The London Trip Day 4: meeting the daughter of Vaganova’s famous student

The London Trip

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meeting the daughter of Vaganova's famous student

here I am (studio booties still on) with Olga Semenova (middle) and Lana (right) at Masters of Ballet Academy

Do you remember my blog on Ludmila Komissarova, the central figure in the famous Vaganova graduating class photo of 1951?

Ludmila Nikolajevna Komissarova was one of the last students to train under the scrupulously watchful eye of legendary Russian ballet master Agrippina Vaganova.

Komissarova was in turn the teacher of my dear ballet friend Anna Korotysheva who actually inspired me to write the piece.

Well, this is the day Lana and I visited the London based school of Komissarova’s daughter, Olga.

famous photo of Agrippina Vaganova's final graduating class with Ludmila Komissarova in forefront with Vaganova (April 1951)

Herself a graduate of the revered ballet establishment on Rossi Street, Olga Semenova has continued to carry on her mother’s tradition starting from her teaching days at the Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Moving to the UK some decades ago, Olga eventually set up her own shop, founding the Russian Imperial Ballet School where she continued to teach the unparalleled system of classical dance. Today, her establishment is known as Masters of Ballet Academy (MOBA)

This was the day that we visited Olga at her MOBA school, where she arranged for us to observe an advanced class with one of her male instructors, and afterwards join her in her own rehearsal with a select group of students she was preparing for a trip to St. Petersburg where they would perform Olga’s choreography at the Hermitage Museum

As it happens, the group was shortly leaving for the trip and the atmosphere was frantic – though it somehow felt that there’s always something brewing at Olga’s place with her temperamental character at the helm.

Still, we managed to get her out for a snapshot before saying adieu.

On the walk back to our neck of the London woods, we passed by several landmarks you’ll see below.

Located at Langham Place, All Souls Church (the building with round porch enclosed by columns) is an Anglican church designed in the early 19th century regency style by one of England’s most notable architects John Nash, and often serves as the broadcast site of BBC
Olga with Nikolai Tsiskaridze, Principal of Vaganova Ballet Academy (photo from Russian Imperial Ballet School site)
Next to All Souls Church, this building with the clock on its facade is Broadcasting House, BBC's headquarters, an Art Deco style building constructed in the 1930s to the design of architect George Val Myer
All Souls Church entrance
Olga with Zhanna Ayupova (far right) Artistic Director of Vaganova Ballet Academy and Irina Gensler (2nd from left), the Vaganova professor known as “Queen of Character Dance” (photo from Russian Imperial Ballet School site)
walking through the subway station, saw this marquee advertising international ballet superstar Sergei Polunin
Olga with her talented firecracker of a student Maya - Maya stole our attention during the classes we observed (photo from Russian Imperial Ballet School site)
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Vaganova and the Sacred Code of Dance

Vaganova and the Sacred Code of Dance

Irina Alexandrovna Kolpakova in her first performances

Perhaps she does not exist in the very same embodiment as the great master who single-handedly established the system of classical dance used the world over today, but Vaganova certainly does live on in the embodiment of her students, and in turn their students.

Agrippina Yakovlevna Vaganova in her early career

The body that Vaganova did leave behind, is the integral educational framework constructed from extracting and coherently integrating essential attributes of Italian, French and Russian ballet. The home of this system is the elite international academy which carries the name of its creator, Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia.

If Vaganova did choose to live on in specific vessels, one of these would be Irina Kolpakova, who graduated in the last class ever taught by Vaganova.

famous photo of Agrippina Vaganova teaching her last graduation class with Irina Kolpakova on far right (April 1951)
Irina Kolpakova with her dad

In her experience with the great teacher, Irina Alexandrovna apparently acquired the coveted code of classical dance with mathematical precision. Perhaps this is not a great surprise, considering Irina’s father was a mathematician of the highest caliber.

What is remarkable, is how this being-level knowledge that seeped into Irina through her connection with her beloved teacher, has reflected throughout her life and career, molding her potentials into accomplishments that have forged a force of an identity, making her who she is. 

Irina Kolpakova as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty (Kirov Ballet, 1950's)

The famous disciple of Vaganova who is described as personifying the best features of the Leningrad (St. Petersburg) Classical School of Ballet was invited by one of her former dance partners, Mikhail Baryshnikov, to teach at American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in the 1980’s.  Irina joined the company as Ballet Mistress in 1990, where she tirelessly – by her own account – continues to teach today.

Kolpakova on stage with Baryshnikov
Irina Kolpakova as Rudolf Nureyev’s first Giselle (1959), image from collection of Maude Gosling

Kolpakova encapsulates the essence of the precious legacy she possesses and in turn passes onto others in Victor Okuntsov’s 1986 Russian docufilm “Agrippina Vaganova”. 

Here is the translation:

Her (Vaganova’s) methodology is timeless.

It is so universal.  It’s so universal because it’s very high in its purity of the classical form, classical dance. That is first.

Second, in its extraordinary harmony, harmony of all the parts of the body. This is what Agrippina Yakovlevna paid the greatest attention to: that a ballet dancer did not go out (on stage) with merely strong, beautiful, developed legs, or only amazing, supple, flexible arms while the legs are doing unthinkable things.  Or, for example, with a marvelous back, strong as steel, stable, capable of, ‘aplomb’ as it’s called (aplomb refers to unwavering stability maintained during a vertical pose or movement).

But for the dance to be truly something akin to the Russian soul, the Russian character… this heightened inspiration, this soulfulness, this harmony of all the parts of the body… alive, moving eyes… head… flexible, soft hands and very strong, hard legs and strong, or ‘hard’ toe, as we say.

All of this, is to serve one goal: expressiveness, expressiveness of the dance.  As Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin (famous Russian poet) said:  the flight of the soul through dance’.

– Irina Kolpakova

Kolpakova teaching at Vaganova Academy
Kolpakova teaching at Vaganova Academy

In the timeline of her life and career, Irina has managed to capture an entire spectrum of association with ballet greats from the time of Marius Petipa to the phenoms of today including David Hallberg, Natalia Osipova and Misty Copeland to name a few. 

The well-known prima Diana Vishneva recaps it as follows:

She’s a student of Vaganova, this pretty much says everything.  One of Vaganova’s favorite, last students.  She has worked with ballet dancers who worked with Marius Petipa… this great legacy, this great connection between the tradition, history of the school… she’s a representative of the most real Vaganova school.

Diana Vishneva talks about Irina Kolpakova in Russian Documentary: Irina Kolpakova: “Ballerina, Spring”

Vladimir Vasiliev, The Bolshoi Ballet dance star and choreographer named “God of the dance” and regarded as a classical dancer on the same level as Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, danced with Kolpakova in the 1984 ballet movie “The House Near The Road”.

Vasiliev said of Kolpakova:

“She is made of steel.  In her is a combination of a delicate nature and a very strong person, a very strong-willed person.”

Irina Kolpakova and Vladimir Vasiliev in the 1984 ballet film: "The House Near the Road"

Diana Vishneva recounts what ballet star Natalia Makarova once conveyed to her about Irina Kolpakova:

“Natalia Romanovna Makarova thought back to when she was younger…”

Diana Vishneva talks about Kolpakova in Russian documentary “Irina Kolpakova: Ballerina, Spring”

I remember when we were in the studio with Alla Osipenko, watching Irina Alexandrovna Kolpakova and saying, ‘it’s impossible to achieve such clean movements, it’s just too despicably good!’

– Natalia Makarova

Irina Kolpakova with Natalia Makarova

In the 2013 Russian documentary “Life in Time: Irina Kolpakova”, Irina sits in her NY apartment in front of her laptop looking over footage of her work with ABT dancers, commenting:  “this is Firebird… with David Hallberg, Natasha (Natalia) Osipova, Marcelo Gomez…”

David Hallberg about Kolpakova: “Beautiful … gorgeous ballerina.... I owe her everything.”

Irina Kolpakova with David Hallberg at ABT

It’s no secret that Irina is a precious commodity at ABT, dearly appreciated by the dancers as well as Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie:

ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie talks about Kolpakova in Russian documentary “Irina Kolpakova: Ballerina, Spring”

She’s a shining example of the purity of Vaganova… beyond the technical aspect…  she has a feeling for the music and the depth of knowledge…  the history of each ballet and how the variations went and how they worked all through time.  She has nurtured 3 generations of dancers at ABT… I really feel they would have not had as good a career as they had, had it not been for her. 

For decades, Irina has brought and continues to bring the same fervor to her work as did her beloved Agrippina Vaganova, recalling her own experience with the formidable teacher:

Everyone dreamed of getting into Vaganova’s class. We worshipped her every word. We tried to understand her every word – which was often very difficult – and to actualize it was even more difficult…

Irina Kolpakova in docufilm: "Agrippina Vaganova. The Great & the Terrible" (2010)
Vaganova’s teaching class in 1951 at the Leningrad Choreographic School (now Vaganova Ballet Academy) with Kolpakova in front

… Our first day in her class, I remember we just practiced the preparatory ‘port de bras’ (positioning of the arms) for one half hour…  like this with the head, eyes, with the arm, open, close and return to the initial position.  And again, and again, and again.  

And we tried to understand what she wanted from us — we had already been doing this before her class every year. And yet this was something a little different.

… She illustrated, she explained, and most importantly she could … make you do what she wanted…

Agrippina Yakovlevna was some kind of phenomenon, and I was unbelievably fortunate…

… to this day, nothing has changed for me, to this day, in terms of Vaganova, in terms of our school.  It’s possible, there are periods of highs and lows, there are periods when instructors are more or less talented, but a school is a school, and such a school as ours does not exist.  From the time of my schooling in 1951, I believe in it as much now as I believed in it then.

– Irina Kolpakova

Irina Kolpakova in docufilm: "Agrippina Vaganova. The Great & the Terrible" (2010)

It is said, that Kolpakova loves the alphabet of movement, how a dance is constructed out of combination sequences… endlessly repeating movements to bring each dance step to perfection… losing track of time as before, when she herself danced.

Passed on through her great predecessor, the code of classical dance is a rare language that speaks through Kolpakova, whose timeless, relentless devotion to this highest art is perhaps an index that she carries something more than the usual packet of energy allotted to a mundane human life, an indication that she may very well be a channel through which pours the great force of knowledge brought into this world through the vehicle of Agrippina Yakovlevna Vaganova.

Kolpakova teaching at Yakobson ballet studio in St. Petersburg

“Thank god that I have the strength and desire to work.  If there’s a desire, there’s strength… there’s some kind of energy there. Don’t know… but I want to work,” says Kolpakova with a priceless, almost forbidden smile coming over her face… as if she knows she is defying time itself.

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Consultant: Anna Korotysheva

The Story of Vaganova

The story of Agrippina Vaganova

Far from the iconic image of a ‘ballet dancer’ herself, one of the greatest minds of the 20th century single-handedly created the system which serves as the foundation of classical ballet as we know it today.

The 10-year old girl from a poor family who would be considered an ‘ugly duckling’ by conventional standards, got into the Imperial ballet school in 1888, through a paid grant from the institution, available to children of families with low means.

young Agrippina Vaganova
Agrippina Vaganova as Paquita

With physical attributes not up to par in the ballet world and an independent and prickly character, her training and career as a dancer was rough.  Vaganova was badly criticized by the legendary Marius Petipa who was then chief choreographer of the Russian theatre, and rejected by one of her most valued teachers because she did not possess the physical proportions so highly valued by the instructor.

Vaganova finally received her acclaim as a gifted technician after a phenomenon whereby an Italian ballerina performed an amazing move called a fouetté.

Everyone tried to replicate and understand this astonishing new move, but it was Vaganova who got it.  In the graduation performance the committee noted her technical skill and accepted her into the Mariinsky Theatre. Eventually she became known as the queen of variations for her stand-out artistic skill and mastery of technique.

The Imperial Ballet School (now Vaganova Ballet Academy). Class of 1897. Agrippina Vaganova on far right.

Vaganova went on to codify the extraordinary artform aesthetically rooted in math and physics, bringing into existence the educational system of classical ballet used the world over.

Today, the Imperial ballet school into which Agrippina Vaganova was accepted in 1888, carries her name, Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet and her book, Fundamentals of the Classical Dance (1934), remains the standard text for the instruction of ballet technique.

The renowned Vaganova Academy has been, and continues to be, an elite cradle producing extraordinary ballet dancers and celebrated artists of the world.

Vaganova Academy of Ballet (known as Kirov Ballet School in 1958)
World-renowned Vaganova graduate, Mikhail Baryshnikov, during his academy years (front)

Underlying the unparalleled success of the Vaganova Academy are principles that build character and form identity – this is the real and greatest treasure of Vaganova’s legacy.

Vaganova’s students, and in turn, their students, a number of whom are legends in their own right, speak of receiving this most prized gift and how it has affected their lives, their nation and the world.

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