How To

Mastering the Vaganova Technique

Ellison Ballet students showing off their Vaganova training (Rachel Neville, courtesy Ellison Ballet)

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 former American Ballet Theatre principal 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.

The Conversation
Cover Story
Photo by Joe Toreno

It's almost 2019 and the ballroom dance scene is positively booming! From prestigious world championships to TV shows, kids are at the core of all this hip-shaking action—and we're so here for it. These eight up-and-comers in particular are shaping the field. They're the next generation of superstars to make the leap from technically exquisite ballroom-ites to bona fide celebrities.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Videos
Low-quality screenshot, high-quality dancing. (via TheaterMania)

Well, we knew on an abstract level that Broadway's-golden-age guru Warren Carlyle would produce incredible choreo for the upcoming Broadway revival of Kiss Me, Kate! We just didn't know it would be THIS incredible.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
Photo by Camryn Elizabeth, courtesy Djouliet Amara

At age 23, Djouliet Amara is a successful professional dancer signed with a talent agency in NYC. She's studied at The Ailey School and even danced in "Memoria" with The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. Having performed at City Center and appeared in numerous commercial campaigns for brands like Forever 21, Refinery29, and Danskin, it would appear that Amara is living a life most dancers only dream of. But as glamorous and successful as her career has been, Amara's journey to this point has not been an easy one. Her biggest challenge was her battle with an eating disorder that nearly cost Amara her career. Find out how this dancer found body acceptance and, in so doing, uncovered a dream she never knew she had. —Katherine Beard

Warning: This story may be triggering for those who have suffered or are suffering from disordered eating.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Videos
Us, @ this hilarious (and informative!) clip.

Even if you're a full-fledged Broadway baby, you'll learn a thing or two from LMM.

Keep reading... Show less
How To
Photo by Kaitlin Marin, courtesy American Repertory Ballet

"Lame duck." It sounds like nothing else in the classical ballet vocabulary, right? Also known as step-up turns or step-over turns—or, more technically, as piqués en dehors—these tricky pirouettes show up all over the classical ballet repertoire, perhaps most famously in Odette's Act II variation in Swan Lake. Here's how to keep your lame ducks from looking, well, lame.

Keep reading... Show less
Fashion
Matthew Bourne's "Nutcracker" (photo by Simon Annand, courtesy Raw PR)

When most of us think of The Nutcracker, we imagine a growing Christmas tree, dancing mice, and a little girl named Clara (or Marie) traveling to the Land of Sweets. But companies around the world have been reinventing the holiday classic, changing the storyline or adding their own spectacular sets and characters. To get in the Nutcracker spirit this season, check out these out-of-the-box productions.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Jasmine Harper with Neil Haskell on "So You Think You Can Dance." (Photo by Adam Rose/FOX, courtesy FOX)

Every year, our friends over at Dance Magazine select 25 standout dancers, choreographers, and companies for their "25 to Watch" feature. The list is always overflowing with talent, but this year's iteration was especially exciting—four of the featured dancers have graced the pages of DS at one point or another: former cover star Aran Bell, DS Cover Model Search semi-finalist Sophie Miklosovic, Jasmine Harper, and "You Should Know" alum Easton Payne. It was a totally full-circle moment to see each of them score a coveted spot on this list. Check out their profiles below (which originally appeared in Dance Magazine), and major congratulations to everyone else selected this year!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Videos
(screenshot via YouTube)

Maddie Ziegler is the kween of dance these days and it seems like there's no move this teen dancing machine can't do...or is there? In a recent video with Teen Vogue, Maddie shows us just how lit her dance skills are by demonstrating 10 iconic music video dance routines. From Britney Spears to Michael Jackson, the "Dance Moms" star gets her groove on as she dissects some of the most popular dances of all time. Though Maddie is a great dancer, it's pretty entertaining watching her do moves that might be a little outside of her comfort zone.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
Giphy

It's the age-old debate: Is dance a sport? The answer is, without a doubt, YES. Of course, dance is much more than just a sport. But when we get down to the logistics of it all, it's impossible not to recognize it as the athletic endeavor it is. Here are 10 reasons why dance absolutely qualifies as a sport.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for Fun

Colder weather is (finally) here, which means it's time for a good dance movie binge. But which iconic films should you put on? To narrow your search, we went ahead and ranked 30 of the greatest dance movies of all time.

Of course, we know a list like this is bound to be controversial—so if you disagree with our lineup, have at it in the comments!

Keep reading... Show less
Cover Story
Photo by Joe Toreno

It's almost 2019 and the ballroom dance scene is positively booming! From prestigious world championships to TV shows, kids are at the core of all this hip-shaking action—and we're so here for it. These eight up-and-comers in particular are shaping the field. They're the next generation of superstars to make the leap from technically exquisite ballroom-ites to bona fide celebrities.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Getty Images

The Nutcracker has become an essential part of the holiday season—not to mention a part of most dancers' DNA. These days, the ballet is a beloved tradition, and the lifeblood of many dance companies, whose budgets depend on its reliably great ticket sales. But did you know that it was a flop when it first premiered in Russia? Or that George Balanchine himself once played Drosselmeyer on TV? Here's a timeline of the rich history of The Nutcracker.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
Courtesy MSG Entertainment

For some it's a holiday tradition, for others its an iconic spectacle, but no matter the reason, more than 1 million people will watch the Rockettes perform in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular each year. And though the production has been around since 1933, much of what goes on behind those velvety curtains and intricate sets remains a mystery. To curb our curiosity and find out what ensues when these leggy ladies aren't doling out their sky-high kicks, we got a backstage tour from the legends themselves.

From hair and makeup, to warm-up exercises, and costume quick changes (the fastest quick change in the show is a #mindblowing 75 seconds, by the way) we got a glimpse into the glamorous (and sometimes not so glamorous) world of the Rockettes.

Keep reading... Show less

Showstopper sees all different dancers from across the world at their dance competitions. They understand sometimes it can hard to know how to stand out among the 100s of dancers that perform on their stages.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Photo by Donna Ward, courtesy Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

On March 30, 1958, at the 92nd Street Y in NYC, dancer Alvin Ailey and a group of African-American dancers performed onstage together for the first time. Since then, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the company Ailey formed, has become legendary in the dance world. To commemorate its 60th anniversary, Ailey has dubbed its annual City Center season "Ailey 60." From Nov. 28–Dec. 30 choreographers including Ronald K. Brown, Jessica Lang, and Rennie Harris will present premieres, alongside the works of current artistic director Robert Battle, Judith Jamison, and over two dozen pieces by Alvin Ailey himself. We asked a few of the company members to share what the anniversary means to them.

Keep reading... Show less
Cover Story

When Hannahlei Cabanilla rolled up to her Dance Spirit cover shoot—just 36 hours after being named the "So You Think You Can Dance" Season 15 champion—she looked impossibly fresh-faced and well-rested. The Anaheim Hills, CA, native may have had "about eight blisters," as she joked, on her feet; she may barely have slept since the big win; and she may have just performed on "Live with Kelly and Ryan." But she jumped right on set, and quite literally didn't stop jumping for the next five hours. The fabulous technique, irresistible personality, and (especially) boundless energy that earned her the title of America's Favorite Dancer were all on full display.

So what was it actually like for Hannahlei to compete on the show she'd watched since she was a tiny dancer—and what's next for the now–19-year-old? Read on.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
via @wholenessmom on Instagram

The holidays are just around the corner and that means it's time to get your wish lists finalized. And while we have no doubt that stylish leos and cozy warm-ups will find their way onto your list, we think you'll want to consider adding some of these lit dance books to your holiday lineup, too. From revamped Nutcracker tales to biographies of your favorite dance stars, we've rounded up the latest and greatest books that every dancer will want to see in their stockings this season.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Video

mailbox

Get Dance Spirit in your inbox

Sponsored

Giveaways