Why Soviet-Era Vaganova Method Still Guides Ballerinas Today
by Victoria International Ballet Academy
Most dancers know there are many kinds of classical ballet. But what makes one style of classical ballet superior to another? Can we even compare schools directly? Where does the Vaganova method fit in?
A Bit of History
Ballet originated in the Renaissance courts of the 15th and 16th centuries. It spread to France, where it developed with the help of the aristocrat Catherine de’ Medici. It was not long before ballet was recognized as an art-form independent from opera, yet a close association remained.
After spreading around central Europe, it hit the Russian Empire in the 1740s. The Imperial Ballet was founded, and after the 1850s it thrived. While ballet branched out to all corners of the world, its practitioners refined it into the art-form we know today in Russia.
Ballet is an international art born in Italy, constructed in France, cultivated in Russia, and refined in America.
Giuseppina Bozzacchi as Swanhilde in “Coppelia.” Paris, 1870
Who was Agrippina Vaganova?
Agrippina Vaganova graduated from the Imperial Ballet School in Soviet Russia, now known as the Vaganova Ballet Academy.
She fused elements of the traditional French style with the athletic virtuosity of Italian techniques. The soulful smoothness of the arms from the old Russian School was also incorporated.
Vaganova’s method relies on the harmony of upper body, legs, and feet. Together, they develop clean lines, dynamism, and strength that looks completely effortless.
In 1934, she published her book “Basic Principles of Classical Ballet.” Her goal was to systematize the learning process, as all ballerinas up to then trained with different approaches. Future dancers would study and master elements from her encyclopedia of classical Russian ballet. The book structured dance education — an enormous achievement. Her process considered age, workload, and especially the individuality of every ballerina.
The Vaganova Method produced dancers with soaring leaps, high extensions, and pliable upper backs. But above all, their movements were powerful and expressive. And no matter how great a dancer’s performance or how strenuous the techniques, it was always crucial that the audience does not see the underlying effort.
Why the Craze Over the Vaganova Method?
If ballet is a language of the body, one dialect seems to have prevailed in popularity. Many of the greatest stars in the history of classical ballet came from the Vaganova method. These include Galina Ulanova, Maya Plisetskaya, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Irina Kolpakova, Farukh Ruzimatov. Modern dancers include Diana Vishneva, Igor Kolb, Ulyana Lopatkina, Ivan Vasilev, and Svetlana Zakharova.
They all had teachers who studied the Vaganova method their whole lives and passed it on with diligence. It’s no surprise: Many students aspiring to become professionals choose this method as a foundation for their classical technique.
As a teacher, Vaganova valued the ability to think and work hard. While some schools might neglect is the way your mind works in class, she believed the only major shortcoming a ballerina could have was to lack individuality. Other flaws could be rectified or turned into advantages with the right hands.
Finding a credible teacher to pass on this style is a challenge today. In Russia, talented students go on to study at respectable institutes like the Russian University of Theatre Arts (GITIS), the Moscow Choreographic Institute, or the Vaganova Ballet Institute. Thanks to professionals who migrated to all parts of the world, the Vaganova style is still accessible and available around the globe.
Without exposure to theater and stage performance, it is nearly impossible to hand down information to aspiring young students. Experience on stage is crucial. Furthermore, teaching classical ballet requires communication between the teacher and student. A good mentor will share not just the secrets of the Vaganova method, but also guide behavior and discipline. Whether you are a student or a professional artist working in a theater, having the right people guiding you is a big part of having a successful career.
“I had never disobeyed her, she taught me everything,” legendary ballerina Marina Semyonova — one of Vaganova’s favorite students — once said. “How to look, how to raise my brow, how to lower my lashes, how not to hear what others say around me. She would simply say, ‘do your job.’”
Does All This Make the Vaganova Method Superior to Others?
No: The method is a general fundamental of classical ballet. It cannot be compared to other forms of ballet as a wholly distinct entity, as much of its teachings have become intertwined with other great styles.
Ballet styles should never consider themselves in competition with one another — they have relied on each other throughout history and from their roots. No matter what the preferred style, dancers who put soul, hard work, and mind into their practice achieve success. But just as many schools used the Vaganova method as a building block of their own method, the style remains a favourite for dancers around the world pursuing classical ballet training.
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