Temple of Technique: The Vaganova Academy Has Been Renovated, but the Spirit of Classicism Still Reigns

Article excerpt

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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.

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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.)

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Thousands of hopeful 10-yearolds 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. …