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

London Trip Day 4 with Olga Semenova

The London Trip

meeting the daughter of Vaganova's famous student

London Trip Day 4 with Olga Semenova
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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Jewels of Mariinsky: Ludmila Komissarova

Jewels of Mariinsky: Ludmila Komissarova

Ludmila Nikolajevna Komissarova

The well-known photo shows the legendary ballet master doing a demo with the protégé-like student whose arms are raised in 3rd position (Russian school), all eyes on her in a group of soon to be greats like Irina Kolpakova (far right), who along with the others, stares enamored and with fascination.

When I asked our friend Anna Korotysheva about one of her main teachers at Vaganova Academy, Ludmila Nikolajevna Komissarova, my original intention was to fill a missing gap in Anna’s profile on our site The First Guild. After all, I had given due to her other notable teacher Inna Borisovna Zubkovskaya, whose biographical info was readily available on the web.

Actually, I knew nothing about Komissarova, I wasn’t even familiar with her name.

The first aha! moment came to me after repeatedly seeing the famous photo of Vaganova teaching her final graduation class in the spring of 1951, with all focus on a tall, graceful young woman in the center, and learning that her name was the very same as the one I had inserted into Anna’s profile.

famous photo of Agrippina Vaganova's final graduating class with Ludmila Komissarova in forefront with Vaganova

Now I wanted to know more about this mystery dancer. The catch was that apart from learning her name and seeing her image as a student of the great Agrippina Vaganova, there was no more, at least not that I could find.

When I finally pressed Anna for some info on her teacher, I was surprised to learn that Anna also came up close to empty, at first anyway.  Anna knew that her instructor danced with the Kirov (Mariinsky) corps de ballet being granted the occasional solo work, such as her role in Swan Lake’s “Dance of the Little Swans”, which is technically a pas de quatre (“step of four” in French).

As far as the archival reference material was concerned, there was next to nothing on this quiet member of the Kirov family.

Dance of the Cygnets, or “young swans” in Mariinsky Ballet’s 2012 staging of Swan Lake at University of California, Berkeley; photo by Gene Schiavone

I immediately realized I wanted to know what really mattered about this mystery figure in Mariinsky’s history.  So I asked Anna about the qualities and character of this individual, who after all, passed on to Anna the very foundation of the Vaganova method of classical dance.

It is said that asking the right question is everything, and bingo! — it certainly was the case here.  Now Anna could dig into the archives that really mattered – those of experience.

Anna says that… 

Ludmila Nikolajevna’s teaching style was so “pure & simple”

… and how this is of utmost importance for beginners who are learning “the exact classical basis of Vaganova methodology,” in Anna’s words.

Ludmila Nikolajevna teaching class with Anna in front
Ludmila Nikolajevna rehearsing students for what looks like the “Dance of the Little Swans” with Anna 3rd one in from front

“For sure, there was a strict discipline in the classroom,” Anna conveyed with a signature smiley face, in this case clearly denoting a smirk of regard for the strictness and orderliness of their educational system.  “All students respected, loved and listened to her.”

“Ludmila Nikolajevna was always objective and honest in the assessments, and she treated all students with the same care and love…” Anna recounted.

“… she was a really ‘teacher from God’.”

In traditional high-society, especially that of Europe, a great value is placed on modesty and containment in one’s character.  Anna proudly pointed out these qualities in her teacher, emphasizing that in all the photos of her…

“Ludmila Komissarova looks so elegant and in good manner.”

As the revered Kirov prima Irina Kolpakova once said in an interview:  “For the most part, it’s not innately characteristic for people to contain themselves, but this depends on one’s upbringing.”

Distinguished principal dancer of the Kirov (Mariinsky) Theatre, Irina Alexandrovna Kolpakova, who also served as a deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR from 1974 to 1979

After providing the initial info on Komissarova, true to form, Anna was quick to gather up all the available and pertinent material she could find on her teacher’s career. And I learned a few things about ballet history I never would have without a probe into this hidden, yet vital figure within the world of elite classical dance.

It turns out that Ludmila Komissarova played a integral role in molding a generation, or two, of ballet dancers in the tradition of the extraordinary education she herself received from the very teacher who is the namesake of the highly distinguished Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet.

The famous Rossi Street where Vaganova Academy is located.
Entrance to Vaganova Academy; photo by Jack Devant
close-up of plaque at Vaganova Academy entrance; original photo by Jack Devant

Now, in large part thanks to Anna, you get to share in the goods that I picked up in my research for this blog, so by all means … READ ON!!

Here is a 1956 photo of Ludmilla Nikolajevna (far right) in the “Dance of the Little Swans” also known as “Danse des Petits Cygnes” in its original French. The famous dance from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is performed in the ballet’s second act.

The opposite side of the photo (in Russian) reads:

1956, May. Pokrishkina, Koroteeva (second from left), Smirnova Ella, Komissarova.

notes on opposite side of "Dance of the Little Swans" photo
Ludmila Nikolajevna (far right) in “Dance of the Little Swans”

The Red Poppy

Anna told me this photo of Ludmilla Komissarova in Asian garb looks like the costume from “Dance of the Chinese Women, No. 21”  in the ballet production The Red Poppy, staged at the Kirov in 1958.

A not-so prominent production in today’s ballet repertoire, The Red Poppy is a rich piece of classical dance literature that I would likely not have stumbled upon without this blog project.

drawing of a scene from “The Red Poppy” on a Soviet postage stamp
Ludmilla Komissarova in costume for “The Red Poppy” (1958)

The Red Poppy, or The Red Flower as it has also been called to avoid the association with opium, is a Russian ballet in three acts and eight tableaus.  In case you were wondering, tableaus are large and striking stage pictures created by the formation of the artists to etch an important image of the ballet story into the mind of the audience.

This ballet was created in 1927 as the first Soviet ballet with a modern revolutionary theme, which you’ll see more on below.

The music arrangement was written by Reinhold Glière, a Russian-Ukrainian composer who is perhaps best known for the music to the most famous dance of this ballet called the “Russian Sailors Dance”.

The Red Poppy has known four main versions, with the original choreographed by Lev Lashchiline (1st and 3rd Acts) and the 2nd Act by Vasily Tikhomirov, a Bolshoi Ballet dancer turned choreographer, for whom this was the most distinguished production.

scene from the 1927 production of The Red Poppy
scene from Bolshoi Theatre staging of “The Red Poppy” in 1927

The first performance of the ballet took place on June 14, 1927 at the Bolshoi Theatre, which at the time being under Soviet rule was renamed “1st People’s State Theatre for Opera and Ballet”.

The Leningrad Theatre of Opera and Ballet staged an adapted version of The Red Poppy in 1929 in its home city of Leningrad, or today’s St. Petersburg, adding several dances to the production.  Better known as Kirov Ballet, the company performed the original version in 1949, and later in 1958.

Here’s the rundown of this revolutionary-themed Soviet ballet.

The story takes place in a 1920’s Chinese seaport, docking ships with sailors from many countries including the Soviet Union.  The Captain of the Soviet ship spots a group of starving, overworked labourers viciously driven to work even harder by the cruel dockyard master.

One night while performing for the sailors aboard the ship, the beautiful dancer Tao-Choa sees the Soviet Captain trying to rescue the poor laborers from the dockmaster.  Touched by the Captain’s act of kindness she gives him a red poppy as a symbol of her love.

Galina Ulanova as Tao-Choa and Sergei Koren as Lee Shan-Fu in The Red Poppy (1950); photo by Georgi Petrusov
the legendary Galina Ulanova as Tao-Choa, c.1949

When Tao-Choa’s jealous fiance, the adventurer Li-Chan-Fou finds out about this, he orders her to kill the Captain. Tao-Choa  refuses, and is ultimately killed during a violent brawl that breaks out on the dock, thus sacrificing her life for the Captain. As she dies, she gives another red poppy flower to a young Chinese girl as a sign of love and freedom.


Ludmila Komissarova in Spartacus c. 1956

Spartacus was written by the notable Russian-Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian in 1954, a work for which he received a Lenin Prize in the same year.

Anna id’s this photo of Ludmila Komissarova from a dance in the 1st Act of Leonid Yakobson’s production of Spartacus staged at the Kirov Theatre in 1956 Leningrad (today St. Petersburg).

Since its debut over 60 years ago, the heroic story of Spartacus continues to challenge dancers in both artistry and athleticism, and impress audiences at ballet venues worldwide.

Aram Khachaturian

The first staging of Spartacus was presented in 1956 Leningrad, by the revolutionary choreographer Leonid Yakobson, whose signature unconventional style in this production involved the elimination of the classical dance en pointe.

The ballet later debuted at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow in 1958, but it was the the 1968 version choreographed by Yury Grigorovich for which the production received its greatest acclaim.

The renowned Bolshoi dancer Māris Liepa (1936-1989) named  “The Laurence Olivier of dance” by the ballet-critic Richard Buckle, is celebrated for his role as Crassus in Spartacus, a role to which he brought great acclaim through his fruitful collaboration with Yury Grigorovich.

Māris Liepa as Crassus in Yury Grigorovich's staging of Spartacus which Liepa performed from 1968 into 1970's

Taking considerable liberty with historical record, the storyline of this ballet takes us to the time of ancient Rome, where the Roman consul Crassus returns from his latest conquests with captives who include the Thracian* king Spartacus, along with his wife Phrygia.

*Thrace is a historical location in southeast Europe, an area which today is comprised of parts of Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey and Romania.

revival of Spartacus production at the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theatre of Russia, c. 2011

Spartacus becomes part of the entertainment for Rome’s nobility forced to fight as a blindfolded gladiator.  When Spartacus unknowingly kills his friend in the arena, he is horrified by the act and prompted to instigate a rebellion with his fellow captives.

Spartacus and his men crash the orgy of Crassus, rescuing the women slaves and making their escape, but not for long.

Spartacus ballet at Cairo Opera House in 2016; photo by Bassam Al Zoghby
Spartacus ballet at Cairo Opera House in 2016; photo by Bassam Al Zoghby
final scene from Spartacus at Bolshoi Theater in 1968

Aegina, the courtesan of Crassus, soon discovers the camp of Spartacus and sends word to Crassus, who in turn sends his army to follow the runaway slaves.  Crassus’s forces discover Spartacus and spear him to death.  The Thracian king’s loyal followers retrieve his body and take it away while Phrygia is left to grieve her loss.

This is the formidable final scene from Yury Grigorovich’s staging of Spartacus where Phrygia inconsolably mourns her beloved raising her arms to the sky and appealing to the heavens that his memory live on forever.

The Stone Flower

Ludmila Nikolajevna (third one in from front) rehearsing The Stone Flower in 1956

This is a photo with Ludmilla Komissarova (third one in from front) rehearsing for The Stone Flower in 1956, staged by the famed choreographer Yuri Grigorovich, who received great acclaim for his work on this ballet production.

notes on back of rehearsal photo for The Stone Flower in 1956

The opposite side of the photo (in Russian) reads:

Rehearsal for “The Stone Flower” ~ 1956. Gemstones. At the rehearsal hall on Zodchego Rossi (street).

The line of dancers from lower to upper end: Milla Koroteeva, Regina Korobova, Lyuda Komissarova, Gorova Katya

This is another photo of Ludmilla Komissarova (first row on right) rehearsing for The Stone Flower … not sure what year this is.

The opposite side of the photo (in Russian) reads:

A look-through of “The Stone Flower”. Gemstones. At the rehearsal hall on street ЛГХУ  (the Russian acronym which stands for Leningrad State Choreographic Institute)

The source of this photo provides the names of the dancers as follows:

First row, left to right: Ludmila Koroteeva, unknown dancer, Ludmilla Komissarova

Second row, left to right: Regina Korobova, Ekaterina Gorova

Ludmila Nikolajevna (first row on right) rehearsing for The Stone Flower
notes on back of rehearsal photo for The Stone Flower
Russian writer Pavel Petrovich Bhazov (1879-1950)

The Stone Flower is a Russian ballet based on a tale from a book of folklore called The Malachite Box written by Russian writer Pavel Bazhov.  The ballet created on Bazhov’s book is the eighth and last work of the great composer Sergei Prokofiev, which premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre in 1954, the year after Prokofiev’s passing.

More notably, the production premiered on April 22, 1957 at the Kirov Theatre in Leningrad featuring a mix of classical dance with folk choreography staged by Yuri Grigorovich.

Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev in New York, c. 1918
Bolshoi ballet dancer Vladimir Preobrazhensky in a scene from the The Stone Flower (1954)

The Tale of the Stone Flower as it is also called, takes place in the Ural Mountains of Russia where the region’s master stone cutter Danila, dreams of creating a malachite vase of unbeknownst beauty, embodying the essence of a living flower in stone. In order to do this, the craftsman must discover the mystery of stone.

In his quest, Danila is led to the realm ruled by the Queen of the Copper Mountain, who is the guardian of underground treasures and possesses the secret of the stone.

Talented Mariinsky Ballet principal Galina Mezentseva as Queen of the Copper Mountain in The Stone Flower (c. 1981)

The Queen draws Danila into her world showing him the magnificent wonders of stone, a dream come true before the craftsman’s very eyes.

1957 production of The Stone Flower staged by Yuri Grigorovich
modern staging of The Stone Flower at Mariinsky Theatre c. 2017

Though the Queen desires to keep the talented artisan for herself, she is won over by the courage and genuine love of Danila’s betrothed, Katerina, who comes searching for him after his vanishing.

The Queen releases Danila, who returns to the village with his beloved Katerina and the secret to creating beauty from stone.

Vladimir Vasiliev as Danila & Nina Timofeyeva as the Queen in Bolshoi Ballet’s staging of The Stone Flower c. 1959
modern-day staging of Mariinsky Theatre’s The Stone Flower with Anastasia Matvienko as the Queen and Maxim Zyuzin as Danila, c. 2016

Foundation of Identity

You may have guessed by now that this blog is not just about Ludmila Komissarova as a person, but as a representation of the strength of an educational system that teaches and guides in the formation of the most precious thing an individual can acquire: a sense of Identity.  Perhaps the ancient aphorism: Know Thyself should be inscribed into Vaganova’s emblem, but it is already there, inherently.

And so it is that Identity is the real prize of a Vaganova education, its graduates heralding their gift and constituting the living framework of an institution revered for producing artists of highest technical merit and unparalleled artistry.

Alongside this most important subject, I hope you’ve been at least slightly illuminated and inspired by a peek into the rich and timeless archetypal tapestry of the classical dance repertoire.

til next time!


Boys in 6th year at Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg practicing turns and jumps during a daily class on March 19, 2009; photo by James Hill for Contact Press Images /The New York Times
Girls in 8th year at Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg, working on floor exercises and jumps during a daily class with teacher Irina Sitnikova on March 19, 2009; photo by James Hill for Contact Press Images /The New York Times