Premier Danseur: The Alfred Mégroz Story

Photo courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France

If you were a Lutz lover in Switzerland in the roaring twenties, you definitely knew the name Alfred Mégroz. The thirtysomething skater was the pride of the Club des Patineurs de Lausanne at the time, amassing win after win at the Swiss Figure Skating Championships from 1919 to 1924 while serving on the board of his skating club. After placing a disastrous eighth out of nine competitors in the figure skating competition at the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, he penned a report to the Olympic organizers advocating for a Winter Sports Week in Chamonix, France. We now remember that event as the 1924 Winter Olympic Games.

At the Bandy Rink in St. Moritz in a skating competition held in conjunction with a reunion of skating enthusiasts who frequented the Kulm Hotel, Alfred won the men's event, waltzed to first place ahead of Britons Madeleine and Kenneth Macdonald Beaumont and Ethel Muckelt and Leslie Hoov and judged the women's competition. Though an accomplished competitor who wore many hats, Alfred's most important contributions to the skating world came after he turned professional in 1925.

After training skaters at the Patinoire Ste-Catherine for two years, Alfred made a living at the Caux-Palace, where he took the (then) unorthodox step of instructing skaters both on the ice... and at the ballet barre. Alfred's students included Louis Pache, Francoise Benois, Martine Galie, Riviana Casella and Claudine Huguenin. In between skating lessons, he took the ice himself in a neverending series of exhibitions throughout Switzerland, extolling to anyone who would listen the virtues of artistic skating to classical music. In every sense, he was the obscure thirties version of John Curry.

Alfred Mégroz and Yvonne de Ligne

It was a 1928 exhibition at the Palace à Montana with Belgian Champion Yvonne de Ligne that first really made everyone take notice. In between demonstrations of school figures, Alfred performed exhibitions to Ernest Gillet's "La Lettre de Manon", Franz Schubert's "Impromptu" and Arthur Rubinstein's "Valse Caprice in E flat major". The January 31, 1928 edition of the "Nouvelliste Valaisan" called it a "superb artistic and athletic event" full of "wonderfully harmonious undulating movements." The following year, he wowed the residents of Neuchâtel with the city's first true ice show, which featured Alfred's interpretations of waltzes by Frédéric Chopin and an artistic duet with his student, Ada Muller of Montreux. The fact that he had studied dance under famed Russian prima ballerina Vera Trefilova was evident in his refined performances.

Alfred Mégroz and Mme. Goudet skating in Geneva, Switzerland

Like John Curry, Alfred Mégroz developed his own troupe, consisting mainly of students and those who shared his belief that skating should be approached moreso an art than a sport. Though lacking in flashy costumes and travelling spotlights, the troupe created pieces set to the music of Franz Schubert and Claude Debussy. They even took on Charles Gounod's "Faust". Describing one of the troupe's shows - which consisted of seven separate acts - in January 1932, a reporter from "L'Express" wrote: "One begins to understand just what that 'physical pleasure' of the mysterious skating [means], this thirst for air, light, movement. It provides joy... opens new horizons. One could not be surprised to see skaters such as Grafström and Henie enter deliberately into the footsteps of the stubborn creator of this genre, Alfred Mégroz." The testimonials continued to pour in. "La Villageoise", describing one of his performances in January 1934 raved that he was "an artist who worked with a grace and infinite ease on ice... His interpretations of classical music are excellent, especially 'The Swan' by St-Saens [which was] a great success."

Alfred Mégroz ice dancing with Emmy Andersen

One chilly December afternoon at the Molitor Rink in Paris in 1935, Alfred hosted a séance, followed by an exhibition where he skated to classical music. It went over so well, the next month two time Olympic Gold Medallists Andrée and Pierre Brunet joined in on the fun in a rousing encore. The French loved the theatrics of the Swiss skating artist and hired him on to work with French Champions Gaby Clericetti and Jean Henrion. The Swiss newspaper "L'Temps" praised the decision of their neighbours: "We must congratulate Mr. Mégroz for the trust placed in him, perfectly justified in the eyes of those who know his incomparable mastery."

Alfred's artistic chops were put to to the test in 1937, when he went to Great Britain to work with Claude Langdon on "Rhapsody On Ice", a lavish skating production developed by impresario Claude Langdon and staged at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. The production consisted of two bona fide ice ballets, "The Enchanted Night" and "The Brahman's Daughter". Alfred conceived "The Enchanted Night" and choreographed both productions, working with a who's who of professional skating in the process, including Belita Jepson-Turner, Phil Taylor, Harrison Thomson, The Brunet's and Frick and Frack. In his 1959 book "Ice-Skating: A History", Nigel Brown wrote, "It was mainly through the enthusiasm of Alfred Mégroz... that 'Enchanted Night' and 'The Brahman's Daughter' saw the light of day. He sought to combine the principles of ballet and skating, a unification as he believed of art and sport. He made the vital mistake of not understanding that skating was... a very different art form from ballet." Although the shows were largely panned by critics, skater after skater he worked with in "Rhapsody On Ice" went on to long and influential professional careers, shaping the artistic landscape of figure skating through both their performances and work as coaches and choreographers.

Following the Covent Garden production, Alfred returned to Switzerland and taught with Alexander Schlageter at the Patinoire de Montchoisi in Lausanne before opening l'Ecole de patinage du Windsor Palace in Villars-Chesières, where he kept skating lessons and tests for youngsters alive throughout World War II. In the forties, he served as President of the Swiss Skating Association and in in the fifties, acted as President of the Schweizer Eislauflehrer-Verband (Swiss Professional Skating Teachers' Association). 

After dedicating a lifetime to the betterment of the sport, Alfred retired to Montreux and died June 30, 1956 at the age of seventy two while visiting Pregny-Chambésy, Switzerland, after living with diabetes for many years. Though rarely given a lick of attention, his contributions to figure skating were extremely valuable.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":