The Universal Ballet Academy, launched here this week, will form a major center for instruction in Russian classical ballet style in this country that is bound to have major national impact.
A "ballet Harvard" is how Oleg Vinogradov, the academy's artistic director, described what he hopes to establish with the founding of the academy, for which an affiliated performing company is eventually envisioned.
Vinogradov, the 53-year-old artistic director of Leningrad's famed Kirov Ballet troupe, was named to the academy last November. He has recruited a faculty of four Russian teachers and an administrative and support staff headed by associate director Oleg Briansky.
Americans have long regarded Russian dancers and teachers as the prime fount of classical ballet style, but the UBA is unique. Its affiliation with the Kirov, through Vinogradov and other staff, establishes a link between American dance education and the most renowned bastion of classical dance in the world.
The school opened its doors to its first 45 students, ages 12 to 19, last week. Their academic studies will be at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, but they will live in dorms and attend dance classes in the renovated former Catholic seminary building at 4301 Harewood Rd. NE that is the UBA headquarters.
The site is within shouting distance of Catholic University and also Dance Place, the city's outstanding center for contemporary dance. Purchased in 1986 by the Universal Ballet Foundation -- funded in turn by businesses associated with the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church -- at a cost of $5.1 million, the school is lavishly equipped with state-of-the-art facilities including four large studios, an auditorium, lounges, Jacuzzis, video and audio libraries and technology, specially designed floorings and an elaborate nutrition plan.
Before glasnost, Vinogradov would have had to defect to realize a project of this kind. Now he will retain his position with the Kirov and at the same time spend a contractual minimum of four months annually in this country directing the UBA. Somehow, the astoundingly swift transformation of international relations seemed underscored by the almost simultaneous launching of the UBA here, and an impending tour of the Soviet Union by the Washington Ballet next month, at the invitation of Soviet officialdom.
Earlier this week, sitting in his office adorned with photos of Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov and letters of appreciation from Ronald Reagan and George Bush, Vinogradov spoke about his aims for the academy.
"I had always dreamed of having a school like this, but the one we now have has exceeded all my expectations," he said. "I had looked at many schools, in Europe, Japan and this country, and received many proposals, but nothing came close to matching what the sponsors of this school planned. When the Kirov visited Washington last year and I was asked to examine the school project -- the building was empty at the time -- I was skeptical at first, but when I heard what was proposed I was amazed. The sponsors asked me to recommend an artistic director, and I said, yes, there is such a person -- Oleg Vinogradov."
Vinogradov had never imagined Washington as a likely site for such a project. "Thinking about Washington, I asked myself why this nation's capital city was so seemingly quiet in an artistic way, with so little theater and dance activity. I was told it was a cultural backwater, that basically the people who lived here were bureaucrats who had no need for such things. I didn't believe that, and I will be seeking to prove with the UBA that this is not true."
It is Vinogradov's view that the UBA is unrivaled as a ballet school by other comparable institutions anywhere in the world, including Leningrad, home of the Kirov's illustrious Vaganova Choreographic Institute. "The money simply doesn't exist in Russia for a facility as excellent as this one in Washington. Several years ago, the government in Leningrad offered to move the Vaganova school to a grandly equipped new building, but the school directors decided it wasn't necessary, and there won't ever be a second chance."
Vinogradov, who is a prolific choreographer in addition to being the Kirov director, will not himself teach at the UBA. "I have never taught, and never will, it simply is not my profession. I will supervise the school in an overall way and oversee all matters of aesthetics, with the assistance of my colleagues, who are first-class specialists."
The syllabus will include comprehensive ballet instruction based on the Vaganova system, along with classes in ballet and music history, gymnastics, mime and Russian language. Vinogradov insists, however, that the approach will not be doctrinaire. "We will be taking into account contemporary aesthetics and adapt the syllabus to the American environment. We will utilize our Russian experience but seek also to assimilate what's best about other traditions, including Bournonville, the Paris Opera Ballet school, the Balanchine school and many other fine elements of American dance. We also hope to be creative ourselves and be open to novel approaches. We want to avoid the kind of isolation that has kept Soviet ballet, and especially Soviet choreography, from realizing its full artistic potential."
Vinogradov also indicated that the establishment of a performing company drawing upon UBA alumni was an aim, though he wouldn't speculate on how far in the future this might prove to be. It would be a large company -- no fewer than 90 dancers, he said -- in order to permit the staging of traditional classics in unadulterated form.
He also spoke about apprehensions that have been voiced over connections between the school and the Unification Church by prospective students and their parents, as well as others who have expressed alarm that UBA might prove to be a proselytizing arena for the Moon sect. "No one connected with the institution has ever mentioned anything of the kind to me," he said. "The only thing the sponsors spoke of as requirements were the very highest artistic levels, and correspondingly high levels of character among the students. As far as I'm concerned this is a purely artistic institution. There will be no attempt to instill any particular religion, ideology or politics, and no one will be asked to change their religion. We have, moreover, nothing to hide here, from parents, journalists or anyone else, and open inquiries are always welcome."
At a news conference later in the day, a UBA spokesman said that a total of $8 million had been spent on the project since its inception four years ago. Vinogradov introduced Ludmila Sakharova, director of the faculty, and the other faculty members -- Nicolai Morozov, Ludmilla Morkovina and Azari Plissetski (brother of illustrious Bolshoi ballerina Maya Plissetskaya). A contingent of 12 dancers from the Kirov Ballet performed excerpts from classics for an invited audience.
He said he would gradually reduce his commitments to activities other than the academy, including the Kirov Ballet, and -- looking forward to an inevitable time in which he would withdraw from the Kirov leadership -- suggested the possibility of his moving to Washington permanently with his wife, Yelenda, who is assistant to the artistic director. "My wife and I really like it here very much," he said.