Serge Oukrainsky’s gossipy and sometimes catty memoire is very personal account, told largely from memory, of the ballet world in the early 20th century.  After a difficult childhood spent shuttling between Russia and France on his father’s whim, a pawn between estranged parents, aged 15 he embarked on a career as a painter.  He was over 25 when a chance remark at a dinner gave him the opportunity to take ballet classes with Ivan Clustine, initially with a view to partnering Nathalie Trouhanowa in some performances at the Chatelet Theatre.  In 1913 he joined Pavlova’s company, also meeting his long-term companion Andreas Pavley, and the book tells the story of his travels, including a narrow escape from Paris in 1914.

Anna Pavlova is barely mentioned before chapter 10.  At first, her performance failed to impress Oukrainsky (partly on account of her costumes), with the exception of Papillion [sic]:  “she appeared to me incomparable.  She was indeed a true butterfly … “.  The description of particular performances is a strength of this book.  Oukrainsky describes not only occasions such as Pavlova’s performance before Kaiser Wilhelm II, but also, for example, seeing Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky in Le Spectre de la Rose.  Of Nijinsky, he writes:  “ it was not only the athletic jump I that admired, but the way he conserved in the leap, the most beautiful lines of the dancer”.

How talented was Oukrainsky?   Did Clustine really believe that this late-starter could match Nijinsky, or did he diplomatically flatter a rich beginner who conveniently owned his own studio?  Oukrainsky certainly felt that Pavlova did not allow him the scope that his talent merited, and he is critical of her limited repertoire.  He describes plenty of intrigue, whether in the misappropriation of bouquets, the suppression of popular solos or in decisions not to re-employ rival dancers.  Oukrainsky’s distaste for mere acrobatics, his horror of mediocrity, his capacity for hard work and the evidence of his cultural and artistic education are all in his favour.  However, his conceit is not.  He specialized in oriental dances, and the pictures of him in Indian, Persian and Grecian costume show a fine physique and excellent turnout.  He even danced on pointe without shoes.  But when Pavlova’s partner Novikoff left her, she did not give any of his roles to Oukrainsky, and none of the actual photographs show Oukrainsky in a classical ballet pose.  Later, he was variously a principal dancer, choreographer, director and teacher in Chicago and California, but it is hard to believe that he was on a par with Nijinsky or that he seriously competed with Pavlova, as suggested by the quotations included from the Dresden press.

Oukrainsky’s name is barely remembered in England today, but there is a legacy.  He designed costumes for Pavlova, one of them being the lemon satin and black velvet dress with a train that she wore for the Pavlova Gavotte, familiar to many from Malvina Hofmann’s famous figurine .

Maggie Watson

25 August 2013

My two years with Anna Pavlova, by Serge Oukrainsky.  Noverre Press, 2013 (first published 1940), distributed in the UK by Dance Books Ltd.

Order it from Dance Books here