Ballet

Mastering the Vaganova technique

Precision. Quiet power. Controlled strength. Regal carriage. Vaganova-trained dancers are easy to spot: Their technique is deeply internalized and their bodies naturally breathe classical movement—a result of years of highly structured class. Take American Ballet Theatre’s Irina Dvorovenko—her gorgeous eyes are focused, her lines pure, her port de bras and épaulement adding flair and character to every move. It’s no surprise that her signature role is Odette/Odile. But who was the woman who set the stage for dancers like Irina? It was another Russian ballerina, Agrippina Vaganova, who revolutionized the art of ballet with the technique that bears her name.

Looking Back
Vaganova graduated from the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1897. (The company and its affiliated school are now known in the U.S. as the Kirov Ballet and the Vaganova Academy of Ballet, whereas in Russia, they’re known as the Maryinsky.) She danced with the Imperial Ballet while Marius Petipa was the company’s ballet master, but after nine years, left the stage for the classroom. Her first pupil to receive widespread recognition was Marina Semenova, with Galina Ulanova, Irina Kolpakova and numerous other Russian prima ballerinas soon to follow. Today, many schools boast Vaganova training, the most prominent being the Vaganova Academy of Ballet in St. Petersburg and its sister school, the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC.

Yuri Grigoriev, whose school in L.A. produces gorgeous Vaganova-trained dancers (see DS March cover girl Lilit Hogtanian and Jodi Labowe, pictured), was trained by Nicolai Tarasov, a famed contemporary of Vaganova’s, at the Bolshoi Academy in Moscow. “Vaganova was extremely bright,” Grigoriev says. “She took from the best training at the time and created her own syllabus.”

Technique To-Do
As a dancer, Vaganova was lauded for her strong jumps and elegant technique, but she wasn’t an emotionally expressive dancer. This criticism influenced the marriage of intricate footwork and artistic expression that encapsulates her technique. Vaganova incorporated a clear progression of difficulty in class. She was extremely detail-oriented, to the point of being obsessive. “She had a specific thing that she would work on each day,” says Grigoriev. “She would do one barre for a month.” Where she saw weaknesses in the center, she would connect it back to the barre. Building strength meant repetition, repetition, repetition—no choreography until center. Here are a few things Vaganova never tired of emphasizing:

Tendu: Vaganova believed this basic step was the foundation of all of classical ballet. “One of my teachers from St. Petersburg would say that you could do a dissertation just on tendu alone, and how it affects the entire training,” remarks Grigoriev. The foot leaves a perfect first position, massaging the floor with the ball of the foot and leading forward with the heel.

Épaulement: “Vaganova épaulement is characterized by the harmonious shapes attained by the torso, arms, head and even direction of the eyes,” says Edward Ellison, the artistic director of Ellison Ballet–Professional Training Program in NYC who studied pedagogy at the Vaganova School. He feels that the Vaganova technique’s most prominent features are the sculptural balance created by the épaulement, and the expressiveness and expansiveness of Vaganova’s port de bras. Focusing on clear épaulement not only builds strong technique, but also helps dancers grow stylistically. The upper back, from which all movement of the torso originates, should be supple. Also, starting out with a square port de bras gives dancers a solid foundation in order to allow expansion of the chest and freedom in the arms as a mature performer.

Jumps: Because she loved to jump, it’s only natural that Vaganova focused on ballon. Synchronizing the port de bras with the movement of the legs creates explosive jumps, while the demi-pliés that begin the warm-up reappear to give the dancer power, lift and a solid landing. “Although known for their exquisite beauty, the arms are not limited to mere decorative purposes,” says Ellison. “They are carefully studied to be functional as well.” The arms should always relate clearly to the positions and coordinate with the movement of the legs. In a grand jeté, for example, the arms move purposefully through first position and lift in time with the grand battement of the leg, propelling the body forward. The landing in arabesque is anchored by the arms, as they lower to the arabesque line with the plié of the front knee.

Retiré: Vaganova raised the old-fashioned retiré, designating high retiré as different from medium retiré and coupé.

The way that Vaganova incorporated the best of the best in the development of her technique has not stopped—with globalization inevitably comes stylistic influence. While Vaganova’s hallmarks may seem applicable to many (or even all) of the other ballet techniques, it’s important to remember that various styles, from Cecchetti to Bournonville to RAD, were inspired by each other. And, many directors today don’t want to see an extreme bias toward one style; they’d rather be dazzled by a strong foundation on top of which any style can be placed. Even for a dancer who hopes to join a classical company, the ability to perform all kinds of classical and contemporary movement is imperative. So as it becomes more difficult to tell specific styles of ballet apart, it is Vaganova’s pioneering philosophy, her insistence upon a fully engaged class where every step is meaningful, that immortalizes her technique.

















Win It
Photos by Erin Baiano

It's time to get your pirouette on! From September 5th to September 30th, we're hosting a contest to find out who's the best turner of them all.

Put together your most impressive turning combo. Post a video online. Share your turns with us and thousands of other dancers around the world. And if our editors think you're the top turner, you'll win a fabulous prize.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer

All of 18-year-old Kaylin Maggard's dreams—from scoring the title of National Senior Outstanding Dancer at New York City Dance Alliance Nationals to winning the 2017 Dance Spirit Cover Model Search—are coming true. And to anyone who knows the gorgeous contemporary dancer, that's no surprise.

From the moment the Dance Spirit staff met Kaylin, it was obvious her humility and talent would take her far. Not only did she go full-out during the photo shoot and class at Broadway Dance Center, but she was always cheering on, laughing with, and supporting her fellow CMS contestants Haley Hartsfield and Michelle Quiner. During the voting period, the social media world was abuzz with praise for her work ethic, positive attitude, and generosity.

Since her CMS trip to NYC, Kaylin's moved from her hometown of Columbia, MO, to the Big Apple for her freshman year at Juilliard, and is busy getting acquainted with the city. As for the future? She's taking it one opportunity at a time, but something tells us we'll be seeing this contemporary queen reach new heights every year.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer

New York City principal Lauren Lovette has become an icon thanks to her emotional maturity and exceptional musicality. The 26-year-old quickly rose through the ranks after joining the company as an apprentice in 2009, reaching principal status in 2015. A Thousand Oaks, CA, native, Lovette started studying ballet seriously at age 11, at the Cary Ballet Conservatory in Cary, NC. After attending two summer courses at the School of American Ballet, she enrolled as a full-time student in 2006. Last year, she made her choreographic debut with For Clara, her first piece for NYCB. Catch her latest work this month during the company's fall season. —Courtney Bowers

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer

In our "Dear Katie" series, former NYCB soloist Kathryn Morgan answers your pressing dance questions. Have something you want to ask Katie? Email dearkatie@dancespirit.com for a chance to be featured!

Dear Katie,

I know I'm not getting good enough dance training from any of my local studios. But I'm not sure I'm ready to move away to study at a big-name school, either. How do you know when you're ready to leave home to pursue your passion?

Marisa

Keep reading... Show less
Your Body

Instagram star Kylie Shea has built a following of nearly 170,000 with her playful workout videos, which combine traditional fitness activities, like jumping rope or running on the treadmill, with pointe shoes and sassy choreography. Shea's effortless cool-girl-next-door vibe and solid ballet technique make her vids totally irresistible.

Now Shea's using her platform to address the body image issues that tend to plague dancers. In a poignant video, she sheds her clothes and tugs at her skin. The caption explains her relationship with her body and the pressure she feels to maintain a certain aesthetic as a dancer.

Keep reading... Show less
Your Body

Physical discomfort is inevitable when you're spending tons of hours in the studio every day, but some pain shouldn't be suffered through. "Dancing through pain can make an injury worse and lead to more time away from dance," says Dr. Joel Brenner, medical director of dance medicine at Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters in Norfolk, VA. "Failing to rest and recover when you're in serious pain could even lead to the point where you're unable to dance in the future."

That may sound scary, but there's good news: If you take precautions and listen to your body, many injuries can be stopped in their tracks. The first step? Knowing what's normal—and what's not.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
(From left) Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Yasmin Nagdhi in a still from "Duet"

Think about it: How often do you see a ballet pas de deux for two women? Almost never, right? Sometimes, choreographers will forgo the traditional danseur-ballerina pas to make a duet for two guys, since they can lift and partner each other easily. But a dance for two ballerinas is a rare thing.

That's part of what makes "Duet," a new video by director Andrew Margetson featuring Royal Ballet beauties Yasmin Naghdi and Beatriz Stix-Brunell, so compelling.

Keep reading... Show less
Watch This
(From left) Reese Hatala and Phoenix Lil' Mini in "LULAS" (via YouTube)

What happens when Willdabeast Adams gets two of his most amazing lilBEASTS—the pint-sized Reese Hatala and Phoenix Lil' Mini, aka LULAS ("Love U Like A Sister")—to make a video set to a throwback mashup of songs? So, so much cuteness. And so, so much 🔥🔥🔥 .

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Want to Be on Our Cover?

covermodelsearch-image

Video

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Dance Spirit in your inbox

Sponsored