The Vaganova Ballet Academy is the most prestigious in Russia. It is the main source for the Kirov Ballet, now renamed to Mariinsky Ballet and for the Bolshoi Ballet.
The renowned Vaganova Ballet Academy was founded in 1738 by Empress Anna as the Imperial Theater. It has produced almost every major Russian and Soviet ballet star, from Baryshnikov and Nureyev to contemporary geniuses like Zhanna Ayupova, Farouk Ruzimatov and Anastasia Volochkova. The Vaganova staff does have a perfect record in assessing talent which is at best an inprecise science. Volochkova, a world-known ballerina with the Mariinsky’s Kirov ballet company, than with Bolshoi Ballet and finally with Maestro Yury Grigorovich Ballet, was actually rejected by the Vaganova the first two times she auditioned, winning acceptance only the third time.
On May 4th, 1738 in St. Petersburg, the young capital of Russia, an event took place which was to have great significance to the culture of the world. By Imperial Decree of the Empress Anna, the first Russian School of Theatrical Dance was founded. Known as the Imperial Theatre School it was the initiative of the French ballet master and teacher, Jean-Baptiste Lande. Twelve girls and twelve boys began to study "the foreign steps" on one of the upper floors of the Winter Palace.
The early teachers were from western Europe - Lande himself and later Franz Hilferding and Giovanni Canzianni. The first Russian teacher to emerge from the school was Ivan Valberg, who produced many notable ballets and whose teaching really prepared the way for the great Charles Didelot.
Didelot came to St. Petersburg in 1801 and took over the direction of the ballet. He taught at the Imperial Theatre School for over twenty years, spending two long periods in Russia (1801-1811, 1816-1837), producing many ballets, and raising the level of ballet education to a very high standard.
Following Didelot, more teachers of the French School came to St. Petersburg. Jules Perrot, whose ballets "Giselle" and "Esmeralda" are still performed today. Another Artur Saint Leon, who produced "Coppelia" and "The Little Humpbacked Horse". And then in 1847, a teacher who was to profoundly influence the school: Marius Petipa.
During the second half of the 19th Century, the great ballet master Marius Petipa created 46 original ballets, many of which are still performed today on the stage of the Mariinsky Theatre, and throughout the world. Together with Lev Ivanov, Petipa collaborated with the great composer Petr Tchaikovsky, and his ballets "Swan Lake", "Sleeping Beauty" and "The Nutcracker" form the cornerstone of the repertoire of the classical ballet companies.
The French influence on the Imperial Ballet School was enhanced by the teaching of Christian Johannson, Swedish by birth and a pupil of August Bournonville. Johannson taught at the school for over 30 years from 1860, bringing refinement to the classical style in a clear and codified form. One of his pupils was Pavel Gerdt who became a famous dancer and teacher.
But it was the appearance of three Italian dancers which amazed St. Petersburg audiences. The sheer virtuosity of Enrico Cecchetti, Carlotta Brianza and Pierina Legnani, with their brilliant pirouettes and astonishing speed of footwork brought new vigour to the Russian Ballet.
Cecchetti was engaged as ballet master to the Imperial Theatre and this blending of Johannson’s Franco-Russian style with the exhilaration of the Italian school produced some of the greatest dancers of all time. The names of Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky, Mathilde Kschesinskaya, Olga Preobrajenskaya, Sergey and Nicolay Legat, and Olga Spesivtseva, are famous the world over. All of them have contributed to the history of ballet.
Fokin was a great innovator. He believed that natural movements were the fundamentals of ballet forms. He had a great influence on the school where he created several ballets. One of these “Chopiniana” - renamed "Les Sylphides" by Diaghilev - is still performed regularly by the school.
Fokin’s ideas on choreography met with some resistance from the conservative establishment of the Imperial Theatre, but he found great support from Sergey Diaghilev with whom he produced many of his most famous ballets including "The Firebird" and "Petrushka".In the years after the Revolution, the teaching traditions of the oldest ballet school in Russia progressed greatly. The work resulting from the great teacher Agrippina Vaganova formed a new era in ballet education.
Vaganova had graduated from the school in 1897, and began teaching in 1921 at the now re-named Leningrad State Choreographic School. Her book "The Principles of Classical Dance" heads the list of numerous works produced by teachers of the school. And her most famous pupils - dancers like Marina Semenova, Alexey Yermolaev, Galina Ulanova, Vakhtang Chabukiani, Natalia Dudinskaya, Konstantin Sergeyev and Irina Kolpakova - became the pride of the Soviet Ballet. Agrippina Vaganova’s role in the development of the school cannot be overstated, and in 1957, six years after her death, it was named after her.
Not only does the school produce artists, but also future choreographers. Fedor Lopukhov, Vassily Vainonen, Rostislav Zakharov, Leonid Lavrovsky and Leonid Yacobson were all famous graduates. So too were Yuri Grigorovitch, the Director of the Bolshoi Ballet, and Oleg Vinogradov, the Director of the Kirov Ballet.
George Balanchine, the internationally acclaimed choreographer and the founder of the New York City Ballet was a product of St. Petersburg training, and he graduated in 1921 together with ballerina and teacher Alexandra Danilova.
St. Petersburg has also influenced the development of the Bolshoi Theatre of the USSR. Nina Timofeyeva, Svetlana Adyrkhaeva and Ludmilla Semenyaka all began their ballet careers in St. Petersburg and later established themselves as leading figures of the Bolshoi stage. In the late 50s and 60s, three graduates who were to attract international fame and recognition began their professional dancing lives on the Mariinsky Stage: Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. All three developped the traditions of the Vaganova Academy in the major ballet companies of the western world.
Each year, Vaganova graduates replenish the ranks of the leading theatres of Russia , and the stars of the Mariinsky Ballet are known worldwide. Dancers like Galina Mezentseva, Tatiana Terekhova, Altynai Asylmuratova (the Artistic Director of Vaganova Ballet Academy), Farukh Ruzimatov, Konstantin Zaklinsky participated in extensive foreign tours and make guest appearances with leading ballet companies.
The contemporary dancers graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy: Farukh Ruzimatov, Uliana Lopatkina, Diana Vishneva, Igor Zelensky, Svetlana Zakharova, Andrian Fadeyev.
Since 1836 the school has been situated on Rossi Street (formerly Theatre Street), and today has over 300 students. The competition for a place at the school is fierce. Throughout the school year nearly 4,000 children visit for consultation with ballet staff to assess their suitability. 300 of these children from St. Petersburg and other regions of the country are selected and auditioned by the school’s Examining Board. Of these approximately 60 will be accepted for the 1st Grade. Even then it’s extremely hard work to train for a full time professional career, and only 25 or so students will actually complete their studies and graduate.
To be eligible for entry, pupils must have finished their primary school education (9-10 years old). During the month of June, the auditions take place and these are divided into 3 sections. The first examination deals with the physical aptitude of the child: the proportions, height of jump, degree of turnout and so on. The child’s general appearance is taken seriously into account.
The second examination is judged by medical specialists who determine the future possibilities of the child. Good health is as important to the future dancer’s career as a beautiful physique.
Thirdly, there is a section to assess the child’s musicality, rhythm, co-ordination and artistic talent. Having successfully passed these three sections of the audition, the pupil begins an eight year course of study.
From the first year the curriculum consists of dance training, general secondary school education, French language lessons and piano tuition. As they progress through the school, the pupils master a more intensive and varied programme in their dance subjects. In the first grade the pupils study classical and historical dance. In the fourth grade they have lessons of character dance and in the sixth grade they begin to study pas de deux and mime. The staff of the school consists of 75 dance teachers, 30 piano teachers, 40 teachers of general education and 40 pianists. The teachers strive to develop artistic style, strict academic execution and the feeling of ensemble.
Regular performances on the stages of the Mariinsky and Maly Theatres, as well as gala performances and frequent concerts on the stage of the school theatre, give pupils invaluable experience of stagecraft.
At the end of the 8th grade, the students have their graduating examinations on the stage of the Mariinsky Theatre. The most talented will be offered contracts by the Mariinsky, and the other’ graduates will have the opportunity to fill vacancies throughout the theatres of the Russia.
The school’s Artistic Director is Altynai Asylmuratova. A former dancer and choreographer of world renown, she works closely with the Director, Leonid Nadirov, who manages the academy. 1988 marked the 250th anniversary of the school’s foundation. Throughout history it has endeavored to preserve and enhance the best traditions of the classical heritage. Today that quest for artistic excellence continues so that the work of the school, which has blossomed into the Russian ballet we know today, will continue to flourish for the future.
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