Tag Archives: Konstantin Sergeyev

Book Review: Vaganova Today

6 Feb

Book Review

Pawlick, Catherine E., Vaganova Today: The Preservation of Pedagogical Tradition
Gainesville Fl, University Press of Florida, 2011,  201 pp, $29.95
ISBN: 978-0-8130-3697-7

The name Vaganova usually fills the ballet lover with suitable respect.  The noted pedagogue’s name recurs regularly during a ballet competition when the Diane and Acteon pas de deux is performed, whether as one of the two variations or by an ambitious couple.

Any mention of schooling in a dancer’s biography leads to the fundamental expectation of purity and possibly virtuosity.  I remember Julia Vershbinsky telling me that her daughter Asya was one of six girls selected for study at that St. Petersburg institution out of several thousand – I venture six – but my memory is not that accurate.  But it gives one some notion just how lucky a child is when selected.

So it’s hardly surprising that Catherine Pawlick would be drawn to explore the school, its teachers and system as it existed when she started an interesting career in translation in that most elegant of Russian cities, the northern capital hewn from marshes by Peter the Great.

As Pawlick explains in the Preface, her initial exposure to the Vaganova syllabus was as an exchange student.  Duly impressed with the purity of the system under the Soviet regime, she returned to Russia in 2003 she made the decision to return to St. Petersburg to live in 2004, spending six years immersing herself in its ballet world, writing and interviewing members of the Institute; absorbing the structure and subtle ambiance inevitable with such a legacy of rigorous training and extraordinary artistic accomplishment.

Following the Preface with an impressive list of individuals in Acknowledgments she provides the reader with a Chronology of the Vaganova Institute, beginning in 1737 with Jean Lande,  the first French ballet master in St. Petersburg, requesting permission to open a ballet academy, and May 4, 1738 when Anna Ivanova signed a decree opening the “Dancing School of Her Highness.” This beginning was reorganized in 1779 forming the Imperial Theatre School, mandated to prepare dancers, musicians and actors.  [Compare the date: the British North American colonies were immersed in the American Revolution.]

Pawlick follows with a chronology of Agrippina Vaganova’s life, with its surprising credits for having served as artistic director of the Kirov, 1932-1937 when The Flames of Paris, and The Fountains of Bakshchsirai entered the repertoire.  Restagings included Swan Lake and Esmeralda, the latter providing the Diane and Aceton pas de deux has become such a staple.

Also during this time, her Basic Principles of Classic Ballet was published, which was published in English in New York by Kamin’s Book Store and translated by Anatole Chujoy with a red paperback cover and spiral binding if memory serves. Truly, Vaganova was a formidable contributor to the classic tradition which many of us today revere and extoll.

To return to the book’s format, following the Chronologies and Preface, it constitutes three sections: Vaganova, the Dancer [pages 5-28]; Vaganova, the Teacher [pages 29-74]; and Vaganova Today: Her Students pages 75-178] before Pawlick’s Conclusion.

A well-documented history of Vaganova includes comments about Olga Preobrajenska and her teaching methods, not only by Vaganova but visitors to Paris from Russia and by George Zoritch, a Preobrajenska student devoted to her memory.  As a strict classicist, Vaganova was ill suited to Fokine’s romantic approach; this prevented her from joining the dancers of the Diaghilev company either at its inception or with the four dancers, including Balanchine and Danilova, who left to tour Germany the summer of 1924 and never returned.  A further restriction on her career, Vaganova believed, was the lack of influential patronage.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Vaganova’s position after the Russian Revolution was not an easy transition, again mostly because of the hierarchy briefly remaining in St. Petersburg where Vera Trifilova was preeminent. In the text Konstastin  Sergeyev also explains the pros and cons which raged in the ‘Twenties artistically and classical ballet was not immune to controversy. It seems clear that the fact Vaganova never enjoyed the status her talent deserved . Lacking aristocratic or royal patronage provided her with opportunity under the Communist regime. Making do in the interval with other schools her diary records as awful, following Trifilova’s departure, Vaganova was invited to teach children’s classes because of her love of the school and “her irreproachable professionalism.”

Part of Vaganova’s success can be attributed to her ability to analyse her own physical difficulties with the classical syllabus. this enabled her to spot problems in students and to provide corrections and approaches to overcome the challenge of this most rigorous training.  The pictures opposite pages 25 and 33 give the reader some idea of Vaganova’s strength and commanding presence. A contemporary equivalent, though quite different, might  be Martine Van Hamel whose road to principal with American Ballet Theatre was singularly rigorous.

At the same time, Vaganova emulated Olga Preobrajenska’s approach to the students assigned her with equally reverential results.  Students were treated with respect and corrections were gentle though firm.  “Preo’s” student believed in training the entire body; I think this to mean she wanted a dancer to move as herself with the classical technique developed upon the intrinsic body style; this is something one can see clearly in a dancer, whether moving a trained body or the
technique pasted on.

The praise showered upon Vaganova’s pedagogical efforts are uniformly high with lavish, though discerning comments from Pyotor Gusev, Konstatin Sergeyev, and Fyodor Lubukhov as well as Ludmilla Blok and Nikolai Ivanovsky.
Opinions about her tenure as artistic director of the Kirov Ballet do differ, particularly when Vaganova opted for more naturalistic and expressive gestures
rather than traditional mime.  Lubukhov chides her for reorganizing the Diana
and Acteon pas de deux in Esmeralda, citing the role of a satyr danced by Georgy Kyasht with a conflict including a young Vaslav Nijinsky, a section Vaganova excised from the ballet; it had included Anna Pavlova in the Petipa production.

Reaching Vaganova Today: Her students, it is further divided.  First is
the Role of Pedagogue.  This describes a former dancer who received the full nine years of training in the academy, received a diploma, danced in a professonal Russian theatre and completed the Vaganova’s Academy graduate program for pedagogues, roughly a four year process.  Completing this course enables the dancer to coach other dancersin the theatre or to teach in the Academy.  This rigorous process still allows for performance.  Until recently, no individual trained in another academy or school was permitted, although individuals setting ballets for the repertoire are permitted in to stage the given work.

Pawlick then provides lengthy quotes from dancers turned pedagogues
either who remember Vaganova or who have come through the system and exemplify the tradition.  It is amazing and singular just how many of the individual teachers speak almost identical phrases.  This repetition, Pawlick commented to me, was nothing of her doing.  She interviewed the individuals separately and on a one-to-one basis.  Such is the veneration which existed at the time of Pawlick’s research and at a time when Altenai Assylmuratova was directing the Academy.


The Maryinsky at Zellerbach, October 11, 14

22 Oct

While extremely fortunate to witness two performances of The Maryinsky Ballet’s Swan Lake at U.C.’s Zellerbach Hall October 11 and 14, I was underwhelmed save for the caliber of the orchestra. Led by Mikhail Agrest , who lived in the United States during his formative years  and has traveled back to Russia and elsewhere for further study and performance, the musicians gave the Tchaikovsky score full flavor and depth.  There were  particularly affecting solos by harpist Bezhena Chornak, Lyudmila Chaikovskaya on violin and Alexander Ponomarev with his cello.  All three soloists realized fully  the tender, plaintive qualities of the Tchaikovsky score that supports the dancers.

The St. Petersburg-based company provided the audience with Konstantin Sergeyev’s revisions to the original choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov.  Translated, that meant some effective tableaux, one particularly striking when the curtain rose on Act IV  where  the swans were gathered by the lake, the setting now illumined by dawn as it was dimmed by late night in Act II.  The crisp white tutus, the carefully recumbent swans and their placement were picture perfect in this act Sergeyev revised to convey a happy ending.

Tall men, costumed in brown and white, negotiated the Zellerbach stage with grace in Act I, considering the constraints of space.  There was the usual drinking, and the women were in off pink, wearing square head dresses.  A jester was omnipresent, displaying  endless  pirouettes, saut de chats and circling tours.  Danced by Ilya Petrov October 11, compact, dynamic, he seemed entirely independent.  Dancing in the October 14 matinee Alexander Romanchikov was tall, elegant, quite the flirt. Both were costumed with white tights, a jester’s cap of black with gold touches. a tunic of black with strips of cloth hanging from the waist ornamented with gold braid.  There was no program identification for the pas de trois.

Soslan Kulaev was the tutor for both performances, tall, black clad, a well positioned other worldly nerd.  Elena Bazhenova provided us with the Princess Regent, an interesting variation on the name of Siegfried’s mother.  Comporting herself with dignity, she also displayed a touch of a knowledgeable model displaying rare fur belts.

October 11 Vladimir Schklyarov danced Siegfried, mid-height, composed if slightly tense, but capable of several soaring jetes.  As with quite a few of the Russians there was a tendency to hit an arabesque hard, a little overstretched and to reach for height in a jete, rather than to aim for a smooth arc.  The problem may have lain in adapting to stage size. For the October 14 matinee Maxim Zyushin was cast as Siegfried, dancing very correctly, but never achieving any chemistry with Anastasia Kolegova, his Odette/Odile.  Schklyarov’s Odette/Odile was Oksana Skoryk, whose wily Odile struck fire.

When it came to Act II, the lighting was excessively dark.  Andrey Solovyov and Alexander Romanchikov were enveloped in murk as much as they were menacing October 11 and 14 respectively.  Romanchikov was the taller of the two, both  handsome and elegant. As with the men, the solo swans seemed to reach too hard in jetes or achieving arabesques.

The noted pas de deux and Odette’s solo variation were robbed of the mime to explain Odette’s situation. While the pas de deux remained familiar, some  detail in the variation like the passes into arabesques were almost totally missing.  The movement of the corps also amazed me;  the gestures had become more ecole port de bras than suggesting preening. Odette’s working foot never came near passe opening into attitude in her variation. The result ,  sculpturally handsome,  did not win over my penchant for old school detail.

Drama finally got its due in Act III where the ruling seats were placed upstage center, flanked by a backdrop of  dusky brown, tapestry-like courtiers moving out in either direction.  It also affected the  formality; just one ensemble bowed to the throne occupants in both performances. There were overhanging boxes stage left and right housing part of the royal retinue flourishing trumpets at appropriate musical phrases, making Von  Rothbart and Odile’s entrance  visibly even more exciting.

Drama first arrived when six young women came tripping in, wearing identical vapid pastels, from upper stage left, forming a diagonal line, stopping with left toe pointed and hands daintily crossed. (Given the extreme climate, pinks and light blues must bear trembling  spring significance  for Russians.) Whereupon the Princess Regent arose, moving down stage left, pausing to flip her right hand to indicate the young ones before pointing to the wedding ring finger and gesturing to Siegfried to take his pick.  While familiar with dynastic necessity, you couldn’t blame the young man for jerking noticeably at the sudden command. Schklyarov October 11 was nearly knocked off base; Zyushin at the October 14 matinee seemed merely to ponder the problem.

When the malevolent duo made their appearance, Skoryk’s Odile held  my attention; the ensuing pas de deux was exciting.  Schklyarov overshot himself a little in his variation, but the two built the necessary excitement.  Zyushin and Kolegova never managed chemistry together or in their variations, although the audience went wild at the 28 fouettesr by both women.

The happiest costumes in the production were those of the Spanish quartet, white merging into brown, brown merging into white for the women, mostly brown for one man, mostly white for another.  The skirts moved with style and one could admire both design and construction.  The variation itself featured many backbends by Anastasia Petrushkova and Yulia Stepanova, and
floor bound  petit allegro for Kamil Yangurasov and Karen Ionessian.

Act IV  I saw only at the matinee; October 11 the F bus schedule necessitated leaving at the end of Act III. The opening tableau and corps assignment was entirely winning; I felt I was finally registering the vaunted Maryinsky reputation, which impressed me in 2008.  While still not reconciled to the happy ending, the struggle was suitably theatrical as Von Rothbart lost one wing, though Zyushin seemed to follow stage patterns instead as Siegfried struggling for his beloved.

Both audiences was enthusiastic.   I cannot be accused of being blase,  but I did have expectations of the Maryinsky Ballet; aside from that glorious orchestra, these were not fulfilled.  Believe me, I ardently wanted to float out to AC Transit’s F bus for San Francisco.