Names of the World Ballet Schools: Agrippina Vaganova

Names of the World Ballet Schools: Agrippina Vaganova

She was a corps de ballet dancer, soloist, choreographer and artistic director, teacher and author of a book. Her training system - the Vaganova method - is relevant to this day.  

The path from corps de ballet to soloist

Agrippina Vaganova was born on June 26, 1879, in St. Petersburg. Her father, a former non-commissioned officer, served as an usher at the Mariinsky, so she was familiar with one of the country's major theaters since childhood. 

In 1890, Vaganova entered the Imperial Theater School. One of the first teachers of Agrippina was the ballet master Lev Ivanov; later, Vaganova was trained by Ekaterina Vazem, a prima ballerina of the Mariinsky Theater and ballet pedagogue. 

One of the first parts the future ballerina danced was a role in The Magic Flute. Lev Ivanov staged this production for the students of the school. In 1897, Vaganova graduated and joined the Mariinsky ballet company. However, her stage path was not easy: for many years, she danced in the corps de ballet, and the choreographer Marius Petipa never spoke highly of the dancer's abilities. Even Agrippina herself ironically remarked that at that time she was “the thirty-third shadow in La Bayadere”, although only thirty-two shadows appeared on stage in the production. 

It took her several years to gain a foothold as the theater soloist. She danced in Giselle, The Little Humpbacked Horse and, finally, performed the role of Odette-Odile in Swan Lake, which had long been her dream. 

At that time, Vaganova was called the “queen of variations” - for her brilliant solo roles. In the ballet Stream, staged by Nikolai Legat, she also soloed and demonstrated the elements that later became the distinctive features of her style. Clear lines of her technique, powerful jumps and a "steel" toe - years later, these features will distinguish the "Vaganova school". 

The era of the lead parts began in her career in the 1910s. However, in 1916, Agrippina Yakovlevna left the stage to start teaching. 

Shaping the Vaganova method

She made her debut as a ballet teacher in private schools. But her teaching practice was not extensive; during the revolutionary years, she even had to perform for food. A new stage began after the 1917 revolution: the artist and teacher Alexander Oblakov invited Vaganova to teach at the Petrograd Theater School. In 1922, Agrippina Yakovlevna prepared her first students for graduation and began working with pre-graduate female classes. This was the time when the Vaganova method - her author’s training system - was taking shape; it was distinguished by a clear technique and strict ballet poses. From 1924 to the 1950s, Agrippina Vaganova taught a whole galaxy of artists, many of whom became outstanding ballerinas of their era. Among her many graduates were Marina Semyonova, Galina Ulanova, Natalia Dudinskaya, Alla Shelest, Olga Moiseeva and others. Under Vaganova’s guidance, Maya Plisetskaya prepared the role of Masha in The Nutcracker and later called Agrippina Yakovlevna her best teacher more than once. Plisetskaya wrote: 

“Vaganova had fantastic brain. She saw immediately what was wrong. She never told her student: "Try this way!" She demanded: “It must be like this.” She was Michelangelo in the ballet."

For six years, from 1931 to 1937, the teacher worked as an artistic director of the  Kirov Theater ballet company. During this time, she was editing classical productions, among which were Swan Lake by Marius Petipa and Esmeralda. In Petipa's production, Agrippina Vaganova changed the scene of the first meeting of Odette and Prince Siegfried. Many choreographers kept this version of the episode in their productions for a long time. 

However, Agrippina Yakovlevna didn’t stay in the position of the ballet artistic director for long, because by that time there was a gap between the public's demand for a new theatrical repertoire and the classical approach to ballet art that was always closer to Vaganova. Eventually, she implemented her academicism and striving for a system in her own training methodology and in a book. 

A book as the ultimate expression of knowledge and experience

Academic dancing has always been at the heart of Vaganova's teaching method. The first step on the way to ballet mastery is the refinement of classical movements and positions, because this was precisely the strength of Agrippina Yakovlevna herself. Having perfectly mastered the classical basics, a ballerina could proceed to the next level - expressing freedom and individual style in her dance. Vaganova wrote: 

"An exercise needs to be approached the way we approach our treatment in life: we receive the doctor's prescriptions, but we usually know ourselves how to apply them, how to treat ourselves."

In dance classes, the teacher served as an example of stage bearing and demonstrated the clarity of positions and the strength of jumps. She passed on her knowledge to several generations of students and recorded it in the book Basic Principles of Classical Ballet, which was first published in 1934.  Vaganova's book became one of the iconic works in the world of ballet, the author systematized her teaching methodology that was previously presented in the form of separate pieces of knowledge and practical developments. The book was reprinted six times and translated to many languages. 

Agrippina Yakovlevna taught ballet until the 1950s, finding her true vocation in this. She died in Leningrad in 1951 at the age of 72. The Academy of Russian Ballet in St. Petersburg bears the name of Vaganova to this day.