Lifar, abiding spirit of the Paris Opéra

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The ballet season is under way in Paris, and the Opéra is paying tribute to Serge Lifar, its long-time director, for the centenary of his birth a year ago. Lifar, star of the last seasons of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes as a gifted and beautiful young man, master of the Opéra Ballet for three decades until 1958, fought for his vision of neo-classic ballet and brought his troupe to greatness after years of inanition.

He choreographed, danced, wrote polemics, invented two extra positions of the feet to add to ballet’s sacred five, and made dance a matter for university study. He was a great man, too little understood in Europe and the US. His ideas, and his dances, are part of the grain of French ballet and after his reign, in the 1960s and 1970s, the Opéra’s ballet lost its allure. It took another stellar figure to restore the grandeur of the troupe, when Rudolf Nureyev assumed directorship in 1983.

This Lifar gala began with a grand défilé, in which the entire Opéra troupe, and its pupils, processed (furiously applauded) from the chandeliered depths of the Foyer de la Danse to the strains of the march from Les Troyens. Then the programme proper, with Lifar’s Suite en blanc and Les mirages framing a creation from Thierry Malandain intended to refer to Lifar’s creativity.

Both the Lifar pieces were made during the dark years of the German occupation. Suite en blanc is set to large tracts of Edouard Lalo’s sublime score for the ballet Namouna of 1882. In it, Lifar showed off his neo-classic language in solos and ensembles of stunning brilliance and wit. I have loved it since I was a child, and Monday night’s performance, with Agnès Letestu chic in the Cigarette variation, with Jean-Guillaume Bart dashing in the mazurka, with Aurélie Dupont and Manuel Legris ideal in exploring Lifar’s expansive line, was worthy of the best traditions of this ballet. Les mirages boasts a vivid score from Henri Sauguet, a wonderful set of a palazzo by Cassandre and, alas, massively dated costuming that suggests a 1950s drag ball.

The theme concerns Man’s loneliness, where the only constant is his Shadow. Wonderfully realised in the faultless dancing and interpretation of Nicolas Le Riche (the role more compelling than I have ever seen it before), the ballet seemed otherwise a victim of exuberant frockery and a miscast Marie-Agnès Gillot, so often thrilling, but as the Shadow missing the mournful grace with which the role’s creator Yvette Chauviré imbued it.

The Malandain piece, L’envol d’Icare, comes with a title borrowed from an Igor Markevich score while using Schnitte’s piano concerto, and an all-embracing mythological argument about its hero (the gifted Benjamin Pech) as the Minotaur, Theseus and Icarus in Crete. There are a great many symbols floating about, getting cheerlessly in the way of the dance, and a bold, spring-board set by Alain Lagarde. I found it exquisitely incomprehensible. But Lifar’s dances still command our respect and, yes, love for this master. Vello Pahn and the Opéra orchestra made grand sense of the scores.

Palais Garnier until October 28, tel +33 1 72 29 35 35

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