Serge Lifar (1905-1986) A Leading Dancer and choreographer in the 20th Century, Ballet Russes & Artist

By James Nicholls, JN Investment Art


Serge Lifar was born in Kiev, Ukraine. He had dreamed of becoming a soldier and marching in step, but he became a dancer with aerial instead of martial steps. When war broke out in 1914, Serge Lifar thought that he would enlist in the Russian army, in which twelve of his uncles were already serving.

He and his bourgeois family suffered great hardship and horrors of war in the October 17 Revolution. After having served in the White Army, Serge Lifar was recruited in the Red Army. At the age of sixteen, he became an officer.

In 1920, through a schoolmate, Serge Lifar discovered the ballet of Bronislava Nijinska, the sister of the famous Russian dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky. It was a revelation: “I withdrew to a corner of the room, my heart beating wildly. I experienced an enthusiasm that I had never felt before.

He managed to enrol in the Kiev Opera Ballet, and in 1923, Sergie Diaghilev founder of the famed Ballet Russes asked Bronislava Nikinska, his ballet teacher, to provide her five best students. Which Lifar managed to make sure he was one.

After capture and a time in prison, Lifar made a dramatic escape and made his way to Paris to meet Diaghilev.
Some say that Diaghilev was instantly drawn to the 18 year-old dancer, others suggest that Lifar made sure Diaghilev noticed him, but his charm, persistance, whatever, paid off and he joined the list of Diaghilev star dancers in the footsteps of Nijinsky.

He was at Diaghilev’s bedside with Coco Chanel, when he died in Venice in 1929. Lifar then became Premier Danseur of the Paris Opera Ballet. By 1933 he had become its Director and Professor of Dance .

In 1939 Lifar joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo where he gave acclaimed dramatic and moving performances.

Lifar held the position of Director at the Paris Opera Ballet for 20 years, creating 90 percent of the choreography and dancing many leading roles.
In Paris, he maintained the Diaghilev tradition, reviving not only Ballet Russes classics, but the fortunes of French ballet itself, developing the profile of male dancers and employing great choreographers – Balanchine, Massine and Frederick Ashton.
He was great friends with both Jean Cocteau and Picasso, who both encouraged and influenced Lifar in his art.

This drawing signed by Lifar in September 1956, features the ballet set and dancer with the background setting of the towers of the great mosque in Istanbul.

Serge Lifar – Giving Class at Le Palais Garnier, Paris

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