The Vaganova Technique: Fire & Ice from the East

One of the very first ballet teachers, Jean Baptiste Landé, had an enormous cultural impact on Russia when he took a group of French ballet students to perform for Empress Anna. The Empress was so delighted that she decided to open the first Russian ballet school, the Imperial Ballet School, in 1738. This was the first iteration of what was to become the famous Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet.

Agrippina Vaganova was a student of the Imperial Ballet School and danced with its professional company, the Imperial Russian Ballet, until retiring to become a teacher in 1916. During her career, Vaganova strived to discover the best methods for classical movement. She carefully studied the French and Cecchetti methods as well as the theories of her Russian colleagues and fused together the best of what she found. Vaganova taught and developed her system over 30 years of teaching at the academy, which eventually was named for her. The technique she created became a physical and aesthetic masterpiece that joined the romanticism of the French, the virtuosity of the Italians and the fiery soulfulness of the Russians.

Vaganova ballet technique requires and trains a malleable back and limbs and a very strong trunk. Like Cecchetti before her, Vaganova created her own system of port de bras, arabesques, body poses, attitudes, and wall/corner numbering, but instead of adding to the French systems of each, she streamlined them.

The Vaganova Academy still exists today. Thousands of 9 and 10 year olds audition each year after taking music and dance classes in their hometowns. Only about 20 boys and 20 girls are chosen. Students are housed in dorms and provided training, education, meals and medical care. Similar to the Paris Opera Ballet School, students are examined each year to determine whether they are up to the physical and technical standard to be allowed to continue. Those that make it to graduation are eligible for a position with the Kirov Ballet Company. The scene is much the same for the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, also known as the Moscow Choreographic Institute, which began in the late 1700s as a ballet class for an orphanage and is also firmly based in Vaganova technique.

The Vaganova and Bolshoi Academies have been responsible for the training of many if not most of the finest dancers the world has seen, including Anna Pavolva, Vaslav Nijinsky, Galina Ulanova, Maya Plisetskaya, Natalia Dudinskaya, Yuri Grigorvich, Natalia Bessmertnova, Ekaterina Maximova, Vladimir Vasiliev, Diana Vishneva, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Galina Mezentseva, Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova, Uliana Lopatkina, and Svetlana Zakharova to name a few. In addition to these stars, the Kirov and Bolshoi companies are given credit for many of the greatest classical ballets ever created due to the residencies of legendary choreographers Jules Perrot, Marius Petipa and Petipa’s assistant Lev Ivanov, whose creations while in Russia included Paquita, Don Quixote, La Bayadére, The Sleeping Beauty, Raymonda, and revivals of Giselle, Le Corsaire, Coppélia, La Esmeralda, La Sylphide, Swan Lake.

In the U.S., Vaganova technique is one of the most popular methods because of the popularity of its stars and because many Vaganova dancers settled in the U.S. where they opened their own ballet schools and brought the Vaganova method to American students. The Kirov and Bolshoi each have a presence in the U.S. through the Kirov Ballet Academy and the Bolshoi Ballet Academy Summer Intensive.