As you read, please take note of the annotations (in “update” boxes) throughout the article.
In the age of the Internet and YouTube, American ballet students now have the chance to take a peek at other students around the globe to see how they measure up. And with all the videos that have been uploaded of students from the Vaganova Academy and Bolshoi Academy taking class or demonstrating combinations for their yearly examination (many are thanks to Ilya Kiznetsov, aka “ilyaballet”), it is becoming painfully obvious that Russian trained dancers are just… well, better. From the very first year of training, Russian students already display an enormous work ethic and stamina, both mentally and physically, which manifests in their almost military-like precision and extraordinary technique. These 1st year students are already developing the muscles of a seasoned professional, and they are only 10 or 11 years old!
These, should I say, shockingly?, superb video demonstrations of Russian students have not gone unnoticed by Americans. Comments like,
“Ugh! I want my turnout to be that? good! lol”
“They all have perfect 5ths……(sigh)…lol”
“I cant get my leg up that high for the life of me”
“I want to be trained in Russia sooooooooo badly!!!”
“Good lord… Impeccable. Lucky girls, I wish we had training like this available in the states.”
abound, along with questions about their age, eating habits, and equally negative comments that they are too turned out, too flexible, too skinny… etc. etc. (Perhaps what these commenters really mean to say is, “They are just too perfect, and they are making me jealous, so just stop posting these downright splendid videos!!”)
Whether or not you think such rigorous training is healthy or desirable is another discussion, but for now I’d like to begin by exploring the question, What makes those pesky Russians so darn good??
It’s a question I think many of us are asking since there seem to be very few Americans who really know what the Vaganova method of teaching ballet actually is. I say “actually” because there are many who claim to teach the Vaganova syllabus in America, and Russia has a certificate program on the Vaganova syllabus for foreigners, but unless you have gone through the very difficult and arduous process of becoming accepted into the Russian pedagogical degree program (which could take years of preparation and becoming fluent in the Russian language), your understanding of the actual method of teaching is not at all on par with those pedagogues who are qualified to teach at the Vaganova or Bolshoi schools in Russia.
Confused yet? The Vaganova method is indeed veiled in mystery (at least to most of us Americans who have never been to Russia nor trained with a Russian pedagogue), but thankfully there are a few people currently living here in the states who can give us some answers.
I also did not know that Vaganova’s assistant and heir to her legacy, Vera Kostrovitskaya, already brought the true method to the West via her principle pedagogical student, John Barker (now in his 70’s and living in NY). Those who took John Barker’s teachers courses back when he offered them were the recipients of the method in the West. However, it is also necessary to note that many of those who studied with him either did not remain true to the method, instead putting their own “spin” on it, or did not choose to teach that information to others.
As far as I now know, the only person who studied extensively with John Barker, and then became the first (perhaps the only?) American to be certified as a “teacher of teachers” by the director of the methodology department at the Vaganova Academy during the time that they were still utilizing the true method, AND who currently offers educational products and courses on the Vaganova method for teachers, is no other than Dr. Peggy Willis-Aarnio. She also claims to have nothing to do with the creation of the method, but rather calls herself a “good transmitter” of this information, precisely as Kostrovitskaya taught it to John Barker. If you are interested in becoming a teacher and using the method, I recommend that you look into her teacher’s courses.
Mansur Kamaletdinov, former Principal Character Dancer, Teacher, Ballet Master, Choreographer and Acting Artistic Director of the Bolshoi Ballet, founded a Vaganova summer school in Pittsburgh in 1994. This April (17th-22nd, 2011), Mr. Kamaletdinov is holding a teaching methodology seminar in the Vaganova method. His website says that there will be an emphasis on “the knowledge to construct a class program for each individual level and create a natural progression for students to advance in their training.” The seminar will take place in the form of a master class where one will be able to both observe Kamaletdinov teaching, and have the opportunity for hands-on correction of students. However, whether he goes beyond the Vaganova syllabus by explaining how to teach the actual placement and technique of the method is uncertain.
Eric Conrad & The Controversy
Another person in America with knowledge of the Vaganova method is Eric Conrad, founder of American Cinematic Ballet and creator of the “Conrad Method.” Inspired by Baryshnikov, Nureyev and the great Russian male dancers, Conrad wanted to have Russian training for himself, but he was dissatisfied with the Vaganova training he found here in America. So on a quest to discover the truth of Russian ballet, Conrad went to Russia. He first attended a seminar for foreigners and then he studied intensively for 4 years in order to be admitted into the pedagogical degree program, a program designed for Russians only. On obtaining his diplom, Conrad was finally certified to teach the Vaganova method in Russia.*
Since many problems can and will occur by not using the method correctly–including diminished results and/or injuries–I no longer recommend the Conrad method for students of classical dance, or teachers interested in learning the way that Baryshnikov, Nureyev and all of the legendary Russian artists were trained.
Conrad’s goal for his new pedagogical method (which he will begin teaching this year, with touring master classes and an online academy) is to take the Vaganova method and apply it to American students so that America, too, can produce dancers at the caliber of the Russians. I was really excited when I found out about this in January, but also taken aback to find that there is so much controversy surrounding his announcement. It’s quite a commotion, actually, and there are people who are skeptical, to say the least.
Conrad just came out with his first DVD in a series of instructional documentaries (featuring corrections, explanations and demonstrations to introduce his method) but some teachers distrust the title, The Secrets of Russian Ballet Vol. 1, saying that he cannot possibly have any new “secrets” to reveal about ballet alignment and technique that we don’t know already. I bought the DVD myself and, putting the word “secret” aside, I did find that some of what he is teaching is very different from how most (if not all) Americans are taught. That said, the basic fundamentals of the technique totally make sense because it is, in essence, the same basic technique that you will find in any country. The revelation (I like that word better than secret), at least for me, was what he says is a key component of the Vaganova method: Turn-out.**
I do, however, agree with him that turn-out is critical for the development of the classical dancer. There is some confusion as to whether or not the Vaganova method actually teaches turn-out, or whether the students at the academy are simply selected to already have perfect, natural turn-out. While it is true that the Vaganova Academy has the luxury of hand-picking the very best body types for classical ballet, it is also true that the real method Vaganova founded works even for students who do not have natural turn-out.
For more information on how turn-out is taught in the method, I recommend the book, How To Teach: Introduction and the First Three Days, by Peggy Willis-Aarnio.
Placement In 180 Degree Turn-Out
Is It Why Russians Are Better, Or Is It A Bad Idea For Most Americans?
The concept of so-called “perfect,” or 180 degree turn-out has been a very controversial issue in the ballet world. Some teachers stress its importance, saying it is the necessary basis of all ballet placement because it makes the student “find their center.” Others, coming from an injury-prevention point of view, are afraid that they will be “forcing” students to have perfect turn-out when many of them don’t have it naturally.
Conrad’s opinion is that turn-out has gotten a bad rap in America as something that is “unhealthy.” Turn-out is NOT unhealthy, he says, if it is trained correctly. He continues that flat, 180 degree turn-out is absolutely necessary in order to dance ballet in a healthy, effective way. Using anything less, such as placing the leg slightly to the front, will cause problems and lead to injuries later in life.
But don’t start quitting ballet because you think you don’t have turn-out, he says. 9 out of 10 American students that he has taught thought that they didn’t have turn-out when, in reality, they did have turn-out but were unable to access it due to the way they had been trained previously. Once he fixed their placement, they were pleasantly surprised to find that they were able to access that 180 degree turn-out which makes everyone so green with envy.
But Teachers Say This Is Wrong!
Some very experienced and respected teachers in America completely disagree with his strict stance on 180 degree turn-out, and I myself remember being taught to place the leg slightly forward in tendu a la seconde or to have slightly less than 180 degree turn-out (in first position, for example) in order to have more stability and less strain on the knee.
Conrad’s response is this:
The basis of the Russian technique and of course the art form consists of a specific placement, and a specific method for applying and reinforcing that placement in all of the positions, poses and exercises in classical ballet. This placement and methodology in many ways contradicts the basis of American technique, although this is even difficult to identify as we don’t have a unified national methodology, although efforts are being made by our top schools. Although time will tell if their methodologies will be as effective as Russia’s (and European methods).
Baryshnikov made the point to Charlie Rose that America does not have professional ballet schools such as the Paris Opera and therefore will never be on the level of European ballet companies. From my perspective America’s preeminent pedagogical methods, those that can be clearly identified, are exercise (class combination) based, my method is placement based[…]
The Debate Continues
Is placement, based on 180 degree turn-out, the reason why Russian dancers so often blow us right out of the water? Now, I am no expert on Russian ballet, but I suppose only time will tell whether Eric Conrad and his method will become trusted and widely used in America.
Meanwhile, I am in correspondence with Eric Conrad via his weekly YouTube video blog and his Facebook group, and I will continue to find out more and keep you posted here. In my next post, I will go into more depth on 180 degree turn-out and we will find out what other notable teachers and credible sources have to say on that subject!