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[1930-1960]: Neoclassicism in Europe and the United States, entirely in tune with the times

Maison de la Danse de Lyon 2019 - Director : Plasson, Fabien

Choreographer(s) : Lifar, Serge (Ukraine) Tudor, Antony (United Kingdom) Balanchine, George (Russian Federation) Petit, Roland (France) Béjart, Maurice (France)

en fr

Suite en blanc

Lifar, Serge (Serge Lifar-Suite en blanc.mp4)


Pillar of fire

Tudor, Antony (United States)



Balanchine, George (United States)



Balanchine, George (France)


Le mystère Babilée - Le jeune homme et la mort

Petit, Roland (Mystere Babilee-jeune homme et la mort.mp4)


La IXème symphonie

Béjart, Maurice (France)

[1930-1960]: Neoclassicism in Europe and the United States, entirely in tune with the times

Maison de la Danse de Lyon 2019 - Director : Plasson, Fabien

Choreographer(s) : Lifar, Serge (Ukraine) Tudor, Antony (United Kingdom) Balanchine, George (Russian Federation) Petit, Roland (France) Béjart, Maurice (France)

Author : Céline Roux

en fr


“Neo-classical”: the term was first used after the Second World War in particular in the French press. “Neo-classical” was first and foremost what took place in bodies: vertical and horizontal planes were challenged in particular by not observing aplomb (balance) or verticality but also through swaying and asymmetry. Works were narrative, expressive and even abstract and embraced musical renewal. Neo-classical dance absorbed the contexts from whence it took shape. Although the Ballets Russes never opened a school or pursued a desire to impart this aesthetic, future generations, on the other hand, would transmit and teach the founding principles of these emerging neo-classical forms.


Suite en blanc 

Serge Lifar / Opera de Paris

With Suite en blanc, Serge Lifar proposed a ballet without a pamphlet, a one-act ballet with eight themes. 

In this reproduction by the Ballet du Rhin, the Pas de cinq reveals a masculine technique highlighted in particular through the solo dancer’s batteries expressed as a counterpoint.

From 1929 and the end of the Ballets Russes, Serge Lifar was appointed Ballet Master at the Opera de Paris, an invitation to reform this institution which was still heavily influenced by the 19th century: expanding the repertoire, promoting masculine dance and new corporal grammar were on the cards. For Serge Lifar, dance was “the en-dehors, balance, ecstasy, elevation… Controlled, ordered, applied geometry”. 

In La Cigarette, the petits pas performed on parallel pointes, the arm play, the angles of the pelvis, the skipped movements on pointes are some of the elements which renewed the vocabulary and infused dance with a mutinous character.

Pillar of fire

Antony Tudor / American Ballet Theater

In the United States, classical dance was not deeply rooted, so the 1940s had a purpose: to invent American classical dance. With the American Ballet Theater, Antony Tudor would create psychological ballet: a narrative ballet boosted by powerful dramatic demonstration. Expression was embodied through the dance, through natural gestures and through theatrical personification with a modern slant.

In this reproduction by the Colorado Ballet, the successive kneeling of Agar, the young girl whose life is related through the ballet, as well as the hands of her sister joined in prayer reveal the dramatic nature of what is being played out on stage: the exposure of American puritanism and the pressure of community forces on the young girl confronted with the motives of passion which encircle her and the judgements of her peers.


George Balanchine/ NYCB

Agon epitomizes Balanchine principles: The dance is articulate and graphical, free from narrative constraints. The dance can do without scenery and costumes: a dance floor, an illuminated cyclorama, a leotard and tights are all it takes. Here, the music-dance relationship reigns supreme. 

The female dancer becomes vertical, with legs stretched long, bust flat and neck extended. The body’s aplomb and stacking of volumes are no longer necessarily observed. Lines in space, speed and disequilibrium are sought. The pas de deux becomes a gravity-fed game between partners and proposes a renewal of lines and forms.

The choreographer arrived in the United States in 1933 and played a role in the development of American neo-classical dance. In 1934, he founded the New School of American Ballet then, in 1948, the New York City Ballet. Henceforth, American ballet was able to train and produce its dancers, under the leadership of a Russian: George Balanchine.


George Balanchine/ NYCB

The performance is cheerful, light-hearted and promotes pleasure and an entertaining dimension. Jewels, which became part of the Opera de Paris’ repertoire in 2000, are a three-part ballet evoking the precious gems which the leading French, American and Russian “schools” of classical dance are associated with. In this extract of Rubies, neo-classical dance flirts with American traditions borrowed from music hall and Broadway musicals. Wrists are willingly broken. The pelvis leans forward on the pointe, tilts backwards or sways to the sound of Stravinsky piano notes. Hips shift from en-dehors to en-dedans…

As such, Jewels exposes American-style syncretism illustrated by choreographers like George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins who alternated between creating ballets, revues, musicals and films.

Le jeune homme et la mort

Roland Petit / Ballets des Champs-Elysées

In France, during the post-war period, young choreographers arrived on the scene: Janine Charrat, Roland Petit, Maurice Béjart… Roland Petit, trained in particular by Serge Lifar, would develop a heteroclite world. It was through Jean Cocteau that he created this existentialist ballet, performed on stage by Jean Babilée and Nathalie Philippart, role taken on in this extract by Claire Sombert.

The work, rehearsed to jazz music, was presented to the public accompanied by Bach’s Passacaglia: the “accidental musical synchronicity” adds strength to the acrobatic body language. For Jean Babilée, Roland Petit composed a dance full of leaps and falls, moments of anticipation and repeated glances at the watch worn on the wrist conjuring up the psychological disturbance of a young artist torn between Love and Death.

La Neuvième symphonie (The Ninth Symphony)

Maurice Béjart / Ballet du XXe siècle (Ballet of the 20th Century)

Maurice Béjart developed his works and transmitted them from Paris to Brussels, from Brussels to Dakar, from Brussels to Lausanne. 

A quest for themes in tune with the times. Quests for vocabulary beyond cultures. He refused to define dance by genre, style or category, yet remained attached to classical dance which he perceived as a “working basis” for incorporating all other danced movements. 

A journey back through time. 1966. Palais des Sports in Paris. Dance is a ritual. The body is rooted in the ground. Movements are emphasized. The choreography uses collective unifying forms: unisons, lines, farandoles, circles… and the ground unveils the scenario: a myriad of forms, figures, dotted lines sketching out universal rites, whilst serving as points of reference for the dancers. 

Humanity watches fraternal humanity dancing this syncretism between cultures, which the choreographer desired so much.

In more depth

A myriad of bibliographical references exists for this period. The bibliography proposed has been selected to enable readers to enrich their knowledge, to access iconographic accounts and to gain insight into the words of artists and eyewitnesses of their times.


Serge Lifar, Le Manifeste du chorégraphe (The Choreographer’s Manifesto), Paris, Étoile, 1935, extract taken from Marcelle Michel and Isabelle Ginot’s, La Danse au XXème siècle, Paris, Bordas, 1995, p.44.

Maurice Béjart, Lettres à un jeune danseur, Paris, Actes sud, 2001.

Michel Robert, Maurice Béjart, une vie – derniers entretiens, Bruxelles, Editions Luc Pire, 2009.

Roland Petit, Rythme de vie, entretiens avec Jean-Pierre Pastori, coll. Paroles vives, published by La Bibliothèque Des Arts, 2003.

Monographic publications

George Amberg, Ballet in America: The Emergence of an American Art, Amberg Press, 2007 (1923).

Marie-Françoise Christout and Brigitte Lefèvre, Serge Lifar à l’Opéra, Editions de la Martinière, 2006. 

Dominique Genevois, Mudra, 103 rue Bara. L’école de Maurice Béjart 1970-1988, Bruxelles, Contredanse, 2016.

Gérard Mannoni, Roland Petit, coll. L'Avant-Scène ballet/danse, ed. L'Avant-Scène théâtre, 1984.

Jean-Pierre Pastori, 2. La danse : Des Ballets russes à l’avant-garde, Paris, découvertes Gallimard, n°332, 1997 (for the most recent publication).

Florence Poudru, Serge Lifar : la danse pour patrie, Hermann, 2007.

Florence Poudru, Dans le sillage des Ballets russes, 1929-1959, Pantin, CND, 2010.

Annie Suquet, L’éveil des modernités (1870-1945), Pantin, CND, 2012.

Robert Gottlieb, George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker, ed. Harper Collins, 2004.

Amanda Vaill, Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins, Broadway Books, 2008.

Exhibition catalogues 

Zizi Jeanmaire, Roland Petit - un patrimoine pour la danse, (dir. Alexandre Fiette) (exhibition, Geneva, Musée Rath), Somogy editions, 2007.

Open sources

Dossier “le style néoclassique, une maladie honteuse ?”, in Journal de l’ADC, n°39, April-June 2006, pp.3-9 /'adc/JADC39.pdf 


Roux, Céline


Excerpts selection
Céline Roux

Text and bibliography selection
Céline Roux

Maison de la Danse

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