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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La Belle Époque in Santa Monica

La Belle Epoque

in Santa Monica

Walking down our famous 3rd Street Promenade is something I seldom do these days as it has become something of an international metropolis and a bit inundating for locals who just want to go out for a laid back stroll…

But there are times when we, Santa Monica dwellers want to meet someone at the neighborhood cafe – Le Pain is a favorite – or run an errand (usually fashion related) or go down to the big, shiny Apple Store that keeps growing and reinventing itself, or see a movie at the four or so theatres just blocks from each other at our beck and call – practically around the clock… and just around the block!

Le Pain Quotidien in Santa Monica; photo from The Desert Echo
Le Pain staple menu items include yogurt parfait, breakfast oats and chia seed pudding (original photo from Le Pain)

And this was one of those particular outings… what made it extra worthwhile for an aesthetically inclined person as myself, was spotting this framed art piece promoting a southern California floral company.

While it certainly displays “les temps modernes” – and no less with an attitude, it has a flair that harkens back to the era of La Belle Époque, or “Beautiful Era” in French, and this intriguingly timeless mixture caught my eye!

 

Bell Epoque Vogue
Majestic Designs Florist Promo Art, photo by Elena Alexandra

Aside from your petit leçon en français
Enjoy the art and visit our beautiful seaside city!

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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