What do Diana Vishneva, Olga Smirnova, Kristina Shapran and Maria Khoreva all have in common? These women, among the most impressive talents to graduate from the Vaganova Ballet Academy in recent years, all studied under legendary professor Lyudmila Kovaleva. Kovaleva, a former dancer with the Kirov Ballet (now the Mariinsky), is beloved by her students and admired throughout the ballet world for her ability to pull individuality and artistry out of the dancers she trains. Like any great teacher, Kovaleva is remarkably generous with her wealth of knowledge; it seems perfect, then, that she appears as the Fairy of Generosity in this clip from a 1964 film of the Kirov's The Sleeping Beauty.
As a young student, Shea McAdoo's classes at the Master Ballet Academy in Scottsdale, Arizona, were “strict, straightforward, very classical and purely Vaganova." She appreciated the Russian rigor and precision, but when she was accepted to the School of American Ballet's summer course at 13, she leapt at the chance to learn something new. The vastly different emphasis on Balanchine technique at SAB was illuminating: “It changed my whole way of thinking about musicality and accents. I'd never known there were so many ways to do a tendu! And the épaulement—I loved how they talked about light hitting your face, tilting your chin to show off your diamond earring."
McAdoo's experience was transformative, even when she returned home. “Of course, I lowered my arms back down in second and didn't cross my wrists," she says, “but there were stylistic choices I brought back with me." Today, as an apprentice with Oregon Ballet Theatre rehearsing Balanchine's Serenade, she credits her ease with the ballet's fluid port de bras to her summer at SAB.
As told to Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone and Madeline Schrock
What was life like at the Vaganova Ballet Academy?
Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.
Gabrielle Perkins, ABT Studio Company member: I lived with about 30 other international students in the dorm, but all of our classes—except two hours of Russian language Monday through Thursday mornings—were with the Russian students. At first, it was stressful because I didn't really know what any of the other girls were saying—or even the teacher. But it was cool just to associate ourselves with them, and it helped us get more into the culture and language.
Aubrey Clayton had never thought much about the kinds of ballet that existed outside of her home studio in Alabama—until she took a few classes in Vaganova. Clayton knew right away she wanted to learn more about this technique, with its emphasis on épaulement and distinct movement. She had never studied any set method before, but one summer at Bossov Ballet Theatre in Maine, where the lessons were Vaganova, all day, every day, was all Clayton needed. She was hooked.
Yet for many serious preprofessional students, trying out a new technique at a summer intensive can be confusing. What you knew as third-position arms might now be called fifth. The placement of the head and shoulders suddenly feels unfamiliar. With slight variations on many steps, some dancers quickly become frustrated.
But other students discover a new style that fits like a glove. Suddenly it helps to work on an old issue in a new way—by changing how they spot turns, for instance. Abbie Rasmussen, 17, who came to Bossov from a Cecchetti-based program, found Vaganova’s precision of placement improved her center work. “Arms, legs, head—everything here has its place,” she says. The versatility you can gain by trying a new technique gives you an edge in the professional world where dancers need to shine in both Swan Lake and Serenade.
“My lines became cleaner,” says Clayton. “They began to look the way I’d been trying to make them look in the first place.” Suddenly, there was a correct position for every finger. Vaganova felt “natural.”
Was their earlier training wrong? Not at all. There are several schools of dance in the ballet world: Cecchetti, Vaganova, Royal Academy of Dance, Balanchine, French, Bournonville, Italian. All are ballet, but in different techniques, students may be asked to support a port de bras differently, pick up the speed of steps or change the placement of their turnout. The timing of familiar barre exercises might be awkward; strange new demands might be made on ports de bras.
Years ago, some teachers could be territorial, dismissing a student’s previous training as incorrect. One technique might be considered less “classical” than another. No more. Smart teachers know that good training—in any style—deserves respect. “There are a million ways to do things,” says Denise Bolstad, administrative director at Pacific Northwest Ballet.
Summer classes at PNB allow students who are unfamiliar with the company’s technique, which has its roots in Balanchine, to adjust to the physical demands. Combinations are done to unusual counts to acquaint students with how PNB uses music in choreography. Speed is built into the entire class, beginning at barre with quick tendus and continuing through center. Bolstad says most students are eager to try the changes, such as preparing for pirouettes with a straight back leg.
Yet some students are hesitant. Being away from home can be overwhelming by itself, says Laurel Toto, head of the associates program (for dancers training part-time) at Canada’s National Ballet School. If everything is different in the classroom, students may, she says, “cling to what they know best”—particularly if they have strong loyalties to a home studio.
Toto watches out for students who appear flummoxed by the syllabus, which has grown out of the Cecchetti style. She holds mini-clinics or one-on-one meetings where she and the students discuss the new style and how it differs from what they learn at home. Discussions delve into specifics, such as why they are being asked to hold their pelvis or arms differently. Students get the chance to voice their concerns—and not in front of a whole class.
“It’s our job to chat up the idea of versatility, to say, ‘I realize you did it that way, but let’s try it this way,’ “ Toto says. “We talk about celebrating these differences. In any system, the goal is to turn out beautiful dancers.”
At Bossov, summer students receive an introduction in Vaganova, but are not expected to master all the details. Andrei Bossov, artistic director, and Natalya Getman, associate director, find that summer students are generally curious about the new method and can learn a lot from watching the teachers and senior students demonstrate.
Discuss with your home teacher whether you are ready for the challenges of a new technique, advises Deborah Bowes, head of Canada’s National Ballet School auditions. Dancers struggling with body changes, such as a growth spurt, or who are not secure in their own ballet syllabus might not be prepared to investigate a new style.
But if you are ready, stepping into Cecchetti or Bournonville can be an eye-opening journey. Maybe you’ll realize that preparing for a pirouette with a straight back leg helps you nail that triple. Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone might put you one step closer to a professional career.
Just remember that fifth position arms might not be fifth anymore. “Know you are going to meet new terminology, meet new coordination,” Bowes says. “When you put yourself in a new position and just go for it, you are doing what a professional dancer needs to do every day.”
If a new style seems unfathomable, don’t give up. Remember to:
- Ask questions. Most teachers are passionate about the style they teach and are more than willing to talk to any struggling student.
- Trust the faculty. Good teachers stress that learning a new style isn’t about “which one is best,” but about growing as a dancer. Andrei Bossov explains that, at auditions, he looks for strong dancers, not whether or not a student has knowledge of Vaganova.
- Open your mind. Look at the new style as a positive challenge, rather than a betrayal of any previous learning. Toto advises students struggling with a new technique to ask themselves, “How can I adapt to these differences?” and “How will these differences enrich my fuller understanding of ballet?”
- Be patient with your own progress. It might take an entire intensive before any headway is made in a new style. Some dancers decide that what they are studying at home fits them better, and that’s OK. “The only way to know is to try it,” Toto says. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
Karen White is a former newspaper editor and longtime dance instructor in Massachusetts.
The Vaganova Academy has been a powerhouse for supreme technicians and artists for centuries. Iconic names—Balanchine, Nureyev, and Zakharova, to name a few—have sprung from the St. Petersburg school. Vaganova training transforms students to master the most difficult aspects of ballet technique, allowing room to grow into the utmost performers. Alina Somova, now a principal dancer for the Mariinksy Ballet (and our December 2011/January 2012 cover girl), has joined this list of icons. This video shows the 14-year-old Somova as a rising student at the school, executing unbelievable extension and control (she is the dancer farthest to the right at barre—the smallest but most ferocious). These clips expose the impressive quality with which these young dancers work, a latent strength that only ballet dancers themselves can identify. Somova draws the camera to her movement, especially at 3:00, when you can see her use the most expansive potential of her body in a tombé that lasts forever. Hoping this video will inspire your next technique class—Happy #ThrowbackThursday!