& Critics

John Percival
"He can bring a poor ballet to success"

I cannot think of any dancer working today who can do more to make a success of a poor ballet than Wladimir Skouratoff. His strenght even in the most aimless and exhausting variation; his ability to suggest a real character from the most trivial hints in the choreography; his very real and commanding mainliness; his curiously reserved air of authority – if a ballet flops in spite of these, it must be a miserable failure indeed. Unfortunately, of all too many of the works in which we have seen Skouratoff dance since he first came to London soon after the war, there is really nothing more than that to be said.

As if these formidable virtues were too much for one man to enjoy, Skouratoff seems to be cursed with some kind of a demon which apparently makes him restless in his work. This it could be which has sometimes led him, in the past, to a mischievous capriciousness on stage.

I remember, for instance, the occasion when he and Kalioujny, swathed in raincoats and hidden behind slouch hats and dark glasses, held a picnic on the side of the stage during Les Forains. A loaf and a bottle of wine were produced; when these had been consumed, they smoked cigarettes and read their newspapers, taking no notice of the performance which the travelling players were giving meanwhile. When the time came for the usually unsuccessful collection from the by-standers, however, they gave the ballet an unexpected happy ending by showering the stage with handfuls of coins.

This was all good clean fun, but there was also the time when Skouratoff introduced some eccentrically satirical touches into a performance of Le Rendezvous, producing a doll torn out of a sheet of paper, indicating a sudden and imaginary touch of lumbago and finally setting off a riot of improvisation by the whole cast which completely changed the mood of the ballet from melodrama to farce.

These are isolated instances, but I imagine them to have been inspired by the same restless urge for something new which has led him from one company to another. In London alone he has danced with ten different ensembles in onlythirteen years.

He had begun his career in Paris, where he was born of Ukrainian parents and where he received his training from Preobrajenska and from Boris Kniaseff. His debut was made, during the Occupation, at the Lido – a cabaret of international fame, noted for its lavish spectacles as well as its showgirls. In these not very auspicious surroundings the young Skouratoff earned his living in boredom while his contemporaries, Petit, Charrat and their cicle, were beginning to make their names.

In the Soirées de la Danse which led to the formation of the Ballets des Champs-Elysées, Skouratoff created the title rôle in Petit’s Narcisse. This brought him into the world of ballet for which he had been trained. Later he joined the Nouveau Ballet de Monte-Carlo and my first sight of him was during that company’s London season in 1946.

On one programme, I recall, he danced three Lifar ballets one after the other, partnering Chauvire in La mort du Cygne, Tcherina in Mephisto Valse and Jeanmaire in Aubade. Each, if I remember rightly, contained a typical Lifar variation, full of the showiest and most exhausting steps – a pretty stiff test of anyone’s endurance.

A year later, he turned up at Covent Garden with de De Basil’s Ballet Russe. The pas de deux in Aurora’s Wedding did not really suit him, but in Les Sylphides he showed that he could combine forcefulness with fluency to bring a sound but dull production to life.

His finest rôle that season he danced, I believe, only once, at the matinée of the final day: the favourite slave in Schéhérezade. His magnificent elevation alone would have made this performance memorable, but his interpretation was even more astonishing. Carl van Vechten has described Nijinsky in this rôle with his “subtle and sensous fingers” fluttering close to Zobeide’s flesh without ever touching her; Skouratoff, creating exactly this same effect, gave some idea of the passionate conviction the part must have gained from its first interpreter.

During the next two years, Skouratoff danced often in London. He appeared with two concert groups, Les Etoiles de la Danse and Stars of the Ballet, and he took part in three galas at the Empress Hall intended to raise funds for Nijinsky. In these seasons he danced effortlessly a variety of ardous and for the most part unrewarding rôles. More satisfying were his appearances in the first London season of Petit’s Ballet de Paris.

With this company he appeared in a range of parts extending from the classic romanticism of some extracts from The Sleeping Beauty to the grotesque comedy of a droll, bow-legged cook in L’Oeuf à la Coque. With the lightness and gaiety of his variation in the Casse Noisette pas de deux, the formidable strenght of his leaps as the war-liked Tancred in Le Combat, the calm authority of his portrayal of the character presumably representing Death in Charrat’s enigmatic Adame Miroir, Skouratoff that season at last had the opportunity to prove the range and ability of his rapidly maturing powers.

It was in 1951 that Skouratoff came to London again, this time with Les Ballets des Champs-Elysées, dancing in parts created by both Petit and Babilée as well in the classical pas de deux. For several years after he seemed to have found at last a permanent home with the Marquis de Cuevas’ company, but then he left to join the cast of Le Rendezvous Manqué. Afterwards, he was reported as joigning Tcherina’s company, then as leaving again while the ballets were still in rehearsal; this season he has been partnering Markova at the Festival Hall.

All of this means that Skouratoff’s development has been very different from that of most British dancers. He has had the experience of dancing in far more different ballets than if he had remained with one company, and of being subjected to far more different influences; what he has lost in consequence is the advantage of consistent development under a stable artistic direction.

This could easily have led to artistic bankruptcy long before now, succumbing to the temptation to rely on a flashy technique and a strong personality. Skouratoff has technique enough and personality enough to get away with this if he wanted. Not conventionally handsome, he has a strong and interesting face, with steady eyes and a quizzical mouth. His physique is good, and he possesses the kind of innate masculinity which needs no emphasis to make itself felt.

It is his gift of characterisation, however, which gives the stamp of uniqueness to many of Skouratoff’s performances. This works sometimes in unexpected ways. When he danced the choreographer in Lichine’s ballet without music La Création, he eschewed both the fervent romanticism which Lichine himself gave the part and the brooding intensity of Babilée’s performance. Instead, Skouratoff relied on an ansolute quietness of manner, an impression of intelectual rather than physical or emotional power, which nevertheless dominated the ballet effectively.

There are two rôles above all in which Skouratoff gave interpretations of such compelling force that they remain persistently in my memory. One was Petit’s own rôle of the Conjurer in Les Forains, and the other, the escaped convict in Tara’s Piège de lumière.

In the Petit ballet, Skouratoff was by authority and inventiveness definitely the leader of the little troupe of strolling players right from his first entrance. Although he suggested the weariness of the man at the beginning of another hopeless one-night stand, he nonetheless remained the most alive of the players, inspecting the tent as it was erected, aiding and encouraging his colleagues.

And then, during the circus performance, what charm he showed as ringmaster. All the time, by his own reaction, he led the eye of the spectator to the performer in action, then to the tent from which the next was to appear.

With little gestures and momentary expressions he controlled all reactions to what the other dancers were doing. With his forefinger pressed against a thumb, or a hand cupped round one ear, with a kiss of the fingers or a knowing look, he prepared the way for the others or emphasised the highspots of their solos. He was like a chef, minutely supervising the preparation of some confection; he loaded his part with infinite detail, yet kept a light touch throughout, and the ballet took fire from his ardour.

When the time came for his own contribution to the circus, he danced easily, gaily, charmingly. Even the “magic” tricks were done more adroitly than usual – he needed no handkerchief, for instance, to mask the flowers which materialised in his hand.

There is a world of difference between Les Forains and Piège de Lumière. The newly-escaped convict in Tara’s ballet, coming into the dimforest clearing, is no less weary than the Conjurer of Les Forains, yet the moment the chain has been broken from his leg he springs into a hectic variation. Apart from its dramatic implausibility, this solo is not, I feel, particularly well arranged, but Skouratoff’s vigorous approach made it look better than it was.

After this unpromising beginning, the convict fades out of the action until the last scene, when he is captivated by the beautiful butterfly, the Morphide. In his vain attempt to capture her he becomes coated with pollen; this causes him to become mad, imagining that he too is turning into an insect. Skouratoff’s gift of conveying the right character without obvious acting enabled him to carry off this preposterous rôle with conviction. At the end of the ballet his torment and growing madness could be seen cumulatively, first in the expression of his eyes as, alone and dejected, he entered the stage empty-handed after the procession of the other escaped convicts with their victims; then in the spasmodic clutching of his hands, and finally in the twisting violence of his whole body in desperate, agonised leaps.

Skouratoff’s latest appearances with Festival Ballet showed that he had lost none of his old fire, although apart from a forcefully virile Albrecht the rôles he danced gave little opportunity to display his best qualities. When and where he will turn up next is uncertain at present. What I should really like to see is for a choreographer to create for him the part he could dance best of all: that of a genuinely contemporary hero, for which all his alertness, his intelligence and his fastidious drive would seen to have been designed. In the absence of this, the one certain thing is that, self-willed and self-driving as ever, he will enliven his surroundings wherever he may find himself.

(Dance and Dancers, London, December 1959)