Can ballet ever claim to be an apolitical art form, especially in such extreme conditions as the Nazi occupation of France during the Second World War? What should be our response to a dancer, choreographer and ballet director who appears to have collaborated with the Third Reich and its ethos? Can he ever be ‘rehabilitated’ and should his works created under these conditions be performed? These were some of the questions arising for Professor Mark Franko in his intriguing DANSOX talk The Fascist Legs of Serge Lifar: French Ballet under the Occupation at St Hilda’s College on Thursday 4th June.

Serge Lifar (1905-1986) was involved with the Paris Opera Ballet for thirty years between 1928 and 1958 rapidly becoming its director. He took responsibility for keeping the company going in June 1940 when the Nazis entered Paris, subsequently liaising with Goebbels and the Nazi cultural authorities and even taking two trips to Berlin. Two productions in particular from this period, the narrative work Joan de Zarissa (1942) and Suite en Blanc (1943) could be seen as embodying a potentially Nazi aesthetic and ideas. Lifar was found guilty of being a private and artistic collaborator in 1946 and suspended for a year but subsequently reinstated as choreographer and teacher but not dancer, remaining at the Paris Opera Ballet until his retirement in 1958. The dance world remains divided on his legacy as an artist, choreographer, theorist and influential director and how he should be regarded, his work intimately entwined with the history of the Paris Opera Ballet. For example his Suite en Blanc is still performed today as a celebration of French academicism, but rarely with reference to its origins. In contrast, Joan de Zarissa to a score by German composer Werner Egk in which Lifar took the title role, and which could be seen as an attempted cross fertilization of a perceived German “masculine dance of the future” with a French “feminine dance of the past”, has never since been revived.

Drawing on an impressive range of archival sources, and including fascinating film footage of rehearsals for a revival of Lifar’s ballet Icare, and of an older Lifar performing a modified excerpt from Nijinsky’s L’Apres-midi d’un Faune, Professor Franko gave a detailed account of what is known of Lifar’s actions and articulated a persuasive case that neither ballet nor Lifar can or should be considered apolitical. Lifar’s “fascist legs” could be seen as both his “unscarred” dance body, arguably epitomising an Aryan aesthetic, and his political leanings and instinct for self promotion, which led him (whether out of conviction or opportunism) to accept and collaborate with the Nazi regime. In doing so he seemingly ignored the plight of Jewish and other dancers and stage hands, who were removed from their posts and in one case sent to a concentration camp. At the same time, Professor Franko argued, Lifar’s dance legacy as a proponent of neo-classicism is worthy of scholarly investigation and performance, provided always that the political context is not denied or ‘airbrushed’ out of the picture.

Susanna Reece

5th June 2015