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120 years of the great Serge Lifar

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April 2,2024 1091
120 years of the great Serge Lifar

On 2 April 2024, the Ukrainian World Congress joins Ukrainians in Ukraine and around the world to commemorate the 120th birthday of the great Serge (Serhiy) Lifar, the renowned Ukrainian and French dancer, choreographer, ballet reformer and founder of the Institute of Choreography at the Grand Opera of Paris. 

Lifar, whose contemporaries called the “God of Dance,” stands among the most prominent figures of twentieth-century European art, and as a symbol of the highest achievements of European culture. 

Born in Kyiv in a renowned Kozak family, Serge Lifar grew up in an atmosphere of love for Ukraine’s heroic past. He discovered his talent for music and dance at an early age. Initially, he studied piano at the Kyiv Conservatory, but his life changed after meeting Bronislava Nizhynska, the famous dancer who had her own ballet studio in Kyiv.

In 1922, Nizhynska fled from Soviet rule to France. Lifar followed her the following year by illegally crossing the Soviet-Polish border and reaching Paris via Warsaw. He continued his studies in France where he had no choice but to work with Sergei Diaghilev, the influential impresario who founded the Ballets Russes. His selfless work ethic and fanatical love of dance quickly made Lifar a leading star of Diaghilev’s studio.

In 1929, the 24-year-old Serge Lifar was offered the directorship of the Paris Opera Ballet. Under his leadership, it became one of the best in Western Europe. He devoted more than 30 years to working at the Grand Opera: he was its soloist, choreographer, and instructor. In total, Lifar staged more than 200 ballet performances, trained 11 French ballet stars, and was a founder of the neoclassical ballet genre. In 1947, he founded the Institute of Choreography at the Paris Opera, and taught courses in dance history and theory at the Sorbonne from 1955. He was president of UNESCO’s International Dance Council. For his contributions, including reviving French ballet, its repertoire and its school, Lifar was bestowed the highest state awards in France, including the Legion of Honour and the Order of Arts and Letters.

Still, Serge Lifar remained foremost a Ukrainian to the end of his life. He always emphasized his Ukrainian heritage, loved to appear at the Paris Opera and at social events in a traditional embroidered shirt, and lived his entire life as a stateless person. He refused French citizenship, even after Charles de Gaulle’s repeated attempts to persuade him to take it, saying “I am a Ukrainian and my homeland is Ukraine.”  

Lifar loved Kyiv to the end of his days, but he could not return, as he was deemed a “traitor of the Soviet homeland.” He literally took that love to his grave: in accordance with the great ballet master’s last will and testament, his tombstone was inscribed: “Serge Lifar of Kyiv.” 

Cover: open sources

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