Vaganova, Agrippina (1879–1951)

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Vaganova, Agrippina (1879–1951)

Russian dancer and teacher who was the virtual founder of Soviet ballet, one of the greatest dance traditions of all time. Name variations: hailed in her youth by dance critics as "The Queen of Variations." Born Agrippina Yakovlevna Vaganova on June 26, 1879 (June 12 according to the Julian calendar in use in Russia at that time), in St. Petersburg, Russia; died in Leningrad on November 5, 1951; attended Ballet School (1889–97).


Granted the title Peoples' Artist of the Russian Soviet Federation (1934) and State Prize of the USSR (1946); Leningrad Choreographic School was renamed the Vaganova School in her honor (1957).

Soloist (1905); ballerina (1915); retired (1916); taught at the Miklos School, Petrograd (1917), at the Volynsky School of Russian Ballet (1920), and at the Theater School of Petrograd (1920–22); taught and coached at the State Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet (GATOB, later the Kirov Theater and Ballet, 1917–51); served as artistic director of the Kirov Ballet(1931–37); taught in the pedagogical departments of the Leningrad Ballet school (1934–41) and at the Leningrad Conservatory (1946–51).

Agrippina Vaganova was born in St. Petersburg in 1879, the daughter of an usher at the Maryinsky Theater, whose ballet school, one day to be named after her, she entered at the age of ten. There she studied under Lev Ivanov, Nicholas Legat, and Ekaterina Vazem , learning much from watching the classes of the legendary Enrico Cecchetti and later those of Olga Preobrazhenska . Upon her graduation in 1897, Vaganova immediately entered the Maryinsky Company, performing such roles as Hebe in The Awakening of Flora (1900), The Chinese Doll in The Fairy Doll (1903), Thaw in The Seasons (1907), Mazurka in Chopiniana, and the principal dancer in The Whisper of Flowers (1910), Naila in La Source and the title role in The Pearl (1911), Odette-Odile in Swan Lake (1913), the Tsar-Maiden in The Little Humpbacked Horse (1915), and the title role in Giselle (1916).

As a dancer Agrippina Vaganova was famous for her ballon and extension. A musical performer, she was known for her strong legs, her impetuousness in bravura pieces, and for her imperious attack. Her swift hovering flits across the stage when performing the mazurka are said to have received enormous applause.

Upon her retirement from the ballet in 1916, Vaganova, who was later to attain near-mythic status as a teacher and as the founder of Soviet ballet, was idle at first but soon turned her attention to the training of ballet students. Barely 40, she was far from teaching simply because she could no longer perform. Rather, after long years of dissatisfaction with the teaching of ballet in imperial Russia, she devoted much of her energy to the development of a new theory of dance instruction, one that would draw upon the best elements in the various systems taught at that time and in the past. Before the Revolution three traditions had existed in Russian dance: the French school with its soft, gentle and artificial manner of performance which made it difficult for a dancer to develop virtuosity, the Italian which emphasized strength and endurance at the expense of lyricism and harmony, and the Russian with its rich emotional and spiritual content. Vaganova's goal and what became her life's work was to consolidate the three traditions into one coordinated system that would nurture the best elements from each. In doing so, she drew upon the work of Cecchetti, and she revised Preobrazhenska's method extensively to better weave it into her own vision.

After teaching for a while at the Miklos Ballet School, in 1921 Vaganova joined the staff of the Volynsky School of Russian Ballet. Among her pupils there was Vera Volkova , who studied with her for five years, learning the new techniques taught especially by Vaganova; in years to come, Volkova would be the first to bring the knowledge of these to the world of Western ballet.

In the years immediately after the Revolution, there were many in high positions who thought of the ballet, with its imperial patronage and its distance from everyday life, as something so associated with the previous regime, that it should be swept away like so much else of pre-revolutionary Russia. On the other hand, the suggestion that Vaganova's methods were revolutionary attracted the attention of other, more cultivated and imaginative Bolsheviks who thought that ballet, for all its apparent artificiality, might be salvageable under the new dispensation. Since anything new and supposedly revolutionary was warmly welcomed in the Soviet 1920s, Vaganova, aided by the support of the Commissar for Education, Anatoli Lunacharsky, succeeded in her goal of establishing a distinctly Soviet classical dance system while retaining the elegance and brilliance of the old imperial ballet. Through her efforts and skill emerged three generations of astonishingly gifted and meticulously trained artists, who enabled the Russian ballet to remain in the forefront of the world's ballet tradition. This was important because the coming of the Revolution had seen the departure of most of the great dancers of the previous era, including such luminaries as Matilda Kshesinskaia (1872–1971), Anna Pavlova (1881–1931), Tamara Karsavina (1885–1978), and Vaslav Nijinsky (1890–1950), as well as such eminent teachers as Cecchetti and Preobrazhenska.

Vaganova received continuous, strong support from the Soviet government, and it was under her tutelage that there emerged the first generation of Soviet dancers, including Maria Semyonova (b. 1908), Galina Ulanova (1910–1998), Olga Lepeshinskaya (b. 1916) and Natalia Dudinskaya (b. 1912). Still later she trained Tatiana Vecheslova (b. 1915), the under-appreciated Alla Shelest (b. 1919), Alla Osipenko (b. 1932), and, finally, her last pupil Irina Kolpakova (b. 1933), a dancer who, like Preobrazhenska, was more a product of hard work and good training than natural genius. Other noteworthy dancers who studied under Vaganova include Nina Anisimova, Feya Balabina, Yelena Gvaramadze, Olga Iordan, Natalia Kamkova, Olga Moiseyeva , and Olga Mungalova .

As a teacher Vaganova was severe with her students, often raising her voice shrilly as she put them through their paces. But she was also kind and solicitous of their needs, and always available for help. She could be biased towards her favorites, for example holding back Alla Shelest for fear that she might draw luster away from Dudinskaya, but she was devoted to those upon whom she doted and used her influence to get Ulanova into the State company (before it was renamed the Kirov Ballet). Vaganova was a brilliant instructor, emphasizing strict carriage, the position of the back, the use of the hands, and the holding of the head and shoulders so as not to strain the muscles of the neck. Before the Revolution it was unusual for male dancers to engage in great leaps, but these were a part of Vaganova's teaching and such virtuoso movements became standard in Soviet ballet. On the other hand, she saw no point in sheer virtuosity for its own sake; the movements, however dazzling, must be a part of the overall artistic expression and be fully in keeping with the mood of the ballet and the character being portrayed. She was also adept at establishing precise methods to overcome specific shortcomings, and Olga Spessivtzeva , who was already a noted dancer but whose work was regarded as too often slipshod and erratic, became a much more precise and disciplined performer after studying with Vaganova in 1919.

Spessivtzeva and Marina Semyonova were the first major products of Vaganova's instruction and the first proofs of the validity of her methods. On the basis of Semyonova's dazzling physical attributes, Vaganova reconstructed the ballerina roles in La Bayadère, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty and thereby turned her favorite pupil into the greatest dancer of her generation. In 1934, Vaganova's technique of instruction, now fully evolved, was outlined, however incompletely, in her book Fundamentals of Classical Dance, which was translated into English almost immediately by Anatole Chujoy and published in New York in 1937. In time, this germinal work was translated into a number of other languages, including Czech, Georgian, German, Hungarian, and Spanish, thereby influencing the training of dancers in all of the then Communist countries. For all this, Vaganova herself did not personally stage many ballets, only La Source (1925), a famous production of Swan Lake (1933), Esmeralda (1935, new version, 1948), and Chopiniana after Fokine (1938). She did, however, choreograph a number of concert pieces and recital numbers, some of which are still performed.

[H]er classes in Petrograd from 1920 were to be the proving ground of a new and vital extension of the old imperial ballet manner.

—Mary Clarke

During World War II, the Kirov Company was evacuated from Leningrad before the German siege of the city, and Vaganova was able to continue her teaching, spending a year at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. One of her pupils during this period was the future prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya , who studied under Vaganova for only four months but later recalled her as a genius. In the 1930s, the Soviet government established two departments for the sole purpose of training ballet instructors, one at the Leningrad Ballet School which now bears Vaganova's name and where she taught from 1936 until 1951, and the other at the Leningrad Conservatory, where from 1946 until her death she occupied the chair of choreography and was honored with the title of professor.

Agrippina Vaganova continued to teach until her last year, dying on November 5, 1951, at the age of 72. To this day she is regarded as one of the greatest teachers of dance of all time, and her impact on the world of ballet both inside and outside of Russia may never be erased. In Leningrad, now renamed St. Petersburg, her bust stands in the rehearsal hall of the Vaganova School opposite that of the great choreographer of the tsarist period, Marius Petipa.


Litvinoff, Valentina. "Vaganova," in Dance Magazine. July–August, 1964.

Music Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia.

Réné, Natalia. "She Linked the Generations," in Dance and Dancers. London. January 1962.

Smakov, Gennady. The Great Russian Dancers. New York, 1984.

suggested reading:

Krasovskaya, Vera. Vaganova. Leningrad, 1989.

Kremmshevskaya, G. Agrippina Vaganova. Leningrad, 1981.

Vaganova, Agrippina. Fundamentals of Classical Dance. New York, 1937.

Robert H. Hewsen , Professor of History, Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey