Russian choreographer and dancer, who revitalized French ballet and re-established the Paris Opéra as one of the world's leading companies.
Having studied dance in Russia, Lifar was brought to Paris by Bronislava Nijinska (1891–1972) to join Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. In 1925 he became the company's principal dancer and four years later scored a great triumph in the title role of Balanchine's Prodigal Son (1929). Lyrical, virile, and athletic as a dancer, Lifar first tried his hand at choreography in 1929 with his ballet Le Renard, in which acrobats doubled for the principal dancers. After Diaghilev's death in the same year and the break-up of his company, Lifar became principal dancer and ballet master at the Paris Opéra, the original home of ballet. Over the next twenty-eight years he restored the reputation of the company as a major balletic influence and not only staged and danced in such classics as Giselle but also presented more than fifty new works, including Promethée (1929) and Icare (1935), in which he emphasized the importance of rhythm in ballet.
Dismissed as ballet master in 1944, for entertaining the Germans during their occupation of France, Lifar returned to the Paris Opéra in 1947 and scored major successes with Phèdre (1950), Snow-White (1951), and Daphnis and Chloë (1958). In 1956 he retired as a dancer and two years later left the Paris Opéra to work with companies all over the world. He appeared in a film, Le Testament d'Orphée (1960), and was the author of twenty-five books, in which he described his own career and his theories of experimental choreography.