Ballet Shapes a Style Icon: The secret ingredient in the making of Diana Vreeland

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Ballet Shapes a Style Icon

The secret ingredient in the making of Diana Vreeland

I know what prompted me to write this. What I don’t yet know is where it will take me. … I wrote back in January of this year.

CONSTRUCTING IDENTITY

When I think about why I got started on writing this piece in the first place, I immediately know it’s because I was drawn to the story of this unusually creative luminary in the tapestry of our culture.

Yes, Diana Vreeland is an undeniably unique figure in our history who has gifted us with the visual and tangible jewels of her imagination, inspiring countless souls around her and infusing life into our societal institutions.

But what is most interesting is how it all got started. What captures my attention is the soil of Diana’s upbringing… and how this spirited girl in danger of being broken by her own mother and a world she did not belong to, got the strength and spark to become the force that we know of today as Diana Vreeland.

This was the very question on George Plimpton’s mind during his ’80s interviews with the iconic fashion editor: “How does one become Diana Vreeland?”

Diana Vreeland early years in the Victorian era

“I certainly didn’t learn anything in [traditional] school. My education was the world…” she confesses gleefully.

Vreeland proceeds to tell her biographer that her ‘gypsy’ family settled in New York when she was about 10, at which time her parents enrolled her in an all-girls private school called Brearley, where she lasted only “3 weeks”, she slips — “3 months, months!” she corrects her wishful thinking:

Really, they kept me there out of kindness to my parents, who obviously didn’t know what to do with me, cause I didn’t know any English… wasn’t allowed to speak French, and I had no one to talk to, and started to stutter, and the whole thing became really very serious… stuttering is quite a serious thing. 

And then one day I went to a Russian school, and then I was happy, and that’s the only school I was ever happy in because all I did was dance. And it was a great education.

In fact, it is cited that Vreeland’s education was with one of the great ballet masters of Imperial Russia, dancer and choreographer Michel Fokine. The young socialite born as Diana Dalziel even performed in Russian prima Anna Pavlova’s “French peasant dance” called “Gavotte” at Carnegie Hall.

“I was dancing, that’s all I cared about,” she tells Diane Sawyer in an interview (circa 1980s) when the reporter asks her what she was like in her teens.

As it did in her formative years, again ballet enters Diana’s life playing a critical role in the development of her Identity — her self-image, confidence, the construction of her relationship with the world. Ballet allows her to get in touch with who she really is… and apparently helps to repair significant social anxieties that lead to a great scare surfacing through her speech. 

Short version: Diana uses ballet to build the basis of her Identity. 

Russian choreographer Mikhail Fokine

ROOTED IN BALLET

Diana was born in the beginning of the 20th century in Paris, into the very center of an era we can only cinematize these days, known as “The Belle Epoque”, which she joyfully recalled to her biographer George Plimpton:

The first thing to do is arrange to be born in Paris, after that everything follows quite naturally.

I was brought up in a world of great beauties, a world where lookers had something to give the world.  Paris was the center of everything. I saw the whole beginning of our century there. It was the Belle Epoque.

She was right of course, if for no other reason than the early 1900’s in the City of Lights were the perfect time and place to catch the emerging phenomenon known as The Ballets Russes.

But Diana got even closer to the action, as the company’s founder Sergei Diaghilev was a family friend:

I was always mad about the Ballets Russes. Mad about it!  Diaghilev and his dancers… I remember him (Diaghilev) and Nijinsky coming over all the time.   –– DV

on the stage of the Grand Opera in Paris from left to right: dancer Nicolai Kremnev, artist Alexandre Benois, dancers Sergei Grigoriev and Tamara Karsavina, Sergei Diaghilev, dancers Vaslav Nijinsky and Serge Lifar (c. early 1900s)

“Did you realize at the time that you were lucky?” talk show host Dick Cavett asks her in a 1978 interview?  “Oh, yes. We adored them… A great deal of my upbringing was in all those evenings when I saw a lot of fun.”

You could say that this was Diana’s first and most critical exposure to the world of great arts with ballet at its core, and this would influence the rest of her life – and reflect in her perception of it.

Not less importantly, it would prove a mighty force in counteracting the injured self image Diana grew up with based upon the traumatically difficult relationship she endured with her mother.

“I was always her ugly little monster… she used to say it’s too bad you have such a beautiful sister and you’re so extremely ugly…” Diana divulged to Plimpton in their conversations for her memoir. 

DIANA’S BEAUTY

Diana Vreeland wearing her signature turban adorned with brooches gifted to her by friend, Coco Chanel

Diana’s beauty was anything but skin-deep.

Diana had an intrinsic sense of aesthetic that shown in her ability to play with style which, no matter how eccentric or bizarre, always retained an attractive coherence, and flair of elegance.

It was her effortless poise juxtaposing her whimsically unconventional character, it was her irrepressible effervescence and quirky sense of humour paired with toughness and unstoppable focus in her approach to work and life.

She was a compilation of contradictions perfectly coheased together – something to the effect of Gary Cooper’s line to Audrey Hepburn in the film Love in the Afternoon, when Audrey’s character says: “I’m too thin! And my ears stick out, and my teeth are crooked and my neck’s much too long,” and Cooper’s persona replies:

“Maybe so, but I love the way it all hangs together.”

Above all, there was a lightness of heart that prevailed over all of life’s other morose voices so convincing in their realness.

Perhaps this was a source of her unfailing lovability. 

All in all, within her lived the spirit of a dancer… in some aspects akin to Audrey Hepburn, who also happened to study ballet in her early years and always credited her discipline, work ethic and other attributes (that we’ve all delighted in) to this artform — and that’s to say nothing of her profound love for it.

Audrey Hepburn featured in center of spread on pages 154 and 155 of Harper’s Bazaar September 1959 issue, with Audrey wearing a puffed, white crystal beaded tunic by Dior, and diamanté collar necklace, a signature of Dior’s Edwardian jewelry.

It was Diana’s real beauty that attracted her loving husband whom she adored and who made up for how she felt with her mom:

I never felt comfortable about my looks until I met Reed Vreeland.  He was the most beautiful man I’d ever seen, very quiet, very elegant… Reed made me feel beautiful no matter what my mother made me think.

Diana with her husband Reed Vreeland

SPIRIT OF ENTERPRISE

Coco Chanel in early 1900's

At the end of the 1920s Diana and her husband moved to London, where she learned many things including the language, and where she was now closer to her precious, native Paris which incited her passion for fashion and gave her Coco Chanel.

I learned everything in England. I learned English, but of course the best thing about London is Paris… The clothes! That’s where I really learned about fashion.  No one had a better sense of luxury than Coco Chanel… She would always fit me in her private atelier, we were very close, you know. –DV

Diana understood beauty and with her enterprising mind, nothing could keep her from her first business venture, a lingerie boutique in London attracting distinguished clientele such as Wallis Simpson, soon to be known as Duchess of Windsor.

Back in New York, Diana’s style and moves on the dance floor of The St. Regis famously got her noticed by Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief and Board Chair, Carmel Snow. Diana’s  confession of never having worked a day in her life did not detract from Snow’s confident decision to hire based upon the impression the young socialite made at the 5-star Manhattan hotel — that was her resume.

And Mrs. Snow was right on because Diana was off and running in her new role that fit like a glove:

Editor-in-Chief Carmel Snow and Fashion Editor Diana Vreeland reviewing magazine layouts at Harper's Bazaar office in 1952

It hadn’t crossed my mind to work… But I loved it, loved it! I was so mad about working in those days… –DV

IMAGINATION & RHYTHM

I think your imagination is your reality… Only what you imagine is real.  — DV

Diana’s early years with the Ballets Russes and her education in classical dance no doubt infused her world with imagination, which she in turn infused into everything she did.

Everything! …including her very own molding process. After all, it was Diana’s foundation in dance that enabled the upper-crust misfit to find her place in an offbeat community decisively matching her eccentricity factor.

This in turn, prompted her to forge her own way in discovering inspirational influences and allowed her to open ever-new doorways to a sense of inventiveness, which fueled her inner visionary:

At the time I was 17… young snobs didn’t quite get my number.  I was much better with …the odd ducks around town who liked to dance as much as I did… I didn’t care what anyone else said, I was never out of Harlem in those days.

The music was so great and Josephine Baker was simply the only girl you saw in the chorus line. All you could feel was something good coming from her. She had that… that thing … that pizazz.
–DV

Josephine Baker in 1920s
Josephine Baker is one of Diana Vreeland’s eternal inspirations, which Diana finally got to showcase in her 1975-76 Costume Institute exhibition “American Women of Style”

Diana’s upbringing also ignited her understanding and sense of movement – not just in the physical arena – but applied to every act of creation.

American art writer and editor Ingrid Sischy reflects on Diana’s unique trait in the 2012 documentary about the multi-faceted icon:

It appears as though she didn’t edit herself, but of course she knew what had the sound of rhythm, she knew what had the sound of madness and surprise…

Her understanding of rhythm is huge …you see it with the sentences in magazines, where a magazine has to have a pause… a crash… a blast of color… a big headline.

This is something Diana knew perfectly well: ”I think any form of rhythm is absolutely essential…”

CONNECTION

Another outgrowth of Diana’s ballet background which nourished her natural faculties, was her uncanny ability to connect. Diana could connect with people, things, places, ideas… enough to emanate, to even “become” them:

20th century fashion photographer Lillian Bassman attests to this unique trait, sharing a personal anecdote from her experiences with the unforgettable Mrs. Vreeland who once indoctrinated her on capturing the authenticity of the Japanese Kimono for a photo session:

Lillian Bassman demonstrates her connection to the grace of female form in this silhouette photo of Missouri-born 50s and 60s model Evelyn Tripp in Barbados (1954), swimming leotard by Claire McCardell

… I used to love to get an assignment from her because she would get in front of the mirror and become the model that she wanted you to photograph. I remember I had a group of kimonos to do, she got in front of the mirror and showed me … she just took on the whole aura, you really felt that she was a geisha girl in front of that mirror.
— Lillian Bassman

MODEL OF STYLE

Diana’s embodiment of style was an essential part of her Identity as she explains to her biographer:

Style is everything George. It helps you get up in the morning, it helps you get down the stairs. It’s a way of life. Without it you’re nobody. And I’m not talking about a lot of clothes.

And what Diana learned in her schooling, she demanded and passed on to those she worked with. In her own words:

They [models] have to do a great deal for themselves.  Their skin, their posture, their walk… their education.

Breakthrough model China Machado was in awe of the woman who gave her a deeper understanding of beauty:

She said, even if you were in closed shoes … your toenails have to be perfect. It was like every single detail, she knew …maybe you’d walk in a different way, I don’t know, but it was there, a special woman… a sense like that…

One can make fashion, or one is. Diana was fashion. It’s different.

China Machado in Harper’s Bazaar, February 1959, with photos by Richard Avedon; on right: China is wearing a dinner dress and jacket by Ben Zuckerman, New York, Nov. 6, 1958

Diana’s son recounts how the 1960 presidential candidate’s wife Jackie Kennedy turned to his mom for inaugural wardrobe advice, subsequently granting Diana’s magazine first photo opps of herself and newly elected husband as a token of appreciation to her fashion confidante.

Her son shares what Jackie wrote:

Dear Diana,
Everyone is wondering why we chose Harper’s Bazaar, and they invent a million reasons, and no one says the real one, which is you.

John and Jackie Kennedy in Harper's Bazaar, February 1961

SEEING BEAUTY IN OTHERS

Diana was her own greatest creation.

With her foundation in classical ballet as a springboard for discovering her Identity, Diana was able to connect with who she really was in life — another words, she was able to access her innate qualities and express her truth.

Diana was able to mold herself into something beautiful and this phenomenon became a most precious gift she could then extend to others.

It came through in different ways, one of which was Diana’s ability to transform our so called faults into assets as Joel Schumacher points out:

She would push their faults… if they have a space between their teeth, make it the most beautiful thing about them… She celebrated Barbara Streisand’s nose and made it into a renaissance statue…

Mrs. V’s ability to see the essence of a person is something fashion empress Diane von Fürstenberg reveres:

She saw something, and that’s what was extraordinary about her. She saw things in people before they saw it themselves.

60s fashion model Penelope Tree says it in her own way:

She would fix her gaze on somebody and then they’d start to blossom.

Perhaps American writer and film critic Bob Colacello recounts it best:

She would say: “Bob, you’re not supposed to give people what they want, you’re supposed to give them what they don’t know they want yet!”

This image is from a layout in the March 1966 issue of Vogue, featuring a posh Barbara Streisand modeling the couture collection of the season, from the Paris photoshoot that Diana Vreeland arranged for her with Richard Avedon; Barbara is wearing silk chiffon evening pajamas by Marc Bohan for Dior in a photo by Richard Avedon.

Diana was all about showcasing individuality with a spotlight on distinctively unique personas, and that’s what came through in her magazines. 

She shares this focus with George Plimpton:

You see, George… Ravishing personalities are the most riveting thing in the world. Conversation, peoples’ interest, the atmosphere that they create around them – these are the only thing worth putting in any issue.

Vogue always did stand for peoples’ lives. I mean, a new dress doesn’t get you anywhere, it’s the life you’re living in the dress.       –DV

“In those days, it was a real story, that’s how you referred to a layout. You didn’t refer to it as just a series of photographs, it was a story…” Vreeland’s one-time muse Angelica Houston points out.

The strong face comes not only from the bone construction, but from the inner thinking.      — DV

TURNING POINT

The passing of her cherished husband certainly took a toll, but as is usually the case with life-quakes, it also marked the ending of one period and the beginning of another.

By all accounts, her period of grief was deep, complex and not passive. In line with the deeply held beliefs constructing her character, she could not merely fold into what the material world dealt her.

And even her revolt at being separated from her beloved was expressed through style,  when she wore white attire to the post funeral reception at her home.  

She then totally immersed herself in her work,” recounts her son.

Diana didn’t know it yet, but something new was knocking at her door, and this reflected at the magazine where things were no longer the same and the empress of Vogue was asked to step down from her throne.

It didn’t take long for her next calling to arrive.

I was only 70, what was I supposed to do, retire? And then one day I got a call from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  –DV

A NEW CHAPTER

A friend came up with the idea to create a special consultant position for Diana at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the funds to make this happen were quickly raised by friends who gave money to the museum’s Costume Institute.

The dormant, conservation-focused branch was about to go through a major revival!

“George!” Diana exclaims to her biographer: “I was so excited. Back in business! I could show everything I’ve loved all my life!”

With Diana’s arrival, the clothes were ready to leave the shelves and come to life in front of an audience anxiously awaiting their display at the fashion diva’s famous annual exhibitions running 6 months long.

Diana Vreeland at the Costume Institute

“It was greater than a magazine, it was a magazine that was alive and 3-dimensional!” Vreeland’s grandson remembers.

From the get go, opening night was an international extravaganza for celebrities and elite socialites with guests lining up around the block.

But the success of this venture was owed not only to the former editor’s eye for beauty – it was, once again, all about connection and Identity.

Diana’s ability to connect and see the essence of others, enabled her to harmonize people creating a collective synergy, which translated into an uncommonly enjoyable atmosphere for all.

“This was really the party of the year, but all due to Diana because she knew how to mix the people,” astutely noted Carolina Hererra in DV’s 2012 documentary.

Opening night of the Costume Institute's annual fashion exhibit, also known as the Met Gala (circa 1970s)

True to herself, Mrs. V deeply cared about reaching a universal audience through the language of fashion, a medium encompassing the entire bundle of culture, history, art and style.

“She wanted everybody to understand her shows. She used to say: ‘If an 8 year old girl from Harlem doesn’t understand what she’s looking at, I’m wasting my time…’ that girl was important to her…“ stressed Simon Doonan, Creative Ambassador at Barneys in NYC.

Diana knew this in her bones because, along with all her other personas, she was that girl — and not just from her days in Harlem!

Diana Vreeland, c.1914

“She didn’t have a college education; she learnt history, art, literature, she learnt civilization through fashion and she wanted to share it,” conveys private librarian Kurt Thometz.

In fact, Diana’s ability to find sympatico with all human consciousness was about much more than her unconventional education.

TRANSCENDING DUALITY THROUGH DANCE

Her profile is a study in the entanglement of uncompromising opposites. 

An oddball born into a life of privilege where she was condemned by her own mother, she was a socialite with a pass to the top tiers of an elite world where she found herself an awkward breed that never quite fit in.

Sophistication and simplicity pulsed through her in equal measure.

She exuded the graceful and grotesque, all at once.

She found herself at the bottom of the barrel amidst the crème de la crème.

In all evidence, the only thing that brought it all together for the Dalziel girl, surpassing all the hopeless contradictions, was the world of ballet.

Vaslav Nijinsky is considered the greatest male dancer of the early 20th century; of Polish origin, Nijinsky was born in Kiev, Ukraine and grew up in Imperial Russia

Everything else came after.

Because all that followed was constituted on a system of order, coherence and integrity, a structure which built up a broken girl looking for her place in the world.

And this most precious knowledge lived in the innermost recesses of the fashion icon, piercing the very soul of her listeners, when they would hear her stories and be privy to traits that belonged to a superhuman race.

“We’d go back into her office and she would tell me the story of when she saw Nijinsky dance the “Specter of the Rose” and I even get a chill now talking about it. The description of the stage, and the window blowing open and Nijinsky flying through the room,” says Tonne Goodman, who began her career as special assistant to Diana Vreeland at The Costume Institute.

He didn’t leap up, he leaped across the stage, to the far end. We knew it was amazing. –DV about Nijinsky

Epilogue

So… where has this piece taken me?

I believe, a step closer to understanding Identity… its limitless creative expression, its enormous power to integrate people, ideas and qualities, and its timeless contributions. Just as the legacy of Diana Vreeland, it stays with us for eternity.

But there must be a framework for Identity to emerge.

An instruction manual of sacred knowledge on how to build up consciousness, passed down through the ages, from one generation to the next, from master to apprentice, classical ballet has the content and substance to provide the very framework that begets Identity

Identity in turn gives rise to a more enlightened, elevated species of man that generates more than consumes, nourishes rather than depletes, and transcends a state of fear to one of radiant beauty.

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The Ballet Master.

The Ballet Master.

A look into the Tour de Force Life of Pyotr Andreyevich Gusev.

Pyotr Gusev as “Asak” and Olga Mungalova as “Solveig” as the original performers in the ballet “Ice Maiden” choreographed by Fyodor Lopukhov to music by Edvard Grieg (c. 1927)

It seems an overwhelming task to write about the unique individual whom I have studied for almost a month, a personage who is revered as a supreme authority in the high art of classical dance.

So maybe I should start out by writing about how his students and colleagues felt about him.

Pyotr Gusev as “Boris”and Tatiana Vecheslova as “Olga” in Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Bolt (1931) with choreography by Fyodor Lopukhov

Contact with him would leave a mark in the soul, in the brain.

— Celebrated Mariinsky Theatre Principal Nonna Yastrebova

Ninel Aleksandrovna Petrova (born 1924)

Our generation was very lucky, because in the very beginning of our creative journey we met such a person.  It is to him we owe our accomplishment… we worked with spirit, if only to earn his approval.

— Distinguished Mariinsky Theatre Principal Ninel Petrova

Askold Anatolievich Makarov (1925–2000)

His critique was always targeted, precise. No extensive lectures.  He had the ability to draw out of a person that, which was inherent within…

Nona Borisovna Yastrebova (1923-2012)

… This entire group (of famous dancers):  Ninel Petrova, Askold Makarov, Inna Zubkovskaya, Olga Moiseeva, Alla Osipenko – Pyotr Andreyevich made us all…

— Nonna Yastrebova

Yes, my research project into this exceptionally accomplished dancer, teacher, choreographer, artistic director and writer has taken me awhile… not only because of my translation process from Russian to English… but just to wrap my head around the sheer number of accolades garnered by this individual… to metabolize that this person has literally molded the greats of the greats, among his students the famous choreographer Leonid Yakobson and outstanding dancer Aleksey Yermolayev… and that his school buddy and close friend was none other than George Balanchine.

George Balanchine born Georgiy Melitonovich Balanchivadze (1904 –1983)
Ninel Petrova

But unless you really seep into the depth of this person’s being, unless you really look into “the man behind the mask”, so to speak, he’s just a great, faraway star, someone you can never reach.

In fact, you find out it’s quite the contrary when you begin to explore the life of Pyotr Andreyevich.

Ballet great Ninel Petrova recounts a tender experience with her beloved mentor:

“Not long before the departure (of Gusev) we were at his apartment on Rossi Street. There were blini (Russian style crepes), a wonderful meal, and it was very simple and easy for us.  He possessed an incredible talent – he was able to be as an equal.”

So let’s take a closer look at the portrait of Pyotr Andreyevich Gusev, a surprisingly approachable man who lived an extraordinary life and left us an extraordinary legacy.

Pyotr Andreyevich Gusev really does have a remarkable fate in terms of his education and life trajectory from early on — it’s as if he was made for his great role.

It is a rare bird who gets to study from the get-go at a private school with a famous ballerina of the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, who then brings him into the St. Petersburg ballet school, where he clearly emerges as not only a talented dancer, but a gifted teacher, conducting practice classes with the younger students during his senior years at the school.

Gusev’s famous teacher, Mariinsky Theatre ballerina Olga Preobrajenska (1871–1962)

SIDEBAR

As an older student at the St. Petersburg ballet school, Gusev coached his junior peers including future choreographers Leonid Yakobson and Rostislav Zakharov as well as the future outstanding dancer Aleksey Yermolayev, who even upon becoming the premiere of the Bolshoi Theatre, continued to study with Gusev.

Galina Ulanova

He goes on to become the principal dancer with two of the world’s top-ranking theatres, dancing with partners Galina Ulanova and Maya Plisetskaya, legends in their own right, and later becomes a teacher, choreographer and artistic director of the biggest world-known ballet institutions in his country.  If that isn’t enough, he travels to China to organize a ballet company in Peking and choreographic schools in Shanghai and Canton, pioneering the integration of classical ballet with Chinese classical dance.

Maya Plisetskaya

Here I must interject, because it is impossible to go on talking about Gusev without the inclusion of the historical figure Fyodor Vasilievich Lopukhov.

Spanning the majority of his career, Pyotr Gusev sustains a rare collaborative partnership with the famous Soviet-era choreographer Lopukhov, initially dancing break-out roles in his concept-themed experimental productions, and eventually joining forces with his visionary friend to head up the Mikhailovsky (Maly Theatre) where the two continue to up their game by staging societally risqué productions, taking their creative alliance to the next level.

Fyodor Vasilievich Lopukhov
Pyotr Gusev as head ballet master at Novosibirsk Theater (circa late 1960's)

Down the road, Gusev is invited to stage productions as chief ballet-master at the premiere ballet companies of Stanislavski and Novosibirsk Theatres as well as the aforementioned Mikhailovsky. He also becomes head of the unique Leonid Yakobson Ballet Theater.

Next in his repertoire, Gusev is appointed head of the ballet-master department at the Leningrad Conservatory eventually becoming a professor there.

Along the way he pens a number of poignant scholarly articles dedicated to questions about ballet and preserving the legacy of classical dance.

Believe it or not, this is the short version of the man’s resume.

But in all his achievements, three things
really stand out revealing the secret behind his ultimate value and contribution, making this article worthy of writing… and reading 🙂

An astonishing level of organization.

“He had everything remarkably organized.  Everyone always came prepared to the rehearsals – he was a great authority for us…”

— Ninel Petrova

Perhaps Gusev’s organizational talent had its first visible debut in 1923 via the Young Ballet project which he created with his school friend Georgi Balanchivadze, better known as Balanchine, and several other academy peers who would become future notables. The Young Ballet project was a series of evenings mostly showcasing performances staged by Balanchine, and attracted enthusiasts and young dancers including the acrobatically inclined Olga Mungalova, who would become Pyotr’s irreplaceable partner for many years to come.

Olga Mungalova with Pyotr Gusev in George Balanchine’s choreographic samples at Petrograd Training Ballet Theatre Academy (Petrograd, 1923)

To organize such a project is no ordinary endeavor. It takes a sharp, focused mind with an unobstructed vision of what you want and the ability to harness it.

It equally demands the kind of broad-mindedness that is driven to create beauty on a grander than personal scale.  Because it is about bringing talents together and seeing them shine as a group.

But that’s not all.  This skill-set must be accompanied by the ability to draw out the best in people, which means to see the best in people.

And this brings us to the next discernible trait of Pyotr Gusev.

A gift to see and draw out talent.

To see the best in people means to see the often less noticeable traits and latent potentials tucked beneath our outermost layers.  And in this respect, Gusev went above and beyond.

“He was able to see talents, with an exceptional ability to grow them,”  as prominent writer D. Truskinovskaya puts it.

Former head of Novosibirsk Ballet and Philharmonic, Alexander Savin recalls:

“Gusev had a god-given talent, to see the potentials of a ballet master in a dancer.”

Savin goes on to say that this is in fact, how world famous ballet figures Oleg Vinogradov and Nikita Dolgushin got their start:

“… he [Gusev] initiated Oleg Vinogradov into producing “Swan Lake” and practically convinced Nikita Dolgushin to start staging his first big works: “Cinderella” and “Romeo and Juliet”.

Oleg Vinogradov
Nikita Dolgushin

From the composite of sources describing his life and career – the two being literally fused – it becomes apparent that Pyotr Gusev’s creative drive was fueled through his work with young dance professionals.

“He always helped young people…” an article quotes ballerina Ninel Petrova’s recollection of Gusev.

“Gusev’s style of work was in his work with the dancers… He encouraged artists to try out for different roles, secured a ballet coach… [and] send them out onto the stage,” contributes Alexander Savin.

“Pyotr Andreyevich Gusev had a principle, from which he even suffered – he promoted the young…” remembers his student and colleague, ballerina Nonna Yastrebova.

Yastrebova further reveals:

His life was not at all easy… Pyotr Andreyevich had very big problems.  He was in fact removed… he left Petersburg. And because of what? Because, he put us, the youth, into productions.  We suffered for him very much. But it was impossible to shove us back.

A part of an earlier quote by ballet principal Ninel Petrova bears repeating in appreciation of his gift:

Our generation was very lucky, because, in the very beginning of our creative journey we met such a person.  It is to him we owe our accomplishment. Pyotr Andreyevich – an incredible leader, dance coach, teacher…

Nonna Yastrebova as the Autumn Fairy in Cinderella (Kirov Ballet, 1940′s)

If Pyotr Gusev was the sculptor of human talent, then these young dancers were the perfect medium for the molding and shaping of its expression.

“King of Partnering”.

Pyotr Gusev with Olga Mungalova in George Balanchine’s choreographic samples at Petrograd Training Ballet Theatre Academy (Petrograd, 1923).

Gusev had a remarkable quality that garnered him the famous title “king of partnering.”

“This artist… contributed a huge amount to the development of partner dance,” writes D. Truskinovskaya, “…and even today not many artists can repeat his almost acrobatic stunts.”

Nonna Yastrebova contributes excitedly:

The way Pyotr Andreyevich lifted you, no one could lift a partner.  No one!

What Lepeshinskaya (renowned Bolshoi ballerina) did in the famous “Moszkowski Waltz”?  She ran to him for the ‘fish dive lift’, holding her arms in back of her and… jumped!  And he caught her. He could catch from any position…

Freeze frame from the famous Moszkowski Waltz performed by Pyotr Gusev and Olga Lepeshinskaya for Bolshoi Ballet (circa 1940)
Pavel Andreyevich Gerdt was the Premier Danseur Noble of the Imperial Ballet, the Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre, and the Mariinsky Theatre with a 56-year tenure (debuting in 1860, and retiring in 1916)

Yastrebova goes on to gives an almost humorous, historical context to the significance of Pyotr Gusev’s partnering know-how:

Earlier, such a thing didn’t exist. Pavel Andreyevich Gerdt (the best dance partner of the imperial theatre era – “News” source) walked next to, some held by the hand, and if he circled around – this was already very good. But to push one up (high), double ‘fish’ lift down – this only Gusev could do.

Frankly, the real value lies not in his “stunts”, but what enabled Pyotr Gusev to impeccably perform the never-before seen feats. We can certainly get a clue as to what it is from exalted Mariinsky Theatre prima Tatyana M. Vecheslova’s quote:

Gusev was glorified as an outstanding partner, “king of partnering”… the  real virtuosity was that Gusev never clung to his partner. Performing the most difficult combinations, he barely touched her.  This created a feeling of lightness, ease. His technique, developed to the level of excellence, giving the dance an [exceptional] mood.

 

Pyotr Gusev and Olga Mungalova in Alexander Serov’s Opera “Judith” Dance of the Egyptian acrobats with choreography by Fyodor Lopukhov (1925)

What does this clue to Gusev’s rare aptitude imply?

Apart from the caliber of preparation required from a professional on this level – a given – this picture clearly denotes Gusev’s ability to genuinely CONNECT with his partner, to feel and gauge the mood, energy and character with whom he was dancing.

In fact, you can see the element of CONNECTION running through all the facets of Pyotr Andreyevich:

Pyotr Andreyevich Gusev with influential ballet educator Alisa Vasilevna Nikiforov at Novosibirsk Theatre (circa late 1960's)

… through the impressive synergy in the wiring of his brain allowing for genius in organization

… through his uncanny insight into the ability of others

… through his flair to bring talents together into a collaborative unit

… through his power to sear knowledge into the mind and heart of those he worked with

… through his piecing together of prior works with meticulous attention and methodical re-staging technique

… through his versatility in staging numerous and multifaceted ballets ranging from classic revivals to avant-garde abstractions

… through his capacity to bring the elite world of ballet to a greater audience, giving us insider access to privileged information through his earnest, concise and encompassing writing on the subject.

All these things – the ability to envision, construct, order, relay, transform – are based on CONNECTION…  a connection of qualities that Pyotr Gusev possessed within himself.

Ultimately, Pyotr Gusev was able to inspire the formation of personality in others.  He had the gift to grow Identity. Really, he was just passing onto others what he himself already had.

And in all likelihood the framework of classical ballet is what fostered this phenomenon.

“Seven Beauties” to music of Gara Garayev, staged by Pyotr Gusev at the Azerbaijan State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater in Baku, Azerbaijan in 1952, and in Leningrad’s Kirov Theatre in 1953
Gusev teaching in Peking (circa 1960)

Ballet is a uniquely powerful instrument proven to develop the integrity of the mind-body unit as one, promoting the functions of focus, orderliness and adaptability, bolstering mental acuity, confidence and very importantly the ability to connect with others.

Connection with others comes through connection with yourself… which in turns comes through connection with your own innate qualities.

This is what it means to have Identity… to “Know Thyself” as the famous aphorism goes.

And this is what ballet can help to bring out in us… the innate capacities already living within.

To know thyself is to have everything and Pyotr Gusev’s life is an exemplary portrait of this.  Through this point of view, he’s not just a dusty old figure in the annals of ballet history, but he comes to life as the ignitor of the great potential in all of us.

The creative offspring of Pyotr Andreyevich Gusev.

Perhaps one of Gusev’s most devoted students, Aleksey Yermolayev went on to pass the torch of his knowledge to the next generation of greats including the supreme Bolshoi principal and ballet master Mikhail Lavrovsky and famed Bolshoi dancer Vladimir Vasiliev, named “God of the dance” by Fyodor Lopukhov.

But don’t take my word for it!  Here’s an excerpt describing the rehearsal image from its contributor, The Reborn Art Foundation in Moscow:

In the 1960s, stars of world ballet and the best dancers of the Bolshoi, such as Mikhail Lavrovsky, Yuri Vladimirov, Maris Liepa, Boris Akimov, Alexander Godunov, and Vyacheslav Gordeev, all worked with Yermolaev. 

Vladimir Vasiliev was Yermolaev’s first student and his successor as a dancer.

Alexei Yermolaev rehearsing with his student Vladimir Vasiliev; photo by Leonid Zhdanov (1971)
Vladimir Vasiliev
Mikhail Lavrovsky
Mikhail Lavrovsky and Natalia Bessmertnova in “The Legend of Love” at the Bolshoi Theatre
Lali Kandelaki rehearsing “Romeo and Juliet” with Mikhail Lavrovsky at State Ballet of Georgia (2011)

Pyotr Gusev’s mentee Leonid Yacobson was instrumental in influencing and helping to shape the creative force of Boris Eifman, a pioneer of ballet exploration in his own right.

Boris Eifman, photo by Sasha Onyshchenko
Tableau of the “Gates of Hell” from Boris Eifman ballet “Rodin”; photo by Gene Schiavone

A good note to end on….  is that all this circles back to ‘lil ole me’ through my dear ballet friend Anna Korotysheva, a student of Inna Zubkovskaya, one of the members of Pyotr Gusev’s famous group of proteges.

til next time... be inspired to explore, expand and share your find!

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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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