Magazine article Russian Life

Ballet Bastion: Inside the Vaganova Academy

Magazine article Russian Life

Ballet Bastion: Inside the Vaganova Academy

Article excerpt

Every little girl dreams of becoming a ballerina - at least for a few weeks after seeing The Nutcracker. In my case, the reverie was Russia-inspired and lasted almost 10 years. For most of the 1970s, I attended a ballet school run by Czech emigres on the outskirts of Washington, DC. While they didn't have much love for Mother Russia - they left in 1968 when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague--the couple readily acknowledged the superiority of Big Brother's national ballet tradition.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

My teacher, Irina Prochotsky, was both a beneficiary and proponent of the dance pedagogy of Agrippina Vaganova, the renowned ballet teacher who developed a formal syllabus that codified Russian dance. The "Vaganova method" -which most American culturati had never heard of at the time--set ours apart from other ballet schools in the Maryland suburbs. Plus, we had Madame Sophie Firsova once a week. In my memory, she was a graduate of the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg, a direct link to the celebrated school that has turned out almost every major Russian ballet star who ever leaped across a stage, from Anna Pavlova to Mikhail Baryshnikov.

For almost three centuries, the Vaganova Academy--originally called the Imperial Ballet School - has supplied St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater with world-class dancers. Certain musical passages would transport Madame Firsova back to that institution's Great Stage, which is to Russian ballet what La Scala is to Italian Opera. For visuals, there was a book. We pored over its black-and-white pictures of uniformed children toiling away in perfect corps-de-ballet unison. Aspiring to a comparable level of discipline and dedication, we eschewed boys, food and "normal" American high school life for a daily regime of Soviet-style ballet training.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Needless to say, the Prochotskys could not replicate the 270-year-old Vaganova Ballet Academy, which had been established by imperial fiat in the upper floors of the Winter Palace. Today, 10-year-olds from all over Russia compete to get into the program, which trains them free of charge in a boarding-school setting. Of the 500 kids who are invited to audition every year, 60 are admitted. About 40 of those actually make it to graduation - eight years later. In addition to ballet, they learn all the standard academic subjects, plus folk dancing, drama, piano and French -the official language of ballet. In the Soviet era, the chosen few enjoyed state-sponsored status - similar to Olympic athletes--and worked in lavish settings reminiscent of the tsars.

Back in the U.S., we did our best to imitate the Russians with daily classes in ballet and related subjects, including the history of music. We had George Balanchine on our side: the celebrated choreographer who founded the New York City Ballet was a Vaganova Ballet Academy alum. As was Rudolf Nureyev. A leaping advertisement for the academy whose closely held ballet secrets enhanced Russia's Cold War mystique, Nureyev's androgynous good looks and raw physicality uprooted all preconceived notions of what a male ballet dancer could be - just like Vaslav Nijinsky, who was an earlier product of the same school.

When Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov defected, in 1970 and 1974 respectively, Americans saw two more jaw-dropping examples of classical ballet perfection. Both VBA grads, they could jump higher, balance longer, turn more pirouettes--and act their parts more convincingly-than their American and European counterparts. U.S. dancers were humbled by the Russians' superior technique--but for us, their success was a vindication. We, after all, had long known that Vaganova was onto something: she had perfected, documented and institutionalized the best ballet teaching system in the world. Her 1934 Fundamentals of the Classical Dance is still the bible of Russian ballet. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.