Almost three hundred years ago, in 1738, six Russian boys and six Russian girls, all children of palace servants, filed hesitatingly into a room in St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace. Uncertain of what lay ahead of them, they turned towards Jean-Baptise Landé, an elegant Frenchman, who had been granted permission by Empress Anna Ioannovna to open Russia’s first professional ballet school. Thirty-five years later, an Italian dance master, Filippo Beccari, looked expectantly at a group of orphans that had assembled around him. They were wards of the Moscow Foundling Home, an institution embodying the ideals of the enlightenment. By offering not just a general education but professional training in crafts and arts, including dance, the home’s idealistic board hoped to offer Moscow’s orphans a different, brighter future. These Petersburg servant children and Muscovite orphans were the first links in a long chain of ballet students that would establish the Russian tradition of ballet education as one of the oldest, most respected in the world.
Ballet initially developed along different trajectories in St. Petersburg and Moscow. St. Petersburg’s ballet was distinctly imperial, reflecting the Europeanized, aristocratic tastes of the court. Just as the spirit of the city was shaped by its strictly geometric, classic design and the hierarchies of the imperial bureaucracy, so the St. Petersburg ballet valued geometric harmony and a restrained classicism. Removed from the constraints of the court, Moscow was free to develop its own, proudly independent tradition that prized individuality more than a strict adherence to the rules of classical academic dance. In 1806, the Moscow ballet and its school were incorporated into the system of the imperial theatres, but the city’s audience continued to take pride in the emotional, instinctive, even rebellious spirit of its ballet and its powerfully dramatic performances that reflected its symbiotic relationship with Moscow’s great dramatic theatre, the Maly Theatre.
By the time Marius Petipa arrived in St. Petersburg in 1847, Russian ballet had claimed its place among the best in the world. Marius Petipa would create The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Don Quixote and La Bayadère for the imperial ballet companies in St. Petersburg and Moscow, and the golden age of classical ballet would become synonymous with Russia.
After the Russian revolution, the St. Petersburg and Moscow schools converged, combining and systematizing their long experience of ballet education. In St. Petersburg, which had now been renamed Leningrad, one of the best soloists of Petipa’s time, Agrippina Vaganova, titled the “queen of the variation” by the legendary ballet critic Akim Volinsky, used her sharp analytical mind to synthesize, analyze, criticize and systematize the knowledge that had accumulated over the course of centuries, laying the foundation for one of the most successful modern training systems for professional ballet dancers, known in her honour as the Vaganova method.
Vaganova didn’t invent anything new. Her great innovation and lasting achievement lay in formulating a new approach to ballet education. If the great teachers of the past had taught intuitively, Vaganova taught analytically, even scientifically. By the 1930s, Vaganova’s approach had become the basis for a government-supported effort to foster cooperation between the Leningrad and Moscow schools in order to formulate a unified method of ballet education that would be taught in professional schools across the Soviet Union.
The Russian method of professional ballet training is deeply logical, progressing slowly from the complete mastery of the basics to the most complicated steps. From the first ballet class, it emphasizes correct anatomical alignment and the harmonious coordination of all parts of the human body. Russian dancers are famous for their expressive upper bodies, a direct result of the method’s unique approach to teaching students how to place and use their arms and back, equipping dancers with lyrically expressive, yet powerful arms able to provide the right impetus for turns and jumps. The Russian method also trains artistry from an early age, insisting that even the most basic ballet movements should not be empty exercises, but infused with meaning. The Russian system of teaching is highly complex. Only pedagogues who have gone through the professional dance training themselves and then received special teachers’ training are qualified to teach it. The greatest Russian teachers are deeply aware of the responsibility to preserve and pass on the technical and artistic knowledge that has accumulated over centuries, and humbly consider themselves just links in a long chain of artists devoted to keeping the secrets of the past while adapting them to the demands of the present.
Christina Ezrahi, author of Swans of the Kremlin: Ballet and Power in Soviet Russia
Great Friend of London Russian Ballet School