DATELINE: Male as Diva
Lifar & Daddiaghilev!
Today he is barely recalled, except by balletomanes.
Serge Lifar was a name in Jeté sets and Monaco parties from the 1920s to the 1950s. He was a principal dancer for Serge Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. He was a sort of sub for Nijinsky on stage, in bed, and off kilter.
Lifar was ambitious, and his tale is fascinating to see played out in a documentary called Serge Lifar: Revolution in Dance. Interestingly enough, the word gay is never spoken.
Considered pale in comparison to Nijinsky, olive-skinned Lifar played the same roles for Diaghilev who tutored him and turned him from a late-blooming peasant boy into a stunning aesthete. He became friends with Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, and a raft of Paris artists around the era.
Life was dramatic for Lifar. He was the epitome of a drama queen before the term took hold. He was a social media star when there was no such thing: he had a nose job to lessen shadows on his face when he danced.
As catty serious as this film is, it avoids tales of bedtime trysts, a fight with Boris Kochno (Diaghilev’s secretary) over the Maestro’s dead body (literally) in 1929. It details Lifar’s alleged collaboration with Nazis and handsome officers he needed to cultivate. He twice met with Hitler, and his Paris Opera House was always filled with front-row SS officers.
Yet, there is plenty of dirt to go around, even when spread nicely thin. Lifar refused to go to Berlin and start a ballet school, creating an epic ballet for the Third Reich. He was still convicted of collaborating by a French tribunal.
He regarded himself as homeless, a displaced person, a refuge from Russia who made a home for 30 years in France. He was an autocrat who saved the arts from Nazis, according to friends. He is often credited with “firsts” in ballet that rightly belonged to Diaghilev and Nijinsky.
He couldn’t give up the fame or infamy, having ridiculous duels and carrying on as a diva long after he should have retired. His greatest ballet creation was Icare, about the handsome young man who flew too close to the sun with wax wings. Delusions take many forms. How appropriate.