The queen of codified ballet technique
Agrippina Vaganova (1879–1951) transformed ballet training, melding French Romanticism and Italian strength and athleticism with Russian expressivity. The publication of her book, Basic Principles of Classical Ballet, systemized her technique that is now the foundation for ballet schools all over the world.
Vaganova was born in St. Petersburg with ballet already in her blood: Her father was an usher at the Mariinsky Theatre. At the age of 10, she entered what was then called the Imperial Ballet School; she joined the corps de ballet in 1897. Never a favorite of ballet master Marius Petipa and frequently criticized for her unattractiveness and natural stiffness, Vaganova didn’t receive her first real ballerina role (Naïla in La Source) until 1911. She was finally promoted to ballerina in 1915—only one year before her retirement from the company in 1916.
Fortunately, Vaganova’s teaching career didn’t mirror her lackluster performance path. She taught at the School of Russian Ballet and quickly gained recognition for her teaching skills. In 1920, she was asked to teach ballet to her former peers, the company members. She also began teaching the students in their last three years at the Leningrad Choreographic School. With both a growing reputation and an innate ability to navigate tricky post-Revolution politics, Vaganova became the ballet company’s assistant director in 1927 and, in 1931, artistic director. In 1934, she published her momentous and immediately well-received Basic Principles of Classical Ballet. She stepped down from her artistic director post in 1937, with her focus now on the school, though she continued to teach and rehearse the company members.
In 1957, six years after Vaganova’s death, what was by then known as the Leningrad Choreographic School was renamed the Vaganova Ballet Academy in her honor. —Rachel Rizzuto
Fun Fact Though she never achieved real fame as a performer, Vaganova was nicknamed the “queen of variations” by critic Akim Volynsky.
Successful fulfillment of Vaganova’s technique was designed to take eight years for a student starting at age 10, taking class six days a week. A dancer trained in Vaganova technique focuses on whole-body connectivity, as opposed to individual parts moving independently. Special attention is paid to port de bras (for both aesthetics and efficiency in leaps and turns) and aplomb (a steadiness, beginning as early as pliés in first position, to encourage strength in tours and allegro).
Vaganova sought emotional expressiveness, strict form and an energetic performance manner from her students. Her pupils were known for not only mastering a step but also knowing what its purpose was and how to explain its correct execution.
The Legacy Lives On
Some of Vaganova’s most famous students were Mariinsky Ballet and later Bolshoi Ballet stars Marina Semenova and Galina Ulanova, as well as American Ballet Theatre ballet mistress Irina Kolpakova. Ballet schools in the U.S. with a Vaganova training foundation include:
• Austin School of Classical Ballet
• Bossov Ballet Theatre
• Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington, DC
• Valentina Kozlova’s Dance Conservatory of New York
“Agrippina Vaganova,” by Jocelyn Anderson, Dance Teacher, November 2005
Vaganova: A Dance Journey From Petersburg to Leningrad, by Vera Krasovskaya, University Press of Florida, 2005
Basic Principles of Classical Ballet: Russian Ballet Technique, by Agrippina Vaganova, Dover Publications, Inc., 1969
Photos courtesy of Vaganova Ballet Academy