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By Wendy Perron
The Vaganova Academy has been renovated, but the spirit of classicism still reigns.
Then and now. Left: Undated archival photo of the Vaganova Academy. Photo from DM Archives; Right: Third-year students (age 13) at the current academy. Photo courtesy Vaganova Academy.
For the students at today’s Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg, history reverberates within the very walls that surround them. The plaques announcing the graduating classes hang near the main stairwell on almost every floor. There’s Pavlova, class of 1899; Nijinsky, 1907; Balanchivadze, 1921; Ulanova, 1928; Nureyev, 1958; Makarova, 1959; Baryshnikov, 1967; and Vishneva, 1995. Whether it was called the Imperial Ballet School, the Leningrad Choreographic Technicum, the Kirov Ballet School, or the Vaganova Ballet Academy, the name means the top of the line for ballet training.
At this location on the famously symmetrical Rossi Street since 1836, the vast building has recently undergone major renovations. The lighting is much brighter, the not-always-working heating pipes have been replaced, and the seventh-floor attic space now houses the Higher School programs (including teacher training, accompanists’ department, and postgraduate courses like “ballet psychology”). Prior to this renovation, back in 2004, the splintery wood floors that had to be sprinkled with water before every class were replaced by Arlekino linoleum floors.
But tradition goes on—with a bit more glamour than usual now that former ballerina Altynai Asylmuratova is at the helm. An international star of stunning, ethereal beauty, she left the stage in 1999 to accept the position of artistic director of the school where she had trained. As a dancer, she had embodied the Vaganova ideal of beautiful, floating port de bras and moving from the inside out. From her exquisitely shaped White Swan pas de deux to her sensual Nikiya (she really used her hips in the snake dance), her artistry was glorious to behold.
There is nothing like this school in the United States. With 20 studios, 40 teachers, 32 pianists, it has operated very much like it did since Czarist times. The 340 students are well aware of their school’s history, how it survived the Russian Revolution and two world wars. During the rocky period after the Revolution, when the Bolsheviks were not at all sure that this elitist art form fit into their socialist ideals, Agrippina Vaganova consolidated the Italian, French, and Russian styles into a methodical approach. (Little-known fact: Her 1934 book, Basic Principles of Classical Ballet, which still serves as a basis for training all over Russia, was first translated into English—and serialized—in Dance Magazine in 1937.)
Thousands of hopeful 10-year-olds apply each year, and only a small percentage are selected, based on their physical potential, to receive this nine-year, government-supported education. They study academics like history, literature, chemistry, and geography as well as ballet, character, modern, and a musical instrument. At two later junctures, students have to pass further exams in order to stay. This year only 32 of the 57 who entered nine years ago will graduate—but that is a higher percentage than in the past.
The Vaganova approach emphasizes the beauty and expressiveness of the port de bras. In a recent Skype interview, Asylmuratova described, with translation assistance from deputy principal Olga Abramova, the Vaganova philosophy of the arms. “All parts of the arm are equally important: the forearm, the shoulder, the elbow, the wrist, the hand. The shape of the hand is the concluding element; the hand should not be broken, overstretched or tense, and the fingers are sculpted into a shape of refined eloquence. The elbows should not be a broken line but a rounded shape. However nothing should be over-relaxed, and the beautiful line should be seen in the hand. When we are doing a transition from one position to another, the hand should be in the position of breathing—the breathing hands. We say ‘the singing hand,’ especially in adagio.”
Attention also goes to the legs, with increasing willingness to work toward the extreme flexibility that enables students to lift their legs up to their ears. But, Asylmuratova cautions, they are training artists, not athletes. She puts a high priority on “preserving their artistry and soulfulness.”
Since perestroika, the school has engaged in fruitful international exchanges. “In the past if a dancer would like to dance Balanchine or MacMillan, it would mean that he left and that would be forever,” says Asylmuratova. “Now a dancer can go dance certain choreographers and return.”
In the reverse direction, the school has invited many international guests. Last fall the Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato, now director of St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theatre Ballet, came to work with the students. They also had a visit from the Royal Danish Ballet School. Their international trainee program includes students from Japan, New Zealand, Finland, Italy, Great Britain—and the United States.
As chance would have it, our “25 to Watch” Keenan Kampa, now at Boston Ballet, was one of those trainees for three years. Why did she take the plunge and give up the comfort of home and a country where she knew the language? In a recent phone conversation, she said she was “just blown away” by Russian dancers. “They’re big and passionate when they dance. There’s energy coming from every single tip of the body.”
The high standards of the school mean that some teachers are extremely strict. “My first year I had a really tough time with one teacher,” says Kampa. “She was one of those typical Soviet-style teachers who could make your life miserable. Out of 110 rehearsals, I probably cried in 105 of them. I developed hives because I was so nervous going into rehearsal every day.”
If that teacher—who has since left—was Carabosse, then Asylmuratova was the Lilac Fairy, spreading compassion among the students. Although she doesn’t teach regular technique classes, she often rehearses the students in classical roles. “Altynai was the most incredible woman to rehearse with,” says Kampa. “When she starts demonstrating something, your jaw drops—she’s that gorgeous! She’s inspirational.” Asked what the director corrected her on, she said, “Her main correction was the feet. She’d say, ‘Feet, feet, feet, feet feet!’ She wanted to see your arch or high passé.” Kampa also appreciated Asylmuratova’s eye for detail. “Before performances of Nutcracker she would come up to me and fix my makeup and help me with my eyebrows. She’s a very nurturing woman.”
That nurturing helped Kampa feel accepted, but mainly she stayed because she knew she was getting excellent training. “The teachers watch you very carefully; they are very picky about every little move you make. My turnout improved immensely from my teachers’ corrections.”
One of the unique things about this system is that each student is assigned a pedagogue. This is not just a classroom teacher but someone who molds the student, takes an interest in her, and, ideally, steers her to a peak of artistry. But the role of the pedagogue also recognizes that these children are far from home and need a bit of maternal comfort. “The Russian teachers are very motherly,” says Kampa, who has been back in the U.S. for a year and a half. “When you’re in class it’s time to work. They’ll yell, they’ll make you do things over and over, but they’re there for you. They watch out for you. My main teacher, Tatiana Udalenkova, became like my mother. I even Skype with her now.”
So with all this wonderful attention, is there a downside? Well, St. Petersburg is in Russia, and you can’t always count on heat and hot water—especially, apparently, during a renovation process. Kampa says that some teachers let them wear a sweater when the heat was off, but only for the first couple combinations at the barre. Brrr! The latest word, thank goodness, is that the heating has been improved.
One may wonder why Asylmuratova retired from the stage at 38, when she was still in demand as a performer. Her reason goes back to her first year in the corps: “From the beginning at the Maryinsky Ballet, I could look around and watch the senior dancers. I was listening to what people were saying behind their backs. These were not big compliments, obviously. So I decided it’s better to leave a year before you’re ready than one week later. Therefore, I knew I would never break the record of longevity set by Alicia Alonso or Maya Plisetskaya.”
But she also felt a calling, a responsibility, in terms of the oral tradition of handing down one’s knowledge. “Ballet is an art for the young,” she says. “Those with experience should transfer their knowledge to young dancers and teach them how to do it so that they become better than we were.”
As the academy gears up for its 275th anniversary next year, Asylmuratova admits that it faces the same challenges as teachers everywhere in terms of the seductions of the internet for students. Her parting words on Skype: “I would advise teachers to love their students, to love ballet, and to do their best. Don’t give up if you feel students are distracted, but keep them dedicated to the art of dance, and keep them interested in every possible way.”
Wendy Perron is editor in chief of Dance Magazine.
Inset: Artistic director Altynai Asylmuratova coaching a student. Photo by Stanislav Belyaevsky, Courtesy Vaganova Academy; Keenan Kampa at right as the Fairy of Courage in Sleeping Beauty, at the 2009 graduation concert, Maryinsky Theatre. Photo by Vladimir Zenzinov, Courtesy Vaganova Academy.
Would Keenan Kampa recommend the Vaganova Academy’s trainee program to other American students?
“Hands down, 180 percent, I would say Yes. It’s tough. You have to be prepared to work hard and suffer through some things. But in terms of ballet, it was the greatest thing I could’ve done. As a person it helped me grow. And it’s the best training you’re gonna get anywhere.”
Vaganova Today: The Preservation of Pedagogical Tradition, by Catherine E. Pawlick, University Press of Florida, 2011
Vaganova: A Dance Journey from Petersburg to Leningrad, Vera Krasovskaya, University Press of Florida, 2005
Basic Principles of Classical Ballet: Russian Ballet Technique, by Agrippina Vaganova, Dover Publications, available on amazon.com.
The Children of Theatre Street: The Fascinating Story of the Kirov Ballet School (1977), Kultur DVD