Tzizkaridze teaching class. Photo by M. Logvinov, Courtesy Vaganova Academy.

Translated by Helena Terteryan

What does it take to train at Russia's prestigious Vaganova Ballet Academy? Established in 1738, the venerable institution began an international trainee program in the early 1990s, accepting up to 40 foreign students each year. Pointe caught up with former Bolshoi Ballet star Nikolai

Tsiskaridze, who took over as rector at the Vaganova Ballet Academy three years ago, to ask him what he looks for in potential international trainees—and what he thinks of American training.

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Nikita Boris and Justin Valentine received invitations to attend the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Photo by VAM, Courtesy VKIBC.

It was a tale of two competitions here in New York City last week: While Youth America Grand Prix was taking over Greenwich Village and Brooklyn, the Valentina Kozlova International Ballet Competition was underway uptown. (Which meant a lot of running around for this editor in chief!) And while VKIBC was much smaller (134 competitors), the stakes were just as high, with ballet and contemporary dancers from 29 countries vying for medals, scholarships and company contracts.

Two training opportunities, in particular, stood out: an invitation to study at Russia's venerable Vaganova Ballet Academy and a traineeship with the State Ballet of Georgia, led by international superstar Nina Ananiashvili. (Both Ananiashivili and Vaganova rector Nikolai Tsiskaridze were among the judges.) And six standout dancers representing the U.S. won the honors. Tsiskaridze invited Nikita Boris and Justin Valentine, both students at the Valentina Kozlova Dance Conservatory of New York, to attend the Vaganova Academy for one year. Meanwhile, Daniela Maarraoui (City Ballet of Houston), Brecke Swan (VKDCNY), Dante Alabastro and Thomas Giugovaz (both from The Washington Ballet) received traineeships with the State Ballet of Georgia.

The Grand Prix was awarded to young Russian choreographer Ildar Tagirov. Maria Iliushkina of Russia and Dong Hyeon Kwak of South Korea received company contracts with the Ballet de l'Opera de Bordeaux in France. Maarraoui was also offered a company contract with South Carolina's Columbia Classical Ballet and Ballet Centro del Conocimiento in Argentina. Miho Morita (Japan) and Maria Clara Ambrosini (Ecuador) received trainee program contracts with Columbia Classical Ballet. Congratulations to all!

For a full list of scholarship recipients and Contemporary and Choreography Competition prize winners, click here. Below is a rundown of medalists in the Classical Competition.


Women's Senior Division Medalists

Gold: Maria Iliushkina (Russia)

Silver: Da Woon Lee (South Korea) and Hee Won Cho (South Korea)

Bronze: Anna Guerrero (Philippines) and Brecke Swan (USA)


Men's Senior Division Medalists

Gold: Seung Hyun Lee (South Korea)

Silver: Dong Hyeon Kwak (South Korea) and Gwan Woo Park (South Korea)

Bronze: Thomas Giugovaz (USA)


Women's Junior Division Medalists

Gold: Nikita Boris (USA)

Silver: Seon Mee Park (South Korea)

Bronze: Maria Clara Ambrosini (Ecuador)


Men's Junior Division Medalists

Gold: not awarded

Silver: Justin Valentine (USA) and Gilles Delellio (Belgium)

Bronze: Miguel David Aranda (Paraguay)


Women's Student Division Medalists

Gold: Caroline Grossman (USA)

Silver: Seon Hyang An (South Korea) and Ye Jin Joo (South Korea)

Bronze: Katya Saburova (Russia) and Yun Ju Lee (South Korea)


Men's Student Division Medalists

Gold: Eun Soo Lee (South Korea)

Silver: Keita Fujishima (Japan)

Bronze: not awarded


Best Interpretation of Classical Compulsory: Daniela Maarraoui (USA) and Seung Hyun Lee (South Korea)

Best Interpretation of Contemporary Compulsory: Anna Guerrero (Phillippines) and Dante Alabastro (USA)


Vorontsova in Don Quixote. Photo by Nikolai Krusser, Courtesy Mikhailovsky Ballet.

It may be a dancer's dream to hit the headlines, but Angelina Vorontsova would rather forget the moment she did. Soon after the acid attack on Bolshoi Ballet director Sergei Filin, in January 2013, the young dancer, then just 21, found herself caught up in the storm. As suspect Pavel Dmitrichenko's then girlfriend and a protégée of Nikolai Tsiskaridze, who claimed Filin faked his injuries, she was suddenly a person of interest, with some speculating Dmitrichenko had been angered by her lack of advancement.

“It was a huge tragedy," is all Vorontsova will say, wearily. The events overshadowed her promising career, but two years on, she is finally hitting her stride away from Moscow. A few months after the attack, she accepted an invitation to join St. Petersburg's Mikhailovsky Ballet as one of its youngest principals; she has since taken over the company's repertoire with a new sense of maturity.

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Scandal and rivalry are nothing new for the Bolshoi Theatre. Crushed glass being placed in pointe shoes, needles being left in costumes, and even a dead cat being thrown onstage instead of flowers are just a few of the whispered rumors that have plagued the theatre for centuries.


But with the January acid attack on Bolshoi Ballet artistic director Sergei Filin, these backstage dramas were brought to the world stage. And the Russian government is not happy.


“The Bolshoi’s condition has hurt Russia’s image abroad,” said Alexei Pushkov, chief of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house of parliament, in a tweet.  

 

As a result of scandal and turmoil within the theatre, Russian officials announced Tuesday that Bolshoi Theatre director Anatoly Iksanov (who oversees both the opera and ballet companies) would be dismissed, and that Vladimir Urin would take over the prestigious position. Urin will be leaving his current role as head of Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Music Theatre, another of Moscow’s ballet companies.

 

Russia’s culture minister Vladimir Medinsky said in a news conference that the firing of 61-year-old Iksanov, who has led the company since 2000, was due to a “difficult situation at the theatre.” Along with January’s attack, Iksanov let principal dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze go after his contract expired on July 1. Alexei Pushkov also tweeted that Tsiskaridze’s dismissal was the last straw leading to Iksanov’s firing.

 

Under Iksanov’s direction, the Bolshoi Ballet has seen four artistic directors, including Boris Akimov, Alexei Ratmansky, Yuri Burlaka and the current Sergei Filin. After January’s attack on Filin, Bolshoi spokeswoman Katerina Novikova said he had been receiving threats after being appointed artistic director. She also said his predecessors in this highly competitive position had also received threats, though never on such a violent level.

 

Ratmansky, now artist in residence at American Ballet Theatre, posted on Facebook in January his thoughts on the theatre’s vengeful atmosphere. “This is all one snowball caused by the lack of any ethics at the theatre.”

In a controversial move, former Bolshoi Ballet star Nikolai Tsiskaridze has been appointed rector of the renowned Vaganova Academy, associate school of the Mariinsky Ballet.

Tsiskaridze is, to put it mildly, a polarizing figure. He has many admirers, but was fired from the Bolshoi in June after ongoing disputes with the company's management. Some are hailing his Vaganova appointment as a savvy move, citing the dancer's myriad connections. Others are worried that Tsiskaridze has little teaching experience and will continue to be a lightning rod for controversy—not what the troubled Mariinsky organization needs. Regardless, it's safe to say that the announcement came as a surprise to pretty much everyone.

That's not the end of the news from the Vaganova, either: Mariinsky prima Uliana Lopatkina, who is still dancing regularly, has also been named the school's artistic director.

Judith Mackrell wrote an excellent piece for The Guardian discussing the questions raised by the two appointments. Click here to read her detailed assessment of the situation.

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