The Vaganova Method
“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—and these are the distinctive traits of the ‘Vaganova school’.”
--Natalia Dudinskaya, former student
In the 1920’s, Agrippina Vaganova developed what would become the standard for Soviet ballet instruction as well as most of the world: the Vaganova method. The new features of the Vaganova method included: 1) a rigorous planning of the teaching process, 2) a considerable complexity of the exercises directed at creating a “virtuoso” technique, and 3) an aspiration to teach dancers a conscious approach to every movement. Vaganova’s Basic Principles of Classical Ballet, since its first publication in 1934, has become an internationally used standard for ballet instruction, even to this very day.
Vaganova’s system strove to promote dancing with the whole body in order to acquire a harmony of movement and widen the expressive range of the dancer. All movement, therefore, must begin “from the body”, since dancing “from the body” ensures reliable support upon which can be added artistic coloration. In order to form a solid foundation of support for dancing, special attention was given to forming an “iron” aplomb, or steadiness, in the trunk of the body—a prerequisite to free bodily control in dance. A student of the Vaganova method would develop this by practicing plies with the feet in first position. Although difficult for beginners, forcing the body to keep control and posture while the legs were turned out to their greatest extent built a rigid system of support in the torso and abdominals which easily lent itself to use in Vaganova’s energetic and expressive style. With an iron aplomb and Vaganova’s special attention to epaulement (the turning of the shoulders and the body), a foundation was developed for all tours and complicated jumps.
Another target of Vaganova’s unrelenting attention, aside from feet, was the correct training of dancer’s arms. Arms were to not only crown the artistic picture of the dancer’s body, but were to actively aid the movement in high jumps and tours. Mikhail Baryshnikov, a graduate of the Vaganova School, is a modern day example of a dancer who was known for seemingly impossible leaps and bounds with no preparation at all. The secret to Baryshnikov’s moves lay in his arms and their ability to create lift in his body without the customary “springboard” push-off of the ground—a trait of all Vaganova dancers.
A typical lesson in the Vaganova method is well planned out; Vaganova did not believe in the improvisation of a teacher at a lesson. As a result of careful planning, lessons moved quickly, allowing the dancers to benefit from exciting and challenging practices. Vaganova would also make sure that the dancers understood the reason behind every exercise; a pupil would not only be able to master a step, but also explain how to perform in correctly and its purpose. Many times Vaganova would make her students write down combinations to analyze why a step was unsuccessfully executed, imprinting upon them a complete knowledge of how each movement was coordinated. Vaganova would also attempt to inspire a creative initiative among her students by asking them to create combinations on steps that they learned during lessons. The result of all this careful instruction and attention to detail was a form of dance that projected the “very essence of Soviet ballet as an art of great meaning, lofty lyricism, and heroic spirit” (V. Chistyakova, editor of Basic Principles of Classical Ballet, 4th edition).