"Look at life all around; everything is growing, everything is moving forward. Therefore, I recommend keeping in touch with life and with art.”-A. Vaganova
The Vaganova Academy, established on 4 May 1738 on Rossi (Theatre) Street in St Petersburg, Russia, is one of the world’s oldest ballet schools. Preserved through three centuries, it is in this school that a method of classical dance was perfected and where some of the best teachers have served, from M.I.Petipa, L.I. Ivanov, C.P. Johansson, E. Cecchetti, N.G. Legat to A.Y. Vaganova herself.
Vaganova Ballet Academy along Rossi Street, (Photo taken in April 2022)
The Academy Entrance (2019)
Who is Vaganova?
As a ballerina, great teacher, pedagogue and reformer, Agrippina Vaganova founded the School of Classical Dance which has produced dancers such as Tamara Karavina, Mathilde Kschessinskaya, Mikhail Fokin, Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, Olga Spessivtseva, Marina Semyonova, Natalia Dudinskaya, Galina Ulanova, Yury Grigorovich, Yury Solovyov, Irina Kolpakova, Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshinikov, Natalia Makarova, Alla Osipenko, Ninel Kurgapkina, Ludmila Safronova, Margarita Kullik, Lyubov Kunakova, Diana Vishneva, and Ulyana Lopatkina, just to name a few. She also taught Maya Plisetskaya for a few months in Moscow.
As a dancer, she was known as the “Queen of Variations” and was widely praised for her unsurpassed performances in variations such as “Coppelia”, in the roles of the Queen of the Waters in “The Little Humpbacked Horse”, the Queen of Dryads in “Don Quixote” and many others.
The iconic studio with Vaganova’s portrait
Her Work and Method
Vaganova’s aim was to synthesise and distill the best elements of the French and Italian schools through careful refinement in order to resolve differences before incorporating them in the traditional Russian school. Her method provided a gradual and logical structured progression beginning at the barre, followed by centre and allegro, which was grounded on anatomical and scientific knowledge introduced by Vladimir Stepanov. Due to its strictly codified training system based on the human anatomical structure, this method is effective in preventing injuries. That led to her systemising and publishing her first work in 1934 “Основа классического танца” [Basic Principles of Classical Dance], which to this day remains the key book for ballet schools in Russia and Eastern Europe following her method. In recent years, her method has gained traction in other professional schools around the world.
For anyone beginning ballet with this method, the training starts with studying the elements of classical ballet ‘in the driest and simplest’ form without any ‘dancey’ combinations or choreography, aiming first to acquire stability and placement. It is only after this that more complex movements and elements are introduced as the student progresses.
Children who pass the entrance exam to enter the Vaganova Academy as full time students train 6 days a week for 8 years, from about the age of 10 to 18 years old when they graduate. Every week, the students have their academic subjects, including art, music and dance (historical dance, character dance, acting, pas de deux, body conditioning/gymnastics, etc.) and a typical day includes rehearsals after classes to prepare for upcoming performances together with the Mariinsky Theatre Company. This multifaceted immersion in the study of the art form reflects the school’s beliefs on how an artist is nurtured. The greatest artists themselves have come under the tutelage of teachers who dedicated their entire lives to the art form and the teacher-student relationship remains to be the purest means by which the art form is passed down through generations.
“Look at life all around; everything is growing, everything is moving forward. Therefore, I recommend keeping in touch with life and with art.”-A. Vaganova
The beauty of the Vaganova method is that it produces dancers who are distinguished by their delicate port de bras and epaulement. Vaganova’s virtuosic use of arms was developed through her own careful observation and experimentation that was a result of her being unsatisfied with her own arms. Vaganova’s epaulement is characterized by the harmonious shape of the torso, arms, head and even the gaze, which adds to the overall artistry and plasticity of the body. She and her students were praised for their strong jumps (ballon), as well as elegant and refined technique, which are a result of her attention to details. This, ingrained through carefully crafted classes that connect and provide necessary repetition, enable students to achieve strong technique, strength, flexibility and endurance.
Ballet is ultimately an art form, even though the process and training may well be compared to that of an athlete in training. However, the demands on a dancer extend beyond athleticism as dancers must not only make dancing look effortless, but must also artfully convey the narrative and music through their movements. Such training develops strength in character, patience and discipline through commitment, dedication, sacrifice and hard work. Even the most talented students must go through these processes to develop skills that will enable them to excel in other areas even after they leave the profession.
As Dr Leong, an adult student puts her thoughts on learning the Vaganova method,
“It has been 2 years since I started learning ballet under the Vaganova method with my teacher Florence. What started as a casual hobby has become much more to me, and I think this method played a big role in developing my love for the art form.
It is a tough learning process because it required a lot of time and work is spent on building foundations, finding proper alignment and placement, and working on consistency in seemingly ‘small’ details over and over again. It can be overwhelming and intense at first because it demands a lot of precision. However, I’ve come to realize that each detail has its purpose, and details all come together to create beautiful movement quality. The focus on doing basic steps consistently well may feel repetitive and tedious to some, but what it allows one to achieve later on is worth it. It is actually a very fulfilling process to be immersed in quality work with a teacher who knows how to correct and guide you. A big part of my own growth comes from being mentored and taught by a teacher I fully trust. This has made learning a joy, and I feel very fortunate to be a part of this.”
Agrippina Vaganova (2012). “Basic Principles of Classical Ballet”, p.15, Courier Corporation.
Vaganova Ballet Academy (2020). Academy of Russian Ballet named after A. Y. Vaganova. Saint Petersburg.
Ваганова А. (1934). Основы классического танца / Вступ. статья И.И. Соллертинского. Л.
Michelson, B. Wilansky, A. (2021). Foundations of Classical Ballet: The Original and Unabridged 1948 edition. Rome.