“Right Bank Meets West Side” New York Times, July 13, 2012, pages C1-2). And, as if this were not enough, McCauley claims that even the stylishness of Suite en blanc is “misplaced” because Lifar, according to him, has no feeling for music, and sometimes even no feeling for meter!

Aurélie Dupont and Members of the Paris Opera Ballet perform in “Suite en Blanc” on July 11, 2012, presented by Lincoln Center Festival 2012 at the David H. Koch Theater. Credit: Stephanie Berger
Aurélie Dupont and Members of the Paris Opera Ballet perform in “Suite en Blanc” on July 11, 2012, presented by Lincoln Center Festival 2012 at the David H. Koch Theater. Credit: Stephanie Berger

As the curtain opens, a host of dancers are arrayed in white against a severe black backdrop on an almost empty stage—nothing but a few stairs and a low platform at the back of the stage: As performed by the Paris Opera dancers this tableau, although designed to look frozen, was alive. The uncanny moment of death in life before anything moved was both chilling and fascinating. When staging a ballet from 1943 there are complex questions concerning what the ballet may have looked like then, and what it can or should look like now. What socio-aesthetic world is being translated into the present? If it is hollow, to what might this sensation of hollowness be attributed?

This is unfamiliar material to New York audiences: it is the first time Lifar’s work has been seen in this town since 1948! (Lifar also danced in New York in 1933). Suite en blanc is clearly interwoven with the artistic identity of the remarkable company that is the Paris Opera Ballet although the Company’s style and technique have since also been molded by others, notably by Rudolf Nureyev. It is worth noting that Suite en blanc is doubtless at the origin of the famous défilé that was instituted shortly after its premiere. Hence, it is a deliberately hierarchical work stressing the institutional structure of ballet in the French tradition. Although the entire cast is garbed in white at the start, the male corps reappear shortly thereafter in white shirts and black tights, creating an interesting gravitas as their dark legs contrast with the white tulle of the ballerinas: it is both elegant and severe.

Aurélie Dupont and Benjamin Pech, Members of the Paris Opera Ballet perform in “Suite en Blanc” on July 11, 2012, presented by Lincoln Center Festival 2012 at the David H. Koch Theater. Credit: Stephanie Berger
Aurélie Dupont and Benjamin Pech, Members of the Paris Opera Ballet perform in “Suite en Blanc” on July 11, 2012, presented by Lincoln Center Festival 2012 at the David H. Koch Theater. Credit: Stephanie Berger

My first riposte to McCauley is this: Suite en blanc is a historical and institutional work that—face it—looks strange to balletomanes to whom Balanchine is better known. The critical question to ask is: what did Parisian neo-classical ballet look like one year after the roundup of Jews (July 1942) by French police in Paris, all of whom were sent to Auschwitz, and only ten of whom survived? Among the 13,152 arrests there had to be Paris Opera employees among them. Suite en blanc premiered exactly one year after the deportations (July 23, 1943). An article in the New York Times tells us of the revelation of police documents in an exhibit in the Municipal Hall of the Third Arrondissement (“France Reflects on Its Role in Wartime Fate of Jews” New York Times, Sunday, July 29, 2012, 12.) It is ironic that in this same month seventy years later New York was finally treated to Lifar’s 1943 ballet just as the Paris Police finally released documents admitting they themselves initiated the roundups. This offers a unique opportunity to reconsider Lifar’s neoclassicism, his contribution to twentieth-century ballet, and the man himself. Indeed, this July contained a double revelation of dance and politics for New York.

The Paris Opera has honored Lifar with three separate programs of his work, the first in 1977, the second in 1988, and the most recent in 2006-07. The 2006-07 program was at pains to contextualize Lifar with an introduction in French and in English: “To be read before the performance.” (Lifar/Malandain Program, Paris Opera, 2006-07). This implies that Suite en blanc requires some preparation on the part of even its own audience. Might it not also call for a bit of historical contextualization in a review? “No meaning springs from the dancing,” writes McCauley. We should bear that in mind as we appraise Suite en blanc as it is a work that comes to New York through the mists of time, yet danced by the company it was originally created for. This is, to begin with, the meaning that springs from the dancing.

Lest the connection I am making here between the revelation of the reality of deportations in France in 1942, the premiere of Suite en blanc in 1943, and the sudden awareness of both in New York in 2012 seems farfetched, let us remember that Lifar’s tenure during the Occupation still raises questions about collaboration. It came up in the film Serge Lifar Musagète (2005) by Dominique Delouche where Yvette Chauviré explained that Lifar was forced to leave the Opera after the liberation of Paris. “Banished” to the Nouveau Ballet de Monte Carlo in 1945, and forbidden to appear on National stages, Lifar was nevertheless subsequently forgiven, and brought back to the Paris Opera Ballet in 1947 to work there to the consternation of many for another ten years. In the film, Chauviré called the politics of this period “very complicated”, but did not elaborate. I asked Delouche about this at a showing some years ago at the Lincoln Center Dance Film Festival but he seemed dismayed and somewhat incredulous that anyone still cared about these questions. The film, however, is fascinating, and should be seen.

Serge Lifar (1905-1986) dominated the Paris Opera starting with his own production of Les Créatures de Promethée in 1929 until his retirement in 1958. Before that he had performed with the Diaghilev’s Ballets russes, appearing in some of the seminal modernist works, including Balanchine’s Apollon musagète (1928). Like Balanchine, Serge Lifar embodies a direct link to the Diaghilev era in mid-twentieth century aesthetic modernism. He directed the Paris Opera for thirty years during which time it is generally agreed that he brought French ballet into the twentieth century. Without him, the Paris Opera Ballet would not be the world-renowned institution it is today. He became a father figure who was similar to the great ballet reformers of the eighteenth century of whom the best known is Jean-Georges Noverre, author of Letters on Dancing and Ballets. In Paris, Lifar took on the cause of ballet as an art form, and was himself something of a dance scholar, with numerous publications to his credit. However, while we still read Noverre today with great interest, I am not sure we read Lifar. This is nonetheless pertinent since Suite en blanc is a summation of Lifar’s “research” on classical ballet. “This ballet,” wrote Lifar, “is a veritable technical parade, a balance sheet of the evolution of academic dance over several years, a bill presented by today’s choreographer to the future . . ..” Lifar’s words here hint at a critical edge of taking stock encased within the lightness of divertissement, at which the French excel. Lifar, born in the Ukraine, took his French-ness seriously.

Suite en blanc was choreographed for some of the greatest stars of the 1940s: among them, Solange Schwartz, Yvette Chauviré, Lycette Darsonval, a young Roland Petit, and Lifar himself. The point of Lifar’s codification of ideas already in use by Goleizovki and others was to “develop classical dance’s potential for movement.” He actually did not choreograph many “abstract” ballets: they most often had plots and relied on a style of interpretation he himself mastered and was able to pass on to his dancers. This style, also, was anything but “abstract.” As ballet master Gilbert Mayer has remarked: “His style is difficult because if it is not well done it becomes a caricature” (Serge Lifar à l’Opéra (Paris: Editions de la Martinière, 2006, 63)). Lifar’s concept of expression in ballet walked a fine line between intensity and exaggeration. Suite en blanc is thus not typical of Lifar’s output, and is something of an “academic” ballet, or a ballet about ballet: it has good manners. But, it also outlines all the twists and turns Lifar injected into academicism, and this, precisely, is its aesthetic interest. What it does not show, given the nature of the work, is the expressive ends to which these innovations were employed in other works. It is a pity that Lifar’s Mirages was not also programmed in place of Roland Petit’s l’Arlésienne, which was the weakest choreography on the program. Maurice Béjart’s Boléro is another story that would require a separate essay to discuss.

Lifar’s technical and choreographic innovations became known as lifarismes. He expanded the academic vocabulary by creating new ways to use the arms — sixth port-de-bras– and new positions for the feet and legs (6th and 7th positions). At one moment in Suite en blanc, a ballerina in multiple supported pirouette turns adds a circular back rotation as she begins to slow down and does the sixth port-de-bras – like parallel wings waving from side to side above her head. This was strikingly unexpected in a very academic framework, but quite eye-catching. McCauley wrote: “When an arm position is added that’s not part of standard classroom exercises, it’s tacked on as an exterior effect”. The 6th port de bras was executed as the ballerina’s turn slowed, thus allowing for her upper body to itself engage in a circular rotation as if it had been intoxicated by the pirouettes. That rotation of the upper back then rippled up into her arms, which reasonably “organic” to me, although McCauley claims: “The standard forms of ballet here are assembled with no organic connections.” Lifar does more than assemble the standard forms. Perhaps it helped that I recognized the port de bras as a lifarisme, not a standard form. Here, again, the point is that Lifar did not so much innovate as codify. My second riposte is that McCauleys’ use of “organic” needs some serious definition. Does it mean organic to the body or to the academic glossary of standardized steps?

Lifar achieved a greater mobility of the hips for both female and male dancers. The males assume poses that are half turned in and half turned out, with the arms in a kind of classical pose that has a slight air of the body builder. It could hit one as a kind of cheesy classicism, yet it may in part derive from Bronislava Nijinska’s Le Train Bleu, her early beach ballet. The women on pointe use the sixth and seventh positions for the feet, which are particularly dramatic in plié on a forced arch because it dips the hips under and creates an slinky curve to the entire body. But, this also permits quite a few choreographic permutations in partnering. I also noticed that at times Lifar relates the movement of the corps de ballet in the background to the music while allowing the soloist to move above the music: The background is following the music and accenting it while the foreground remains independent of music. There are other details that are less technical innovations than technical particularisms. One that I am familiar with from having studied ballet with Lucienne Lamballe in Paris in 1978–79 is the manner of ending a manège (a series of turns in a circle). Lamballe, who was in Lifar’s first work at the Paris Opera, taught us to conclude a line of chaîné turns (also called déboulés) in a tight fifth position rather than in a more expansive lunge. This contained manner of ending the spinning trajectory by drawing in the limbs rather than going to a lunge is technically demanding and precise, but also creates a very distinctive look within the fabric of the whole. I noticed it here and there in Suite en blanc. It signals the complementarity of Lifar’s quest for an expanded mobility within the confines of classicism and the economy of means he located in technical clarity and precision. There were myriad other particularities that stood out. All the women, and occasionally all the men, find themselves in a seated arabesque on the floor. There is a continuous effort to place the classical vocabulary in non-standardized spatial relationships. The great ballet modernists were at pains to assert the national identity of their vocabularies, and Lifar was not exception.

All in all, Suite en blanc, not unlike Harald Lander’s Etudes, is a treatise on Lifarian style in the classical idiom. But, unlike Etudes, it is not presented as a graduated study of classroom exercises: it is spectacle as divertissement. But, it is a serious divertissement, and therefore should be assessed not for the way ideas are generated but for the way technique is demonstrated. “Each study,” said Lifar referring to the different parts of the ballet, “is a choreographic sketch independent of the other, but linked by the same neo-classical style.” No company seems more suited to this task than the Paris Opera Ballet. Let us also give credit to the Paris Opera for presenting Lifar’s work today. Suite en blanc is a compendium of choreographic thoughts on modernity in relation to classicism imbued with critical thinking, but also in some sense stained or strained by a tragic if unspoken awareness of occupation, complicity, and betrayal.

5 thoughts on “They Are at It Again, Bashing French Ballet: Serge Lifar’s Suite en Blanc by the Paris Opera at Lincoln Center Festival

  1. This was lovely to read, Mark. Very informative and a wonderful defense of historical recreation. Thank you! – Julie

  2. Thank you for the indepth review of the Paris Opera Ballet.
    this is the first time I have been happy to be a part of the
    historical link.
    Roland Petit and Rene Jenmaire also contributed so much to the world of dance
    And who could ever forget seeing Violette Verdy dance with Edward Vilella in
    the New YOrk City Ballet. True Joy of dance on stage.
    It is interesting to me that Matt Mattox, the great Jazz dancer went to Paris
    to perform form a company and spent his days teaching in France.
    I will look forward to more of your knowledge of dance hisory.

  3. A balanced and informed review of Lifar’s work. Your integration of dance description, illuminated by embodied experience, and historical context make a cogent commentary. McCauley’s review seemed rather hollow to me, even though I frankly found the Lifar dull. The only point of contention is Roland Petit’s _L’Arlesienne_, which I found delightful and very French. I also enjoyed the minimalism of Bejart’s work.

  4. I just found L’Arlesienne difficult in that the narrative did not come through to me clearly; I did like the end more than the beginning. I thought the Bejart was fantastic and would like to write more about why the NY critical establishment has dissed him throughout the years.

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