“Oh Frabjus Day! “* A Ballet treasure hunt awaits in Toulouse and Bordeaux.

Lifar Brecker

Serge Lifar posing for Arno Brecker. (Rohrbach)

During the weekend of October 25-26, the Balletonautes will visit both Bordeaux and Toulouse in the quest to reconfirm just how these regional companies in France have been re-awakened by the touch of two dancers whom the Paris Opera Ballet once cradled in its arms: Charles Jude and Kader Belarbi.

The programs will include:
By Roland Petit: Les Forains (in Toulouse)
By Serge Lifar: Les Mirages (in Toulouse); Suite en blanc; Icare; Le Faune -solo version- (in Bordeaux).

“Then the bowsprit got mixed with the rudder sometimes.”*

But, before I can even think about reviewing this renaissance beyond Paris, I find I must justify these directors’ choices of ballets. If a program includes Serge Lifar and Roland Petit – Jude and Belarbi’s forefathers –then some nasty old cobwebs that continue to stick in the craws of Anglo-Saxon critics must be addressed.

Prior to moving to France, I must admit that all I knew of Petit’s work basically consisted of Nureyev and Baryshnikov on film in “Le Jeune Homme et la Mort,” and all I knew of Lifar were photos of yet another guy wearing a hairnet in books about the Ballets Russes…not a live ballet in sight. Why?

Petit is easier to defend: if you dismiss him for being too obsessed with expressive yet highly-expressionistically-stylized narrative (woo!), then please take yet another look at his contemporaries such as Agnes de Mille and Antony Tudor, or at the vehicles created endlessly for Sergeyev and Dudinskaya in the 1950’s. They are all of the same era, they all find their way into the same confusion of post-war emotions and the need to act out. They are all one, and none of them should be relegated to the dustbin.

“For the Snark was a Boojum, you see” *

The case for Lifar proves harder to argue on generational/geographic terms.

After attending a promotional talk a while back for his book about artists who did anything to stay alive during the Occupation, I asked Alan Riding to talk to me a little bit more about Serge Lifar. He proved quite dismissive and quite curt: “oh, so you only care about the ballet!?” His bored sigh became audible. Next!

This kind of thing can get exhausting for me too. And I should have expected it. Arletty, Cocteau, Colette, oohCoco Chanel, many painters, even Drieu de la Rochelle (especially since the latter had the good sense to kill himself) are at least taken seriously as artists by those like Riding. But somehow Lifar, even if construed as an idiot-savant as dancers usually are, has never has been allowed to move out of limbo.

Sometimes I feel that ours is an art ostentatiously flattered while both dismissed and despised by these arbiters of taste. Dancers and choreographers are too often considered the stupidest people on the planet, yet the same outsiders continue to hold ballet to a standard way, way, above that granted to others.

I am on risky ground here, but when snarky critics continue to dismiss Lifar (because he kept the Paris Opera Ballet alive and warm and fed and focused on their art during the Occupation) also feel entitled to glorify Céline’s sordid rants as great art…that attitude makes me think we all need to think a bit more carefully about many things, art included…

“His intimate friends called him Candle-ends/And his enemies Toasted Cheese.”*

It gets worse. The race to the summit years before, immediately upon Diaghilev’s death, has not helped Lifar’s case either. Imagine the fistfight with Boris Kochno in 1929, as he and Lifar each pummeled each other front of Diaghilev’s corpse as laid out by the ever-practical Chanel.

Worser [sic] there is another – related – reason why there is no way to begin any discussion of Serge Lifar’s choreographic legacy if English is involved. Since the 1930’s, we have been feeding off of the great and long-hanging shadow of Mr. B’s virulent and never-ending revulsion for Serge Lifar. As if it was Lifar’s fault that he inspired Balanchine’s to create the strong and deeply masculine steps of Apollo and The Prodigal Son?

As the other candidate for director of the Paris Opera Ballet gig soon after Diaghilev’s death, Balanchine came undone, –as Ellis Island could have undone him as well: he slipped in to the US despite a history of tuberculosis — and the Paris prize went to Lifar. In my volume of “Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, Revised and Enlarged Edition” from 1977, Lifar only gets mentioned in a kind of afterthought list as, “oh, by the way,” the guy who premiered some Mr. B’s most immortal male characters, no inspiration required. And not once does Lifar ever come to the fore as that prolific choreographer left behind in France, generous and protective of – and inspired by — the talents of his dancers, such as Yvette Chauviré or Michel Renault.

Balanchine’s rancor against the person who once inspired him the most remained as sharp as a knife unto death and perhaps informed his oft-cited utter dismissal of male dancers (in public statements, at least). Mr. B. still had to deal with men, and, oh, good lord. Man = if straight you are my competition for the pretty ballerinas who might inspire me; if gay I will pretend that you do not inspire me. Whatever. Man, I will give you glorious steps to dance but I will always claim they mean nothing, and then shout loud and proud that you are not “dance” because “dance is woman.”

Of course I adore most of Balanchine’s ballets. But there are days when playback of the Balanchine vulgate just exhausts me. So:

“What I tell you three times is true”*

The art déco steps and chiseled expressiveness that Lifar carved into them deserve a chance, as do Petit’s short stories, so much more subtle than you would assume. What a weekend awaits! Petit and Lifar via Jude and Belarbi : another generation of danseurs keeping ballet alive. Their combined lifetimes of work now breathe new life to a new generation of dancers. Dancers male and female, their kith and kind. I can’t wait to see how the dancers of both Bordeaux and Toulouse will astonish me, as they have before.

* All quotes from: Lewis Carroll, “The Hunting of the Snark”

Ballet du Capitole de Toulouse. Programme Lifar-Petit: Wednesday, October 22nd to Sunday, October 26th.
Ballet de l’Opéra de Bordeaux Programme “Icare… Hommage à Lifar”: Friday, October 24th to Sunday, November 2nd.
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