Ballet

Inside The Vaganova Academy

The Vaganova Ballet Academy, based in St. Petersburg, Russia, is nearly as old as ballet itself. Through the centuries, czars and governments have come and gone—but the Academy has remained. It’s where legends like George Balanchine, Rudolf Nureyev and Natalia Makarova did their first pliés. It’s also where Agrippina Vaganova developed her groundbreaking methodology.

So what is it like to be a student there today, and to feel the weight of history on your shoulders every time you step up to the barre? DS takes a peek inside one of the most distinguished ballet training institutions in the world.

A Glittering Tradition

Two hundred and seventy-two years ago, the Russian empress Anna Ivanovna issued a royal decree to start a ballet school in St. Petersburg. The first class had only 12 boys and girls. But over the course of the next 100 years, the school blossomed. It became the principal training ground for its affiliated company, the Imperial Ballet, where choreographer Marius Petipa created ballets like Don Quixote and Sleeping Beauty.

The biggest development in the school’s more recent past was the arrival of Agrippina Vaganova. A graduate of the school and a former dancer in the Imperial Ballet, Vaganova found her true calling as a teacher. She was hired in 1921—the same year Balanchine graduated—and later became the director of both the school and the affiliated company, which by then had been rechristened the Maryinsky Ballet. (The school was renamed for Vaganova in 1957, six years after her death.)

“Today, the whole school is full of this spirit of history,” says Irina Tolchilshikova, 18, who is in her eighth year of training at the Academy. The hallways of the school are lined with photos of classes from the last 150 years, an inspiring—and intimidating—reminder for the students of the great dancers who came before them.

The Vaganova Style

During her tenure, Vaganova created a syllabus that is now the standard in Russian training. “Vaganova was a pioneer, and we owe her a lot in the ballet world,” says John White, a former National Ballet of Cuba dancer who teaches the Vaganova syllabus at the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet and gives Vaganova workshops across the country. According to White, one distinguishing aspect of the technique is its emphasis on the arms, hands and eyes. “There is a total involvement of every part of the person in each and every movement,” he says. “The eyes, the upper body, the facial expression and the arms and hands are all connected. It’s different from some of the other schools, which often focus on the legs and feet.”

This isn’t to say that the legs and feet aren’t important. To Vaganova, “everything leads to allegro,” White says. “She felt that adagio is nice—it gives the eye a chance to rest, and has beautiful poses and positioning. But dancing becomes true dancing when you leave the earth and fly.”

To maintain the Academy’s style and technical standards, all of its teachers and coaches receive extensive training before they are allowed in the classroom. “It is much the equivalent of the American master’s degree in that they study every aspect of training dancers of all ages, from 10-year-old beginners to 18-year-old preprofessionals,” White explains.

Student Life

From dawn to dusk, the Vaganova student’s life revolves around training, a point driven home by the fact that the dormitories and dance studios are all part of the same immense, majestic facility. Most students head to the dance classrooms—with their raked, usually wooden floors, sprinkled with water, rather than rosin, to prevent slipping—early in the morning to warm up before their 9:30 am technique class. Then they have academic classes, followed by another dance class. In the evenings, there are rehearsals for various student concerts and for the small roles they perform with the Maryinsky Ballet.

In addition to their dance classes, students at the Academy study history, algebra, geometry, geography, biology, Russian language and literature, French, English, physics, chemistry, music, music history and ballet history. Sometimes academics and ballet intersect, as when students are required to write essays about their technical mistakes. “There is usually a discussion with the coach regarding each mistake and how to correct it,” says school principal Vera Dorofeeva. “Classical ballet is a long road to perfection, and the student must understand that every step is important.”

It’s not surprising that Irina says her biggest challenge is overcoming tiredness. “I have very little free time during the school year—only on Sundays,” she says. And like most Vaganova students, she’s relentless about pushing herself. “If something isn’t working, I can’t give up,” she says. “If I don’t manage to do the movement the first, second or third time, maybe I’ll manage it by the sixth time.” In fact, after a long day of classes, Irina usually returns to the studio to do extra stretching and technical drills. “The most important thing,” she says, “is to overcome difficult moments and win.”

Fierce Competition

It would be a huge understatement to say that getting a coveted spot at the Academy is a challenge. Between 4,000 and 7,000 children ages 8 to 10 audition annually for about 70 openings in the beginner class. And despite this extreme selectivity, getting into the Academy doesn’t guarantee a professional career. It doesn’t even guarantee graduation. Only 20 or so students actually complete the program and join companies.

In order to proceed to the next class, students must pass an annual exam. “There are fewer positions in each subsequent year,” explains events coordinator Olga Abramova. “This means that there is competition for each student’s position.” Former Maryinsky Ballet dancer Dmitry Trubchanov, currently a soloist at Colorado Ballet, began studying at the Academy at age 8 and recalls that during his first year, there were 10 boys in his class. By the time he graduated, there were three. “It’s tough. If the staff doesn’t see you progress, then you’re dismissed,” he says. “It’s easier for them to be so harsh because the government supports the school, so they don’t have to worry about making money from tuition.” (The school is still fully state-funded; all of its 320 students attend for free.)

At the end of their training, students take a state graduation exam attended by artistic directors from various Russian companies looking to fill open spaces. “Sometimes a student may receive more than one invitation to join a company,” Abramova says. “The most desired company is the Maryinsky Theatre [known in the U.S. as the Kirov Ballet]. However, some students not accepted by the Maryinsky may go to the Mikhailovsky Theatre or the Eifman Ballet.” Others, like Trubchanov, decide to dance with U.S. companies, while extraordinarily gifted alums like Diana Vishneva and Svetlana Zakharova may become stars of an international scale, performing with companies all over the world.

Looking Forward

Though Russian ballet has seen a lot of changes since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Academy remains a strong symbol of the country’s glorious ballet tradition. It’s also improved its already impressive international reputation, especially since the 1999 appointment of former Maryinsky dancer Altinai Asylmuratova as the school’s artistic director. “Because of her extensive contacts, representatives from foreign ballet schools often visit us,” says press secretary Julia Telepina. “This allows the students to broaden their outlook and introduces them to ballet trends in other countries.” There are even opportunities to tour abroad. Vaganova students have performed in the U.S., Japan and Italy.

And the Academy continues to evolve. Students can now study for two diplomas: ballet dancer and bachelor of performing arts. Additional classes in performing arts management and choreography have been added recently. Dorofeeva is also overseeing a restoration of the Academy’s facilities and theater.

“The Academy has witnessed many changes of political power, and has seen revolutions and wars,” Telepina says. “Yet, despite all the hardships, it has preserved its place in the culture of the world.”

A Typical Day At The Vaganova Academy

9:30–11:00 am: ballet technique

11:00 am–1:00 pm: academic subjects

1:00 pm: lunch

2:00 pm: character dance or dance history

4:00 pm: academic subjects

5:00 pm: rehearsal

Note: Special thanks to Olga Abramova for her translation assistance.

Dance News
Photo by Jayme Thornton

Harper Watters is a ballet dancer for today's generation. A social media maestro and a charismatic performer, the Houston Ballet soloist is equally at home in front of the camera hosting his hit YouTube series, "The Pre Show"; interacting with fans on his crazy-popular Instagram account; or showing off his beautiful classical technique onstage. It's a multifaceted identity that's proven to be invaluable to his career—and it's taking him to places he never even dreamed of.

Keep reading... Show less

Leap! National Dance Competition offers dancers of all skill levels an opportunity to showcase their talents in an event where the focus is on fun and competing is just a bonus!

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer

Getting corrections from our dance instructors is how we grow, and as students, it's important that we do our best to apply every correction right away. But sometimes—whether it's because we're in physical pain, or have a lot on our minds, or are just not paying attention—those corrections don't sink in. And from a teacher's standpoint, giving the same corrections time and time again gets old very fast. Here are 10 important corrections dance teachers are tired of giving. Take them to heart!

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
The School at Jacob's Pillow's contemporary program auditions (photo by Karli Cadel, courtesy Jacob's Pillow)

Summer intensive auditions can be nerve-racking. A panel of directors is watching your every move, and you're not even sure if you can be seen among the hundreds of other dancers in the room. We asked five summer intensive directors for their input on how dancers can make a positive impression—and even be remembered next year.

Keep reading... Show less
Screenshot via YouTube

Look out, 'cause here they come!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News

When we think of a dancer who's broken barriers, American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland tends to be the name that comes to mind. And though Copeland has been a crucial advocate for equality in the world of ballet, Raven Wilkinson—a mentor of Copeland's—is considered one of the original pioneers of the movement.

In 1955, Wilkinson became the first African American to dance with the renowned Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her fortitude in the face of bigotry and hate cemented her legacy. Now, with the release of the new children's book Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, a new generation of dancers will be inspired by her tale of overcoming obstacles to achieve a dream.

The book details Wilkinson's life, from her experience as a young dancer training in Harlem, to her run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan while on tour with Ballet Russe, to her later ballet career in Europe. "There were times where my heart really hurt because of the situations I had to deal with," she says. "But I always had faith that I was made to be a dancer and that I was gonna dance."

Dance Spirit spoke with Wilkinson to discuss the new book and get her take on racial equality within the ballet world.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
Leah Morrison in Trisha Brown's If You Couldn't See Me, in which the soloist never faces the audience (photo by Julia Cervantes, courtesy Trisha Brown Dance Company)

Postmodern pioneer Trisha Brown redefined how dance is seen and felt. A founding member of Judson Dance Theater, Brown frequently collaborated with other experimental artists like Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, and Steve Paxton.

She embraced pedestrian movement, pairing everyday gesture with rhythm and fluidity. "It's liquid," says Wendy Perron, who danced with Brown in the '60s and '70s. "Like a river with many tributaries, water coming out of a faucet, or being on a raft and seeing the water move away in different directions." Brown also pushed beyond stages with choreography in fields, museums—even on the sides of buildings.

Keep reading... Show less
Blankenbuehler (far left) with the rest of the "Hamilton" creative team scontent-iad3-1.cdninstagram.com

So book your tickets to Tulsa already, people!

Keep reading... Show less
Your Body
Amanda LaCount showing off her skills (screenshot via YouTube)

There's a common misconception that a dancer's body has to be thin. But the truth is that talent knows no body type, and the number on the scale never determines an artist's capabilities. Here are some extraordinary dancers fighting the stereotype of what a dancer "should" look like.

Keep reading... Show less
Watch This
Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB

Mark your calendars, bunheads! On Monday, January 29th, at 2:45 PM (EST)/11:45 AM (PST), Pacific Northwest Ballet will be streaming a live rehearsal of Act II of Kent Stowell's Swan Lake.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Want to Be on Our Cover?

covermodelsearch-image

Video

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Dance Spirit in your inbox

Sponsored