Serge Lifar sells off memorabilia from Diaghilev's great ballet company; Relics from the Ballets Russes
A Picasso costume; a Benois drawing; Debussy, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev music manuscripts; and even a letter from the legendary spy Mata Hari.These will be just some of the items from the era of the great Diaghilev Ballets Russes that will be going under the hammer at Sotheby's auction house in London May 9. The collection, which is expected to produce a total of around $: 500,000 ($725,000) , belongs to Serge Lifar, the Russian premier danseur of Diaghilev's company in the late 1920s. An exhibition of some of the items to be auctioned has been on view first in London, then Glasgow, and recently appeared in New York.This memorabilia of the awakening of dance in the Western world at the turn of the century was collected by Lifar from Diaghilev's apartment when the great impresario passed on intestate (without a will) in 1929.In Lifar's autobiography ''Ma Vie,'' he tells of how he and a few friends broke into the building and smuggled out the historic items to prevent the collection of paintings, musical scores, books, manuscripts, and letters from being dispersed.The collection gives a brief but colorful glimpse of the 20 years that saw the blending of the best of Russian and European artistic talent, when Serge Diaghilev teamed with the famous writers, composers, and painters of his day.In the exhibit a costume designed by Picasso for Leonid Massine as the Chinese Conjuror in the one-act ballet ''Parade,'' is expected to bring between $: 20,000 and (STR)30,000. The ballet, an idea of Jean Cocteau and premiered in 1917, was staged in front of a circus tent. The various performers danced to lure the spectators inside. Massine, dressed in this oversized yellow, black, and red padded silk outfit, did tricks with eggs. The ballet is remembered, too, for Picasso's decor and fine examples of Cubist art - and also where the painter met his wife, the dancer Olga Khoklova.A portrait of Lifar by Picasso was the most expensive item on view in London. It is expected to raise between (STR)80,000 and (STR)100,000. Done in India ink with brush and pen, it is signed, titled, and dated by the painter (Pour Serge Lifar. Picasso. Lifar a la barre. Monte Carlo Avril 1925 ).Alexander Benois was born in St. Petersburg and came from an artistic family. He became involved in the art world and designed a ballet at the Maryinsky (now Kirov) Theater. After leaving Russia and settling in Paris, he was appointed the artistic director of the Ballet Russes and his designs soon made him an international celebrity. The exhibit offers one of his most famous drawings - that of Nijinsky as Petrouschka (estimated $: 20,000 to $: 30,000). The picture - pen and ink and watercolor over pencil - is described by Sotheby's as being one of the copies Benois did of his original design and was given as a souvenir to Lifar.The first contemporary subject in Diaghilev's repertoire was a ballet called ''Jeux.'' It told the story of three tennis players - a boy and two girls - who meet by chance in a garden. The young man was danced by Nijinsky and the music was composed by Debussy. The 1912 manuscript corrected by the composer with choreographic instructions by Nijinsky hopes to bring in $: 75,000 to $: 100,000.There are letters to Diaghilev from Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Debussy, Ravel, Sartre, Picasso, and one from Mata Hari discussing her possibility of performing with the Ballets Russes and the reply from Diaghilev engaging her.Historic material for the serious collector includes a pencil portrait of Lifar as the Prodigal Son by George Balanchine; portraits of Diaghilev and Picasso by Lifar; bronzes of Diaghilev, Chaliapin, and Anna Pavlova; plaster casts of Nijinsky's foot and Pavlova's leg and foot; and a painted plaster cast of Tamara Karsavina in Petrouschka, wearing a red jacket, crinoline skirt, and lace-edged pantaloons. But if the prices seem a little steep for the souvenir hunter, there are a few odd items on a slightly lower price range. There's a poster by Cocteau depicting Karsavina in ''La Spectre de la Rose'' ($: 5,500 to ''au moment du 'Sacre du Printemps,' '' capturing the scandalous uproar through their eyes - literally - though they have no other facial features. It is expected to go for a mere $: 2,000 to $: 2,500. Serge Lifar: the master dancer speaks
Maitre Serge Lifar sprang onto the raised platform and blew kisses to the small elite gathering of ballet lovers that had come to hear him. He was in England to attend a fund-raising reception in honor of the Diaghilev exhibit.
Wearing a blue shirt, a long, chunky gold chain, and an immaculate dark blue blazer with red lapel pin that marked him as a recipient of the French Legion of Honor, he launched into an animated 45 minutes of reminiscences of his life as a ballet dancer in the Ballets Russes years: ''I began in Russia in Kiev - with the most famous female dancer and teacher, Bronislava Nijinska - sister of Nijinsky. I discovered the five positions of the feet'' (he demonstrated with his hands) ''and plies'' (he jumped off his chair, and holding onto the back partition, upright and in control, his arm swooped out and he began the basic knee-bends). ''Then we had to marche - learn to walk. First to Chopin as a soldier not like this'' (he goose-stepped across the stage) ''not strolling along the streets. Non. Avec la grace,'' and he exaggerated a court walk, looking like an ostrich in slow motion.
''I had discovered 'grace.' And with it came flowing arm movements and all the reverences (he sunk into a low, stately bow) - et voila! I was dancing.''
Lifar's dancing took him from the early classes in Kiev to France and the Ballets Russes, becoming one of the outstanding dancers of his generation. Later , as ballet director and leading dancer of the Paris Opera ballet company, he choreographed many new ballets and brought the standard of ballet to new heights.
He was accused of collaborating with the Germans in World War II, preferring to keep the theater open and the company dancing rather than see his dream disband and disperse. He was ostracized for a few years and went down to Monte Carlo. He returned to Paris in 1947 and continued playing a vital role in the field of classical ballet by founding dance institutes, writing several books, and choreographing new ballets.
Serge Lifar is one of the few remaining links with the Diaghilev era; his influence and knowledge have laid the foundations for today's modern French ballet.