One of the most famous graduates of the Vaganova Academy is now an American, Mikhail Baryshnikov. But he was still a Soviet citizen in 1963 when he came to Leningrad on a summer tour with the Riga Ballet from his home town in Latvia, then a Soviet republic. Baryshnikov had been studying ballet in Riga since the age of 12. In Leningrad he was quickly noticed, and invited to enroll in the Vaganova Academy.

"I was there for three years," he recounted in a telephone interview. "I was catching up -- it was sort of a Vaganova Berlitz. But I was very lucky, I was accepted by the teacher Alexander Pushkin," one of Russia's most famous teachers of dance. Baryshnikov lived in the academy dormitory and breathed dance for the next three years. "That changed my life, of course. That was three very intense years."

When told that the school seemed essentially unchanged over the last 33 years, he laughed. "I guess it would never change, which is a good thing. Thank God it exists."

Vaganova and the Paris Opera Ballet School are the best in the world, Baryshnikov said. "The French dance with their body, and the position of the legs is much cleaner than Russians'. And the Russians have [the best] arms and upper torso, and that overall coordination that is very special, which the French do not possess. . . . The Russian way of moving is much more natural and instinctive and romantic in the good sense of the word." Best of all, he said, would be a school that merged the strong points of both.

-- Robert G. Kaiser

Mikhail Baryshnikov in 2002.