Tag Archives: Michael Fokine

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.

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Jose Manuel Carreno will move to San Jose, California

20 Jun

The spring signs have been confirmed with Allan Ulrich’s post in the San Francisco Chronicle  that Jose Manuel Carreno will join Ballet San Jose September 3 as its new artistic director, his contract specifying an initial three years.  Carreno also stated that he would not be dancing but would concentrate his energies  on the company.

When I refer to the spring signs Carreno was at the San Jose Performing Arts Center for Ballet San Jose’s final set of performances and was sighted in the lobby with his usual smile.  Rita Felciano and I wondered at the time if this was a signal regarding a new artistic director.  Surprise, surpise.

Ulrich also mentioned that Raymond Rodriguez has been promoted to associate artistic director.  This may mean that Karen Gabay will be named ballet mistress.

I was lucky enough to have been at Jackson to cover the U.S.A. International Ballet Competition when Carreno won the Prix de Jackson, 1990 if my memory is correct.  German Juror Dietmar Seyffert remarked to me at the time “He has such an erotic body”; that sunny sensuality has pervaded his entire career.  He was immediately offered a contract with the English National Ballet which at that time was directed by former American Ballet Principal Ivan Nagy. It was the first time Cuban dancers appeared at the Competition with such distinction and their beautiful training would continue to impress subsequent competitions and jurors.  Carreno’s partner joined The Cleveland Ballet, invited by artistic director Dennis Nahat who was responsible for the Competition’s practice of wielding the seeded dancers into an ensemble which opened the Awards Gala in a  grand splash.

Unless Ballet San Jose’s practices change, and another Gala ensues in the fall,  the repertoire for the 2013-2014 season will be announced only when the company starts its ticketing for their annual Nutcracker.  A summer effort is being made to resurrect Michel Fokine’s Paganini, and this may figure in the spring season.   Paganini was a work  created for the de Basil Ballets Russes which featured Dmitri Rostov in the title role and Tatiana Riabouchinska as the Divine Spirit, and in its final U.S. tour Tatiana Stepanova.  For the Festival del Sole, Tiit Helimets is slated to take over the violinist’s portrait and Amy Marie Briones as the Divine Spirit.

What is remarkable in this announcement is the consistent referencing of American Ballet Theatre personnel for an institution which was created by an earlier American Ballet Theatre alumni, Dennis Nahat.  Clearly, the tradition of dance theatre was firmly established by Nahat,, and one  which Carreno will likely  carry on.

Words on Dance with Joanna Berman October 22

24 Oct

Deborah DuBowy has taped interviews with dancers mostly by dancers for nineteen years in San Francisco, usually including stills and sometimes taped footage of the dancer’s signature roles.  This year’s Isadora Duncan Dance Award Ceremony recognized this  record with its modest certificate and “dustable.”  Her presenter was Edward Villella who will be the subject of the next interview, scheduled for the Paley Center for Media, New York City, March 11, 2013.  September 15, 2013, capping the second decade of endeavor will see Maria Kochetkova interviewing Carla Fracci, the memorable Italian ballerina.

October 22 DuBowy arranged for another memorable interview, which probably won’t ever be seen visually because the Vogue Theatre on Sacramento Street simply did not possess stage lights.  Nonetheless the audience not glued to the third presidential debate  got to hear Joanna Berman answer the adroit questions posed by James Sofranko and see snippets of Berman in Rodeo, Swan Lake, Company B, Damned and Dance House.

The comparatively brief interview was preceded by nine films of varying length, some of them gem like.  It commenced with Natalia Makarova dancing with Mikhail Baryshnikov to a Chopin Mazurka, part of a lengthier exposition created by Jerome Robbins for the January 17, 1972 Gala to raise money to keep the New York Public Library Dance Collection open.  Both dancers were at the peak of their careers, their elevations impressive, their elan unmistakably Russian.

A considerably edited interview with Yvonne Mounsey this past June was next, conducted by Emily Hite, capturing in speech Mounsey’s performance qualities.  It was wonderful to see Mounsey wrap hercomments around her favorite role, the Siren in the Balanchine ballet Prodigal Son. I saw her dance when Jerome Robbins was the Prodigal; her understanding of the predatory female remains undimmed.

A brief film by Quinn Wharton followed. Mechanism, had a text relating to machines  and featured two Hubbard Street Dance Company members, Johnny McMillan and Kellie Eppenheimer. Her balance, barefoot on demi-pointe, was cool, controlled, mind-boggling.

This was followed by Miguel Calayan’s short, Prima,  featuring Shannon Roberts (she has a new name Rugani) with  modest tiara, romantic length tutu topped by a royal blue tunic. Dancing  around a spacious vintage ballroom whose location I’d love to know, the footage captured her feet in releve, her body in grand jete and turning attitude, at the barre, covering space, ending in a wheel chair with a doll-sized proscenium stage and puppet dance figure.

Carolyn Goto, former principal dancer with Oakland Ballet, created a DVD of Ronn Guidi in connection with the Legacy Project, affiliated with the Museum of Performance and Design.  Careful editing allowed the audience to see segments of three important Oakland Ballet restagings: Michel Fokine’s” Scheherazade,” Eugene Loring’s “Billy the Kid” and Bronislava Nijinska’s “Les Noces.” In addition Guidi  was seen evaluating Sergei Diaghilev’s benchmark influence on the arts.

Following intermission, San Francisco Ballet member Luke Willis introduced “Freefall,”a partially completed film created with his brother. It featured a charming child, Pauli Magierek playing her mother, and two dancers in space, Sean Bennett for certain and perhaps Kristine Lind; it seemed to explore a child’s fascination with potential future romance.

The choreographic  process between Jorma Elo and Maria Kochetkova in the creation of a solo for her  in the 2012 Reflections tour came next, an interesting exploration of the  making and interpreting of a choreographic vision.

Judy Flannery, the Managing Director of the San Francisco Dance Film Festival, brought trailers from this year’s Festival and the news that September 12-15, 2013 will feature the Festival’s collaboration with an international dance component, information which has yet to make it to the Festival’s website.  She also introduced Kate Duhamel’s “Aloft,” with Yuri Zhukov’s choreography for six dancers,  photographed on the northern edge of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Credited as being inspired by the America’s Cup sailboat races and the qualities of the swift vessels, the dancers moved against whipping wind, gravelly ground with the City in the distance as backdrop.

A final break ensued before Joanna Berman and James Sofranko followed the brief glimpse of Joanna in “Rodeo,” and her entrance as Odette in “Swan Lake,” with Cyril Pierre as Siegfried. Berman remarked that Christine Sarry warned her against emoting at the Cowgirl and in “Swan Lake,” she felt exposed and uncomfortable, enjoying Odile more because she, essentially, didn’t
have to be “pure.”  Berman liked story ballets because sa narrative provides meaning to the work,the why the preference for  “Serenade” and “Dances at a Gathering” to the more abstract repertoire  created for New York City Ballet.

Berman had studied at Marin Ballet with Margaret Swarthout before a year at San Francisco Ballet led to a six month apprenticeship before joining the corps de ballet.  What wasn’t mentioned was Berman’s attending the International Ballet Competition in Moscow, the youngest entrant to date, being eliminated in the second round because of a stumble.  Returning with her coach, Maria Vegh, there was a solo performance in celebration at the Marin Civic Center before Berman moved over to San Francisco Ballet School.

Joanna Berman’s dramatic gifts shone in “Company B”, “Damned” and “Dance House.”  I did not see her in the Possokhov reading of the Medea tragedy, associating it with Muriel Maffre and Lorena Feijoo.  Berman’s warmth, a quality Paul Parish calls “creamy,” at odds with Medea’s decision, made the brief footage that much stronger.

Berman now periodically sets “A Garden” for Mark Morris and works by Christopher Wheeldon. She spoke concisely about the responsibility of realizing the choreographer’s intent, a focus she followed when she danced.

James Sofranko also asked her about her post S.F. Ballet guest appearance with ODC, dancing with Private Freeman to choreography by Brenda Way.  When he asked Berman about the arc of her career, she replied she had no desire to go elsewhere because of the calibre of the company and the presence of her family.

The evening reminded one of the elusive quality of comfortable familiarity that seems to have seeped out of many dance occasions with the generational shift. It was good to enjoy the sensation once more.