Kirov Academy Strikes Gold

By Henkin, Stephen | The World and I, March 1997 | Go to article overview

Kirov Academy Strikes Gold

Henkin, Stephen, The World and I

Ballet School Boasts Two Varna Winners

Having two students win gold at Varna may seem like a miracle, but to Yelena Vinogradova it just shows the depth of the Kirov tradition.

Dance is meant to be a transcendent experience, lifting both performer and audience to new aesthetic and, occasionally, ethereal heights. Yet even in the dance world, where such artistic experiences are expected, a singular event has occurred that defies ready description. Considered by many the Olympics of ballet, the International Ballet Competition at Varna, Bulgaria, saw the unbelievable happen: For the first time in the prestigious event's thirty-two-year history, American dancers won gold medals in both the boys' and girls' divisions. Emerging dance superstars Rasta Thomas and Michele Wiles achieved perhaps the highest honor in dance by capturing gold medals at the biennial competition. To heighten the achievement, Rasta and Michele are both sixth-year students at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C.

While the nation was focused on Atlanta's Olympic Games last summer, the two gifted young Americans were winning gold overseas in events possibly even more demanding than those held at home. The coveted awards put Rasta and Michele, both from Maryland, in rare company. Previous gold medalists who have gone on to international stardom include ballet legends Mikhail Baryshnikov, Natalia Makarova, Alla Sizova, and Fernando Bujones.

To appreciate the outcome, one must understand the judging of such an event. It has often been said that the judges of international ballet competitions tend to give preference to dancers trained in the Russian tradition. Even though only one juror at Varna--Yekaterina Maximova--was Russian, the majority of the panel were from former Soviet or Soviet-bloc nations where the precise technique and rigorous training named after

Maryinsky-Kirov teacher Agrippina Vaganova was the standard. Even the juror who represented the United States--Eva Evdokimova--was well versed in that schooling. Therefore, the winning of gold by two Americans at Varna seems to defy conventional wisdom. Unless, of course, one understands how effectively the teaching of the Vaganova method has been transferred from Russia to Washington's Kirov Academy of Ballet.

Since its founding in 1991, the Kirov Academy has become one of the elite dance schools in the world. The academy is under the tutelage of Oleg Vinogradov, who has also been, since 1977, the artistic director of the famed Kirov Ballet of St. Petersburg, Russia. The school therefore provides a unique opportunity for American students to inherit the rich tradition of Russian ballet. In six years, it has been able to make a significant contribution to the study of classical ballet in America.

The Kirov Academy apparently demands the same training and technical proficiency as its parent organization, the renowned Vaganova Academy, founded in Leningrad in 1957. The artistic goals of both institutions remain the same: to impart the classic Kirov stylistic elements to the dance student. These include the unity of mime and dance into a dramatic, cohesive structure; virtuoso feats of brilliance, both in temperament and physique, brought off with dazzling energy; prodigious leaps and pirouettes in a very masculine and bravura style; classical inventions that set off the gifts of the artists; exciting stage effects; an unerring sense of proportion in narrative and placed-dance sequences; the balance of group dance and solos and processions with set displays; and, underlying all, a strict emphasis on the fundamental techniques of dance in the inimitable Kirov style and aesthetic.

The methodology is undeniably successful. Through its long history, the Kirov tradition has spawned some of the world's most exceptional dancers, including Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, George Balanchine, Michel Fokine, Maria Danilova, Rudolf Nureyev, Sizova, Makarova, and Baryshnikov. …

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