How Suite it Is

Posted on 11 October 2017 By Rose Mulready

Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc will be the centrepiece of our Gala Spectacular in Adelaide. Its French-accented chic, deco details, blanc-et-noir palette and sophisticated patterns make it a natural for this arena-style performance.

The first thing that strikes you about Suite en blanc is its drama. The curtain rises on a stark black set in which the icicle-white tutus of the women and the billowing shirts of the men gleam like jewels in velvet. Serge Lifar was no stranger to drama: a charming narcissist who trailed controversy in his wake like aftershave, he managed to alienate entire companies in his bombastic youth. As well as a choreographer he had been a dancer with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, and was Balanchine's original Apollo; he was also director of the Paris Opera Ballet. It comes as little surprise to learn that Lifar once fought a duel - with swords - over Suite en blanc, after his friend George de Cuevas tried to make changes to the ballet. The duel ended in a reconciling kiss.

When Maina Gielgud invited Lifar to stage Suite en blanc on The Australian Ballet in 1981, he was delighted with the dancers and awarded the company the prestigious Diaghilev Award. He also bestowed the Pavlova Prize on Joanna Michel for her outstanding dancing – a great honour.

Ako Kondo, Rudy Hawkes, Laura Tong and Amber Scott. Photography Lynette Wills

The ballerinas of Suite en blanc have a particularly pristine brand of French chic, matching their simple white tutus with a striking red lip, glittering diamante earrings and white flowers in their chignons. It's simple yet stylish and matches the elegance of the ballet.

Benedicte Bemet, Karen Nanasca and Brooke Lockett. Photography Lynette Wills

The central pas de deux of Suite en blanc, with its langourous stretches and slow-motion falls, is somewhat reminiscent of the sensual abandon of the second movement pas de deux in Balanchine's Symphony in C. From the moment the male dancer stalks on stage, carrying the ballerina on his shoulder, you know you're in for something special. Both Balanchine and Lifar infused the neo-classical style with eye-catching innovation. Lifar revived the rarely used sixth and seventh positions in his work, and embellished his choreography with bent wrists and sharply arched arms that recall deco statuary.

Rudy Hawkes and Amber Scott. Photography David Kelly

The three dancers of the Sieste pas de trois are dressed in long Romantic tutus, evoking the era of wilis and sylphides, but they seem thoroughly modernist misses with their pert heads and angular arms. The music for Suite en blanc was taken from Edouard Lalo's music for Namouna, a long-lost Petipa ballet about a slave girl. Although Lifar's ballet is abstract, names like Sieste, Cigarette and Flute remain for the variations, and the Sieste music with its lazy castanets evokes a Spanish afternoon.

Robyn Hendricks. Photography Lynette Wills

Ah, that Cigarette solo! Part flamenco, part 40s femme fatale, all flicked fingers, hypnotic turns, haughty balances, and imperious attitudes that seem to summon enslaved lovers. It's a highlight of this witty, stylish ballet, and one of the reasons we can't wait to see Suite en blanc afresh.

Laura Tong. Photography Lynette Wills