During the fascinating discussion between Professor Susan Jones and Professor Mark Franko, in celebration of the publication of this book, held for DANSOX members via Zoom in November 2020,[1] Franko says: “I worry that the Occupation chapter is overpowering the book”, because the critical responses received thus far, had only written about that chapter. I will attempt to review more of Franko’s tour de force than this chapter, although it is rich with new archival material which uncovers much about the relationship between Serge Lifar at the Paris Opera and the Nazi Occupation.

Franko runs the major theme of the baroque in neoclassicism in ballet, through the body of Serge Lifar, throughout his book. He dissects the French baroque of the seventeenth century and the German baroque of the eighteenth century, their similarities and differences, their nationalist links and how they are reflected in Lifar’s ballets at different stages of Lifar’s career in Paris (1929-1958).

The first chapter draws a genealogy of the French classical ballet tradition – technical and gestural – from the seventeenth century; the style which Lifar encountered as he arrived at the Paris Opera in 1929. This is followed by a chapter which focuses on the contemporary critical reception of Lifar as a dancer and choreographer during the pre-war period. This is where Franko begins to use Lifar’s body to argue his case. Lifar, the man with the beautiful body, was the corporeal example of both seventeenth and eighteenth neoclassicism, at the same time as Lifar the dancer was pantomimic (eighteenth century) with little ballet technique. Lifar the choreographer was derivative of the Ballets Russes‘ avant-garde, in the early 1930’s. After 1933, however, Lifar developed a cult around himself and his body, both on stage and off, in the fascist tradition. Chapter 3 addresses Lifar in the neo-Hellenic tradition of the body as Classical statue and vice versa, while Chapter 4 brings out the folkloric dance tradition in France, which was beginning to rival ballet until the Vichy regime insisted the folk dances remain rural, rather than allowing them to infiltrate the cities; fearing a French nationalism which was associated with the folkloric tradition.                                                                                                                                                                       I found Franko’s reading of the baroque in neoclassicism fascinating but confusing – I am not an expert in this style of ballet and I suspect that goes for many of us who will read this book. It is a complex argument which he argues through with reference to French and German literary theory (in which Franko was an expert before he applied it to dance theory). The following quotation sets out Franko’s position:

 “My larger point here … is that contemporary neoclassical ballet incorporates dual and conflicted sources of the classical: one being French and    seventeenth century, and the other being German and eighteenth century. The “classical”, therefore, in neoclassical ballet [has] intra-cultural fault lines         running through it to the present day… If Lifar is significant to dance history, it is because he embodied this conflict.” (p.128).

Franko pursues this position in the book through examination of various of Lifar’s works, including the only one which remains in repertoire: Suite en Blanc (1943). When Franko saw this ballet in 2012, it gave the stimulus for this book. Franko felt it didn’t seem to fit with what he had learned as neoclassical ballet, and that it seemed fascist rather than modernist. When the Occupation archives at the Paris Opera were opened, Franko determined to discover whether Lifar was fascist; he was. The opening tableau Franko saw in Suite en blanc in particular, felt frozen. The set and costumes were spectacular; black sets of steps on various levels, contrasted by white tutus and blouses; a huge cast, exactly what would appeal to the Occupying regime and German audience. With the neoclassical criteria of an absence of ideological background or narrative, Lifar had choreographed and staged a pure dance ballet (neoclassical), combining French ballet with German characteristics. The French in Lalo’s romantic score and the classical costumes, the German in the architecture of the set and the cold lighting. Franco argues that Lifar embodied fascism as he extended a corporeal fascism existent in French ballet, further, so that in Suite en blanc he had achieved the ultimate aim of proving French ballet could add to fascist, rather than expressionist German dance, which had been banned by Goebbels. Lifar was thus collaborating on both a political and an embodied level with the Occupying regime. It was the only neoclassical ballet Lifar choreographed.

In the DANSOX talk Franko says Suite en blanc “was all a strategy, for Lifar to sell out and become head of dance under the Nazis; this is one of the takeaways [the most important points] of the book”.

Franko’s book may shock, upset and offend but it contains pioneering research into archives which are still protecting some of their documents, and it is rich in detail on the complexities in French neoclassicism, Serge Lifar and his ballets. In the future, Franko plans to collaborate with other scholars of interwar dance in Europe, the transnational history during World War 11, and the neo-political terrain in interwar dance and occupation.

Dr. Sue Ash

20th April 2021

[1] Watch the discussion here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UsOvLY_XIx0

Mark Franko, (2020) The Fascist Turn in The Dance of Serge Lifar: Interwar French Ballet and the German Occupation Oxford University Press

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