Spotlight: Agrippina Vaganova

This week's Spotlight Saturday is Russian ballerina and teacher Agrippina Vaganova.

Agrippina Yakovlevna Vaganova was born on 26 June 1879 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her father, Akop Vaganov, was an Armenian who worked as an usher at the Mariinsky Theatre. Agrippina was accepted into the Imperial Ballet School in 1888, aged 9. Ballet did not come easy to her, but after years of hard work, she graduated from the Classe de Perfection. Her teachers included Eugeniia Sokolova, Ekaterina Vazem, Christian Johansson, Lev Ivanov, Nikolai Legat, and Pavel Gerdt.

She joined the Imperial Mariinsky Ballet after graduation, eventually achieving the rank of soloist. Ballet critics soon dubbed her 'queen of variations' for her virtuosity and stunning technique. The by now old ballet master Marius Petipa did not much care for her as a dancer, and her few mentions in his diaries are accompanied with comments such as 'awful'. In 1915, however, the new ballet master Nikolai Legat cast Agrippina as the goddess Niriti in his revival of Petipa's 1889 ballet Le Talisman. Agrippina's performance was a great success, and she was promoted to prima ballerina. Despite this, within a year she had retired to focus on teaching.

In 'La Esmeralda', 1905

She began in 1918 by teaching ballet at the School of the Baltic Fleet, under the leadership of Akim Volynsky. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the future of ballet in Russia was in doubt because it had traditionally been a court entertainment. Agrippina 'fought tooth and nail' for the preservation of Russian ballet, including the Imperial Ballet and the works of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov.

In 1921, she began teaching at the Choreographic College, formerly the Imperial Ballet School, situated on Rossi Street. Ballet was now treated as a separate department from drama and music. Though she is known for her respectable performance career, it was her teaching career that has rightly made her such a highly respected figure in the dance world. Her own struggles with classical technique had taught her much, and many of her students went on to become legends of the dance world.

From 1931 to 1937, Agrippina was the artistic director of the Leningrad Opera and Ballet Theatre, now the Kirov Ballet (and formerly the Imperial Mariinsky Ballet). In 1933, she staged a revival of the Petipa/Ivanov production of Swan Lake, starring Galina Ulanova as Odette, Olga Jordan as Odile, and Konstantin Sergeyev as Siegfried. In 1935, she revived Petipa's La Esmeralda, partly with her own choreography.

Teaching Galina Ulanova, 1931

Her book, Fundamentals of Classical Dance, was published in 1934. It has become the Russian bible of classical ballet technique, surviving at least six Russian editions and translated into many languages. Also in 1934, Agrippina joined with Boris Shavrov to create a pedagogic department at the Leningrad Conservatory for the training of classical ballet teachers, which she began to manage. Among the dance legends Vaganova's methods produced are: Marina Semenova, Olga Jordan, Galina Ulanova, Tatiana Vecheslova, Feya Balabina, Natalia Dudinskaya, Galina Kirillova, Alla Shelest, Ninel Petrova, Nonna Yastrebova, Olga Moiseeva, Ludmilla Safronova, Ninel Kurgapkina, Alla Ossipenko, and Irina Kolpakova, among others.

Her teaching style combined the elegance of the old French School, taught to her by Christian Johansson, the smooth arms of the Russian style, the strong feet of the Italian style, and the vigour of the new Soviet style. Her last class graduated in 1951, and she taught the classe de perfection up until that period, when it was taken over by her former student Natalia Dudinskaya.

Shortly before her death on 1 November 1957, aged 72, the Choreographic College was renamed in her honour. Since 1991, the school's official title has been the Agrippina Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet, and is still training some of the best dancers in the world.

Thanks for reading! Next week the Spotlight will be on Carlotta Grisi.

- Selene

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