Agrippina Vaganova (1879-1951) was a noted Russian ballet dancer, choreographer, and teacher. She created a new way of teaching ballet, which was named for her, and was the author of a book, Basic Principles of Classical Ballet (1934), which is still regarded as a standard in ballet instruction.
Born June 26, 1879, in St. Petersburg, Russia, Agrippina Yakovlevna Vaganova was the daughter of an usher at the Mariinsky Theatre, and thus was exposed to ballet at a very early age. She attended the Mariinsky ballet school, graduating in 1897, and then entered the Mariinsky company of dancers. She performed leading roles in La Source, Swan Lake, The Little Humpbacked Horse, and The Pearl. She also appeared in Chopiniana and La Bayadére; her performance in La Bayadére is still known as the "Vaganova Variation" today, and she was known as the "Queen of Variations" during her career.
Retired from the Stage to Teach
Despite her talent, Vaganova was overshadowed by contemporaries such as Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Olga Preobrazhenskaya, and Matilda Kshesinskaya, and she did not receive the title of Ballerina until 1915, the year before her farewell performance. This lack of recognition was partly because Vaganova was not considered beautiful, as these other performers were, and she also did not have wealthy and influential friends. Perhaps because she did not receive the praise she deserved, Vaganova tended to be critical of herself and her techniques, as well as critical of the systems then used to teach ballet, and she sought to improve both her own dancing and the teaching methods.
Of Vaganova's appearance, Vera Volkova wrote in Ballet Decade, "The most remarkable thing about her appearance was her eyes. They were large, blue, unemotional—the eyes of a craftsman rather than of an artist. Her steady gaze seemed always to follow one about, missing nothing.… Her large-featured face was the reverse of conventional good looks, but was infused with intelligence."
Vaganova had studied with several well-known French teachers, most notably Nicholas Legat and Paul Gerdt. Their techniques were derived from eighteenth-century French choreographers. Typically, these techniques emphasized soft, graceful movements. For example, the arms were supposed to be beautifully posed, soft, with delicately outstretched fingers. Although this looked beautiful, in this posture the arms could not contribute any power to the dance movements, and this restriction did not allow the dancer to reach a full scope of movement.
Russian ballet was also deeply influenced by Italian instructors, such as Enrico Cecchetti, and performers such as Pierina Legnani, Carlotta Brianza, and Antonietta dell'Era. This influence was particularly strong during the last two decades of the 19th century, when Cecchetti and his Russian students were the main influence on the St. Petersburg ballet stage. Italian ballet emphasized mastering techniques, and dancers were urged to thrill audiences by making moves of extreme technical complexity and difficulty. The lessons were carefully planned, with a set of exercises and study for each day of the week. The Italian style was also known for its emphasis on steadiness, dynamic turns, and strength and endurance in the feet. However, the Italian style was angular rather than graceful; dancers bent their arms at the elbows and tucked their legs under their bodies when they jumped.
"A New Decisive Turn in Soviet Choreography"
By the time of her early retirement from the stage, Vaganova was already examining these systems and thinking about how they could be improved. From the French style, she took graceful movement. From the Italian style, she adopted the careful plan of study, as well as its steadiness, strength, and endurance. Vaganova also drew on the work of Russian dancers and performers that emphasized spirituality and poetic movement, to create a unique style, which was named for her and which soon became the standard in ballet instruction all over the world. After the upheaval of the 1917 Russian Revolution subsided, she began teaching at the privately owned School of Russian Ballet, which was directed by ballet critic Akim Volynsky. Vaganova's first success was with pupil Marina Semenova, who made a brilliant debut when she graduated from her training in 1925. In The Soviet Ballet, Juri Slonimsky commented that Semenova's debut "marked a new decisive turn in Soviet choreography, a resurrection of the classical dance in all its glory and beauty. Semenova's brilliant debut was no accident; it was the result of Vaganova's method of teaching. It goes without saying that had Semenova not possessed real talent her teacher's efforts would have been in vain. It was, however, necessary to unfold, develop and varnish nature's gift. This Vaganova did." Slonimsky also noted that Vaganova had "'absolute choreographic vision.' The slightest flaw, misstep or manifestation of poor taste are not likely to escape her attention. A rare 'diagnostician' she will at once denote the cause of the failure and suggest the remedy."
Three years later, hearing that the new Soviet Ballet was establishing a school, Vaganova began teaching in the Leningrad Choreographic School. The Vaganova Method, which she refined during the 1920s, was noted for its emphasis on meticulous planning of the teaching process; extremely complex exercises, which were designed to teach students refined techniques; and an emphasis on the dancer's conscious awareness of every movement. Vaganova's innovations, and her stellar students, brought new life to ballet.
The Vaganova Method
Vaganova emphasized dancing with the entire body, promoting harmonious movement among arms, legs, and torso. She believed that the torso was the foundation of all movements, so the dancer's torso had to be strengthened. One exercise she prescribed for this area was that of doing plies with the feet in first position; this is a sort of bow, done while the feet are turned sideways. It is difficult for most people to balance and control their movement while doing this, but steady practice led dancers to develop extremely strong abdominal and back muscles, which helped them in all their other moves.
On the Grinnell College Web site, Vaganova student Natalia Dudinskaya described the method in this manner: "A single style, a single dance 'handwriting,' which manifests itself most clearly in the harmonious plasticity of movement and the expressiveness of the arms, in the responsive suppleness and at the same time the iron aplomb of the body, in the noble and natural placement of the head—these are the distinctive traits of the 'Vaganova School.'"
In addition to examining the placement of the dancer's feet, Vaganova paid detailed attention to the placement of arms during movement. She believed a dancer's arms should not simply decorate a movement, but should assist the dancer in high jumps and turns. This method is visible in the technique of Mikhail Baryshnikov, a 20th century dancer who is known for his seemingly impossible leaps high in the air, often with no apparent preparation. Baryshnikov used his arms to create lift in his body without flexing his legs to push off the ground, a trait common to all dancers trained in the Vaganova method.
Rather than relying on intuition and improvising during lessons, Vaganova rigorously planned each session beforehand. Thus, her lessons moved rapidly, taking dancers through difficult and interesting routines. In addition, she made sure to explain the reasons behind each exercise, so that students could not only do the necessary steps, but could also describe the correct form and explain the exercise's purpose. In addition, she often asked students to describe in writing why a step was not correctly performed, which helped them to understand what they were doing wrong and how to correct their faults. Vaganova also fostered creativity among her students by asking them to create new combinations of steps that they had learned in their lessons.
Volkova noted that as a teacher, Vaganova rarely praised a student in words or said that a move was well executed. Instead, she would calmly say, "You are now ready to do that step in public." She was dignified, calm, and quiet at all times, and her manner elicited a natural respect from her students.
Vaganova was head of the State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet—formerly the Mariinsky—from 1931 to 1937. She continued to draw on classical tradition, but also introduced innovative choreography, including a completely new version of Swan Lake. At the time, traditional ballet was being attacked as too conservative and creatively stagnant, and choreographers strived to work with significant historical themes, dramatic and well-developed plots, and artistically depicted yet realistic characters. Vaganova succeeded, but she did not abandon the classical tradition, maintaining that the new style should draw from the classical exercises, and that dance should flow from and reflect human emotion and behavior. The Russian school of dancing that grew from her influence emphasized rigorously planned classes, virtuoso technique, and conscious awareness of each movement. It also focused on core strength and movements that were complex, agile, diverse, broad, and fast. The arms and head, far from being mere decorative appendages, are integral parts of the movement of the body as a whole, and add to the body's stability, force, life, extension, and appearance.
"One of the Great Ballet Pedagogues of Our Time"
Vaganova's book The Basic Principles of Classical Ballet was not translated into English until 1946. Before then, Vaganova was little known in the West, but the book brought her and her methods new attention. In Ballet Decade, Vera Volkova wrote that the Russian dancer's book "established her in the Western world as one of the great ballet pedagogues of our time."
In her teaching positions from 1922 until her death, Vaganova trained a great number of talented and successful dancers, including Marina Semenova, Natalia Kamkova, Galina Ulanova, Olga Mungalova, Tatyana Vecheslova, Irina Kolpakova, Olga Lepeshinskaya, Olga Iorden, Feya Balabina, and Natalia Dudinskaya. She also had great influence on male dancers through her book, Basic Principles of Classical Ballet, which was published in 1934 and which became the standard for all Soviet ballet teaching.
Vaganova died in Leningrad, on November 5, 1951, but her legacy as a dancer and teacher has remained and continues to influence ballet today. As a teacher, Vaganova was kind and encouraging, but she also demanded precision, attention to detail, concentration, and hard work. She also encouraged her students to learn constantly. In honor of her achievements in ballet, the Leningrad State Ballet School was named after her.
Bremser, Martha, editor, International Dictionary of Ballet, volume 2, St. James Press, 1993.
Cohen, Selma Jeanne, editor, International Encyclopedia of Dance, Volume 6, Oxford University Press, 1998.
Haskell, Arnold L., editor, Ballet Decade, Macmillan, 1951.
Slonimsky, Juri, The Soviet Ballet, Da Capo, 1970.
"Agrippina Vaganova and the Vaganova Technique," Russian Ballet School Web site,http://www.russianballetschool.com/Agrippa.html (January 1, 2004).
"The Vaganova Method," Grinnell College Web site,http://web.Grinnell.edu/ (January 2, 2004).