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