Obituary: Igor Youskevitch
Thursday 16 June 1994
WHEN THE Russian-American dancer Igor Youskevitch made one of his visits to Britain in 1953 with Ballet Theatre (the present American Ballet Theatre), Peter Williams wrote of him in the magazine Dance and Dancers: 'Of all great dancers today, he is the one upon whom the English male dancer could most safely model himself.'
Youskevitch inherited the pure classical style of the Maryinsky Theatre, in St Petersburg, through his teacher, Olga Preobrajenska. He was possessed of virtuosity and precision, as attested by the continuing challenge that today's dancers find in his signature role in George Balanchine's Theme and Variations (1947). He also had restraint, an effortless look and a natural, unforced nobility, and his acting was convincingly warm and sincere rather than dramatic on a large scale. Onstage he thought of himself as a dancer only when he was actually dancing, he often said; otherwise, stressing logical motivation, he behaved as he felt the character would in real life.
He worked with the choreographers Leonide Massine, Bronislava Nijinska and, very briefly, Sir Frederick Ashton, among others, but the roles he was best known for were classical: in Giselle and the Black Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake, in addition to Theme and Variations, which Ballet Theatre commissioned for him. He was adored by audiences for his romantic and masculine presence - a perfect pairing with the femininity of Alicia Alonso, with whom he formed a renowned partnership in the late 1940s and 1950s.
In the United States, Youskevitch was instrumental in gaining attention for the male classical dancer at a time when the demi-
caractere dancer, epitomised by Massine, held sway. Youskevitch also became a great favorite in Cuba, where he established the credibility of the male dancer while performing with Alonso's company in its early days. Many American and Cuban dancers trace their first interest in ballet to seeing him perform.
He was much admired by his colleagues for the example he set onstage and for his offstage demeanour and courtesy. He did not indulge in rivalries and gossip. His elegant carriage and courtly manner remained with him throughout his life. Of a serene and above- board temperament, but stubborn when necessary, he could tell stories about himself: of holding a one-man sit-down strike to protest at an unfair fine, or giving a warning squeeze to the wrist of a partner who had a habit of moving her arm around during balances in a manner suggesting that he was not supporting her firmly.
He loved a good bottle of vodka or a good game of poker. He was a warm and courteous host. His serenity carried him through the transition from dancing to retirement with fewer regrets than most dancers.
Youskevitch was born into comfortable circumstances as the son of a judge in a small town in Ukraine. When he was eight, the Russian Revolution swept him and his family away to Belgrade. There, as an accomplished gymnast, he came to the attention of a dancer, Xenia Grunt, who took him on as her partner. He was 20 at the time, and he always felt that his late start gave him an analytical approach to technique and to interpretation.
After intensive training with Preobrajenska in Paris, he was fortunate to receive excellent coaching from the Diaghilev demi-
caractere dancer Leon Woizikowsky, as a member of two small touring companies, Les Ballets Russes de Paris and Les Ballets de Leon Woizikowsky. Youskevitch made an early reputation for masculine lyricism in Mikhail Fokine's Le Spectre de la rose, in which he made his debut after only three years of training. Soon after, during the Woizikowsky company's successful season at the Coliseum in London in 1935, the Sunday Times's critic described him in Spectre as 'a very Adonis for grace'. He danced the role again in London as a guest with Rene Blum's Ballets de Monte Carlo under Fokine's eye the following year and on BBC television with Tamara Toumanova in 1938.
For 10 months, in 1936-37, Youskevitch toured Australia when Woizikowsky's company became the nucleus of the first troupe sent there by the impresario Colonel de Basil.
With the Massine/Denham Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo from 1938 to 1944, Youskevitch's partners included Alexandra Danilova, Irina Baronova and, especially, the English ballerina Dame Alicia Markova. It was after Serge Lifar's notorious ill-tempered performance with Markova in Giselle during the season at Drury Lane Theatre, London, in 1938 that Youskevitch first learnt the ballet, at short notice, in order to partner her in it. Massine created noble roles for the two of them in his Seventh Symphony of Beethoven and Rouge et Noir to Shostakovich. During the Drury Lane season Youskevitch married a fellow dancer, Anna Scarpova.
During the Second World War, the Ballets Russes remained in the United States, where Youskevitch eventually enlisted in the US Navy and became a physical conditioning instructor. Returning to dancing form in 1946, he reached new depth and maturity during his years at Ballet Theatre. His long performing career stretched into his late forties: when Peter Williams commended him to the attention of British dancers, he was 41 years old.
He went on to fruitful teaching and coaching, directing his own touring company, heading the dance programme at the University of Texas for 11 years, and becoming artistic director of the New York International Ballet Competition.
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