Articles From the March 1994 Unification News


The Kirov Tradition Comes to America - Washington's Kirov Academy

by Stephen Henkin

The esteemed Kirov technique is now being taught in our nation's capital. Can a Western Baryshnikov be far behind?

Classical ballet has been described as the architecture of human movement synchronizing with the movements of artistic evolution, and nothing has embodied this understanding more than the fabled Russian dance tradition. Long the cultural heart of Leningrad (now once again St. Petersburg), the Kirov Ballet tradition has become a pinnacle of human discipline, refined by the various arts over time: a marriage of ancient classicism with gothic mystery and austerity, Baroque embellishments, Romantic otherworldliness, Tchaikovsky's stirring music, Leon Bakst's striking and innovative set design, and a folkloric tradition endowed with gusto and flair. "Scratch a Russian and you find a Tartar," a great ballerina once said, in recognition of the dance embodying the Russian character and soul.

Triumphant Survivor

Yet despite Russia's turbulent history, economic crises, and the vagaries of artistic influences, not only has this cultural treasure- the Kirov tradition-survived, but it has crossed the Atlantic and come to flourish at the Kirov Academy of Ballet, a forward-thinking and well-equipped dance school located directly north of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Academy executive director Jeffrey Benson described the goal of this unique institution, which has been recognized by both the American and Russian governments as a leader in the area of cultural exchange.

"I actually see our [academy's] responsibility is not just to teach ballet, but to contribute to the culture of America and North America," Benson noted, adding: "Coming out of the Soviet past, the Kirov has always been something of a mystery-nobody knew how they did that magic. I'm seeing here it's not magic-it's sheer blood, sweat, and tears that gets them to that level [of dance]. Our overall responsibility, I feel, is to broadcast the quality of the aesthetic of this very special art form. And I think our responsibility is to keep the public informed, enlightened, and to broaden the popularity of classical ballet. It's a delightful, pure, noble art form that is good for society."

Founded originally as the Universal Ballet Academy in September 1990, the school is the only institution outside Russia to bear the name Kirov. It is also uniquely situated to have as its artistic director Oleg Vinogradov, who has held the same position at the renowned Kirov Ballet since 1977. With a current enrollment of seventy-seven students, twelve of whom have graduated from the preprofessional program, the academy offers young dancers a variety of programs and levels of instruction according to their degree of proficiency. An internationally recognized faculty trains aspiring young dancers in a pedagogy based on that of the Agrippina Vaganova Choreographic Academy in St. Petersburg and the performance aesthetic of the Kirov Ballet.

Loyal to the Method

For Benson, the change in the academy's name signals a new level of cooperation with their founding Russian organization: "We always wanted to be known as the Kirov center of training in America. We made an effort with the director of the Kirov theater to acquire their name. And after three years, they note that we are loyal and intend to teach the Kirov aesthetic, to teach the Kirov methodology." The Kirov Academy's parent organization, now called the Kirov Ballet of St. Petersburg, had its origins in the St. Petersburg of 1738 when Jean-Baptiste Lande, a Frenchman, founded a dance school for the servants of the czar's court. This institution became the basis for the St. Petersburg Imperial Ballet School, which was the center of Russian ballet until the October Revolution. The Kirov tradition, derived from its predecessor, the Imperial Russian Ballet School, is based on the work of such leading nineteenth- century choreographers as Jules Perrot (Ondine, Esmeralda, Giselle), Arthur Saint-Leon (La Fille de marbre, Le Violon du diable), and Marius Petipa (La Bayadare, The Sleeping Beauty, Pharaoh's Daughter). These choreographers helped define the character and integrity of the Kirov company that we see today.

The French ballet master Petipa, in particular, guided the company to its greatest period. From his arrival in St. Petersburg in 1847 on, he produced over fifty ballets, including the original Swan Lake, which he conceived with Lev Ivanov, one of the few Russian ballet masters during this period. Besides being the most challenging dance work for soloists and companies alike, Petipa's The Sleeping Beauty remains the highest achievement of classical academic dancing.

Under the tutelage of these key ballet masters, the Kirov style experienced a surge in its choreographic development from the 1840s through the 1890s. Their artistic innovations included the unity of mime and dance into a cohesive dramatic structure; virtuoso feats of brilliance, both of temperament and physique, brought off with dazzling energy; prodigious leaps and pirouettes in a very masculine and bravura style; classical inventions that set off the gifts of the principal artists; exciting stage effects; an unerring sense of proportion in narrative and placed dance sequences; the balance of group dances against solos and processions with set displays; and underlying all, a strict emphasis on training in the fundamental techniques of dance in the inimitable Kirov style and aesthete.

Sensation in West

The Imperial Ballet, then based at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, caused a sensation when it appeared in the West, both individually and with the troupe Diaghilev for his Paris seasons from 1909. Two years earlier, Anna Pavlova had danced for the masses on her world tours. Perhaps the most celebrated ballerina of all time, Pavlova brought her repertory performance to unsophisticated audiences often totally unaware of the Russian dance tradition.

Although the company lost 40 percent of its personnel after the 1917 Revolution, it maintained its extensive repertoire and technical proficiency under Agrippina Vaganova. The company's penchant for building upon the Kirov legacy helped found the Vaganova Academy in Leningrad. The demanding training and precise aesthete of the Vaganova Academy, so named in 1957, and its predecessor, the Imperial Ballet School, has given birth to some of the world's most exceptional dancers, including Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, George Balanchine, Michel Fokine, Maria Danilova, Alla Sizova, Rudolph Nureyev, Natalia Makarova, and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

In 1961, the Kirov came West to London's Covent Garden. The heritage of a great classical tradition, painstakingly cultivated in the dancers' intensive training, was obvious. At the same time, three young Leningrad artists chose to dance in the West: Nureyev was the first, leaving in 1961, followed later by Makarova and Baryshnikov. All three have since brought further acclaim to their parent company. During the Cold War the reputation of the Kirov as a bastion for pure, classical technique and impeccable training continued to grow, but the company's performance level itself declined due to key defections and the lack of infusion of new young talent into the corps.

The esteemed Petipa-Vaganova method incorporates all of the choreographic advances in Russian dance, and Washington's Kirov Academy stands as their fortunate inheritor. The academy's preparatory division, ages eight to twelve, features introductory ballet classes in barre technique, floor technique, and improvisation. The professional division, ages twelve through eighteen, is the primary focus, offering a systematic and consecutive method of professional ballet training. The curriculum includes classical technique, repertoire studies, character dance, historical court dance, adagio studies, music, ballet history, and body conditioning. Students develop practical skills, muscular self-control, basic coordination and expression, and in later stages the mastery of more complex movements and combinations. Modeled after the Vaganova Academy program, the school will be granting in June of 1995 its first degree for a full six-year program, combining grades for dance and academics.

Carrying the Torch

The torchbearers of the Kirov tradition at the academy are Vinogradov and his wife, Yelena, who serves as deputy artistic director. Like her husband, Mme. Vinogradov graduated from the Vaganova Academy in 1958. Since then, she has danced as a soloist with the Novosibirsk Theatre of Opera and Ballet; taught ballet at the Novosibirsk Choreographic Institute; worked with the Kirov Ballet as both a dancer and coach; and has been invited by many well-known ballet companies and schools to stage, teach, and coach.

Mme. Vinogradov cites the difficulties of training under the school's exacting tutelage: "Ballet is one of the most complex art forms, and we seek to train the students in the expression, the artistry, the nuances, the style of the Kirov Ballet, and these things are very difficult to learn. A dance student needs to have both the natural gifts, the physical characteristics that are prerequisite for the profession, as well as ... certain professional qualities. The academy's auditions are quite competitive, and aesthetic factors as well as dance ability are included in the criteria for selection. It is just as hard to get into our school as it is into the Vaganova Academy.

"Ballet is something that has to be seen. The subtleties of ballet are difficult to really speak about, and that's why the essence of ballet instruction is showing the ballet students. There are no textbooks or primers that can substitute for the live contact between the ballet student and his teacher. Therefore, we select our ballet instructors on the basis of their pedagogical gifts: their ability to show, to demonstrate, to convey the secrets of the profession," she says.

Treasured Resource

The faculty itself reads like a Who's Who from the world of dance. One such treasure of the Kirov Academy teaching staff is Alla Sizova, after an extraordinary performing career. A native of Moscow, Sizova graduated from the Vaganova Academy in 1958 and was admitted to the Kirov Ballet, becoming one of its most popular ballerinas. A winner of two gold medals (Vienna, Varna) and the Anna Pavlova Prize from the Paris Academy, Sizova brings to the academy great expertise in interpreting lyrical and romantic roles. Her performance experience spans virtually all realms of the classical ballet repertoire.

Another gifted teacher is Rudolph Kharatian. A graduate of the Choreographic Institute of Erevan in his native Armenia in 1966, he spent the following year at the Vaganova Academy. Kharatian studied with noted Soviet teachers Alexander Pushkin and Natalia Dudinskaya, then went on to become a principal dancer with the Spendiarian National Opera and Ballet Theater in Erevan. His career in choreography began in 1971, and in 1979 he founded the Armenian State Television Dance Group, a chamber ballet ensemble. Specializing in choreography and stage production, Kharatian graduated in 1985 from the Moscow State Institute of Theatrical Arts, where he studied with Rodislav Zakharov, who has trained most contemporary Soviet choreographers.

Leningrad-born teacher Ludmila Morkovina graduated from the Vaganova Academy in 1953 and became a member of the Maly Theater of Opera and Ballet. During her twenty years of performing, Morkovina danced numerous lead and solo roles from classical and modern ballets. She has taught at the Vaganova Academy, the Ballet Nacional de Panama, and the Ballet Sopianae in Pecs, Hungary. From 1970 to 1980, she coached members of the Maly Theater. During 1989 and 1990, Morkovina taught at the Conservatory of Istanbul in Turkey.

A 1944 graduate of the Vaganova Academy, Leningrad-born Nikolai Morozov was soloist with the Maly Theater of Opera and Ballet. After dancing many lead roles, Morozov began teaching there at the age of twenty-eight. He has also taught at the Vaganova Academy, the Higher Ballet Institute of Cairo, and at the Conservatory of Istanbul. He has served as teacher-repetiteur at the Warsaw Theater of Opera and Ballet and the Maryinsky Theater. He directed both the school and the company of Ballet Nacional de Panama. His credits include the staging of several ballets for Leningrad Television Studios.

The sole American in the academy teaching corps, Adrienne Dellas- Thornton, originally from Detroit, has studied under Alexandra Danilova, Richard Thomas, Robert Joffrey, Antony Tudor, and Hector Zaraspe. After dancing several principal roles, Dellas created the ballet department of the Sun Hwa Arts School in Seoul, Korea, in 1976 and was founding artistic director and choreographer for the Universal Ballet Company, established in 1984. Among her forty original works are the ballets Ulysses, Monument, Joie de Vivre, and Shim Chung (The blind man's daughter).

A Soviet `Star'

Faculty member Vladimir Dzuluhadze, of Tbilisi, Georgia, graduated from the Moscow Institution of Theatrical Arts. Soon afterward, he began a career as a coach and ballet master, as well as guest soloist and principal dancer with various companies including the Bolshoi Ballet, Moscow Ballet, Kiev Ballet, and Tbilisi Ballet. Dzuluhadze has performed internationally with "Stars of the Soviet Ballet" and also served as ballet master and acting artistic director for the Ballet Mississippi Company.

Mme. Vinogradov views the success of teaching ballet in terms of the whole person: "Any arts or creative profession educates or cultivates people, not only the professional aspect but the personality; it cultivates the individuality of the person. In particular, the arts and ballet cultivate the intellect as well as a person's behavior, mannerisms, self-discipline-all of these things are developed through the arts. Without possessing this multiplicity of qualities that are cultivated by the arts, a person cannot really go out on the stage and really represent the art. He or she has to be a well-rounded, fully developed individual."

The experiences of the Kirov Academy students themselves provide insight into how well the Kirov instructional method is being received. For fourth-year student Tanya Marchman, sixteen, of Williamsburg, Virginia, her desire to transcend her experience at a small private dance company first took her to Russia, where she was accepted to train with the Bolshoi for eight years. "My director back home saw a flyer [for the Kirov Academy] and said I could have the best of both worlds-I could stay in America and still get the Vaganova style.

"My teacher is Mme. Morkovina. She's a wonderful teacher. She's taught me everything I know now. She's taught me to be a professional, to let my feelings out when I'm dancing. She helps us with everything we do. She tells me that I can do it, and no other teacher has ever told me that. Others have told me that I can't do it, and that [I'm] awful. She corrects me if I need it, but she's always there in the wings to let me know that I can do it. Most Western companies run wild, but the Kirov keeps order. You learn discipline from them," she says.

Fourth-year preprofessional student Josh Brooksher, seventeen, of Mesa, Arizona, stresses the rebuilding aspects of learning from the Kirov. "I started from the very beginning all over again. New students are told, `You are going to feel awful for the first two months.' They take apart all of the technique you have learned and they replace it with their technique, and you slowly learn the Kirov style. My teacher is Mr. Kharatian. Because he's danced so long on the stage, he knows all of the little secrets. He can teach you how to bends your legs so you can keep your hips square. He knows `tricks,' as he calls them.

Learning the Aesthetics

"Western dancers can learn the aesthetic quality from the Kirov. Western dancers dance mainly with emotion, but there's no placement. Here you can learn to express emotion exactly through a technique. I took company class with the Kirov. It's a phenomenal technique-they keep their technique, but they can still express emotion. It's not like a machine," says Brooksher.

Preprofessional student Oscar Charles Hawkins, Jr., twenty, of Brandywine, Maryland, auditioned for the academy in the middle of 1991. "They started pulling me apart to see how flexible I was- making me turn in and out. They signed me up right away even though I was only dancing for three years. I was scared. Before, I took Modern, ballet, and the [Lestor] Horton technique. At the Kirov Academy you learn to really think about each position; other schools don't stress each position cleanly. Here you have to think about things before you really do them," says Hawkins, who would like to join the Stuttgart Ballet and return when the Kirov Academy forms its own company.

Fourth-year student Margo Caslavka, seventeen, of Riverside, California, cites the technical aspects she has learned at the academy. "I've learned definitely a lot of placement, how to hold your arms, and the Vanagova style and the beauty of the port de bras. And that it takes a lot of endurance and strength to be a dancer. It's much more intense than anything I ever expected. Intense meaning the number of classes, the training, and the strict, precise demand that there is on the body of a dancer.

"Western dancers can learn how to use their port de bras-the carrying of your arms-and make it harmonious with the lower body. In my old ballet school the arms were terrible and had no relationship to the lower body. The Vaganova technique in itself is very precise, and it's written down, academic," she says.

In an eagerly anticipated first, students of the academy went on an international tour with The Nutcracker (Mexico City; Panama City, Florida; and New Orleans) last December with six principals of the Kirov Ballet. The December 8 opening performance in Mexico City was well received by local critics. According to the Diario, "The Nutcracker, presented at the Auditorio Nacional, is a spectacle full of beauty. ... [Kirov Ballet] dancers along with the Washington school [Kirov Academy] offered a great performance filled with harmony of beauty and movement. ... The impeccable technique and execution of the principal dancers, likewise the children, exalted the classical ballet to one of its maximum representations." Academy students appear to have learned their Kirov dance lessons well.

Synthesis of Styles

Concerning the future, Mme. Vinogradov speculates about the implications of merging East-West dance styles: "I think that we certainly envisioned a synthesis of the principles of the Kirov Ballet and the outstanding principles of Western ballet when we were invited to consider coming to found the school here. We as a school are not existing in isolation.

"We are not here to impose or compete with anyone from among the Western ballet institutions. Our goal is not to impede or interfere with anyone else's development. We just would like to be a presence for overall enrichment," she concludes.

This ambitious transplant of the Kirov tradition seems to be bearing good fruit in America. It may be only a matter of time before we see a Western Baryshnikov or Makarova.

Stephen Henkin is an arts editor at The World &I. This article is reprinted with permission of The World & I, a publication of The Washington Times Corporation. This article appeared in the April 1994 issue (p. 114).

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