In February 1972, as the Moscow correspondent of this newspaper, I visited the Vaganova Ballet Academy, principal training ground for the renowned Kirov/Maryinski Ballet, in its historic home in Leningrad -- then the name of this exotic city on the Neva River. I was a young reporter trying to solve the mysteries of the U.S.S.R. Unexpectedly, that visit provided something close to revelation.
The Vaganova Academy, where Vaslav Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova, Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov all learned to dance, first taught me how the Soviet Union accomplished its most important objectives. The secret was to limit the number of goals, and then to lavish resources on them. This was how the first Sputnik was launched, and then how the Soviets conducted their side of the nuclear arms race. It was also the method for training Olympic athletes. My visit to the Vaganova Academy was my first direct exposure to this method -- which was the way the school produced world-class ballet dancers. This was an important moment in my Soviet education.
In June, I revisited the academy to see how the passage of 33 years and the collapse of the Soviet Union had changed this famous school. I had no idea what to expect but eagerly anticipated new revelations. In a surprising way, I found them -- more about that in a moment.
The Soviet Union of 1972 was a poor country. But the Vaganova Academy had everything it needed. Each year the parents of 1,500 or more aspiring dancers from all over the U.S.S.R. applied for admission. Ninety 10-year-olds were accepted. Competition was rigorous. Beginning almost immediately, those who couldn't cope were weeded out. Physical attributes were as important as dancing skills -- only those who would be slim, attractive and the right height could stay. In 1972 the school's eight classes had 460 students. One hundred ballet teachers instructed them. Dozens of other teachers provided the equivalent of a Soviet secondary education in academic subjects.
Every year, half a dozen top graduates of the school were taken into what was then called the Kirov Ballet company, a sort of living museum of the classical Russian ballet, long regarded by critics as one of the most beautifully trained and elegant companies anywhere. The other graduates joined ballet companies all across the U.S.S.R.
So I wondered, how did the collapse of the Soviet system that supported this lavish arrangement change the Vaganova Academy? Now the surprise: amazingly little.
Of course some things are different. Finances, never an issue in the old days, are very difficult. But politics are relatively easy: There are no cultural commissars telling the academy what to do. Foreigners now study at Vaganova, partly as a way for the school to make some money, but also as a sign of the end of Russia's isolation, a cardinal feature of the Soviet era before Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. Vaganova graduates now join companies in Paris, London, Vienna or elsewhere, something their predecessors could do only if they defected to the West. Three of the Kirov's biggest stars did just that: Rudolf Nureyev in 1961, Natalia Makarova in 1970 and Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1974. Their magnificent dancing taught Western ballet enthusiasts how good the Vaganova training was.
The academy's management has changed, too. The bosses I met in 1972 were elderly and had the aura of Communist Party apparatchiks. Today's director, Vera Dorofeyeva, is a lively and friendly woman, and the artistic director, the person responsible for the ballet training, is the stunningly beautiful former prima ballerina Altynai Asylmuratova. In the world of ballet she was long known as "the divine" Asylmuratova, widely recognized as perhaps the greatest Russian ballerina of the late 20th century. She danced in the Kirov/Maryinski company for 22 years until 2000, when, at 39, she took her current job.
And the students have changed, dramatically. This year's graduates were 4 years old when the Soviet Union collapsed; they have no firsthand experience of the U.S.S.R. They show none of the anxiety that beset most Soviet adolescents confronted by an "imperialist" reporter in 1972. Generational change -- this is how history does its work.
When I asked to interview students in 1972, this was "impossible." On this visit there was "no problem." I had lively interviews with several students, all of them delightfully unintimidated by a gray-haired American journalist.
My surprise came from the realization that these transformations were insignificant compared with all that had been preserved. Preservation is a key goal, Asylmuratova said when we talked in the museum where the academy saves memorabilia and hangs photos of its famous graduates, from Nijinsky and Pavlova to George Balanchine, Makarova and Baryshnikov. "In principle," she said, "everything has stayed the same."
So the school remains in the glorious classical structure at 2 Master Builder Rossi St., built in 1828-1832 by Carlo Rossi, the Italian architect who designed so much of 19th-century St. Petersburg. The Imperial Ballet Academy, founded in 1738, moved into the building in 1836; the school has been there ever since, though its name has changed several times. Since the '50s it has been named for Agrippina Vaganova, a dancer and famous teacher who dominated the school in the first half of the 20th century.
The applicants still come from all over the country, though the country is smaller now -- Russia has about half the population of the U.S.S.R. The student body has shrunk from more than 450 to about 300, but the competition to get in is as fierce as ever. The physical requirements are "more demanding" now: "We're looking for children who will be taller, thinner, with better legs" than their predecessors, Asylmuratova said. The academy asks parents to come to the school during the application process; the ballet instructors want to see what they look like as a clue to how the 10-year-olds may develop.
Today's students work as hard as their predecessors: 10-12 hours a day, six days a week, from the age of 10 to 18, when they graduate -- well, the fraction of the entering class that makes it all the way through. Today's dance faculty consists of 80 instructors.
The curriculum is also identical, with one addition. Every student spends thousands of hours at the barre, repeating the basic classical movements. They take classes in character dancing, duets, acting and -- the one new addition -- "modern." Vaganova Academy, like the Kirov/Maryinski, has never been famous for anything but classical Russian ballet, so this is a real departure.
By luck my visit in June coincided with the annual graduation performance, a full-blown ballet concert in the lovely old Maryinski Theater, an elegant, six-tiered opera house decorated in peacock blue and gold that has been the company's home since 1894. Post photographer Lucian Perkins and I were invited to the final rehearsal of the program, then to the concert itself.
The most ambitious item on the program was "Chopiniana," a "composition in one act" to music by Chopin, choreographed by Michel Fokine and first performed at the Maryinski in 1908. It is a genuine classic, featuring two lines of perfectly coordinated ballerinas dancing behind a rotating cast of principals, led by two women and one man.
One of the leading ladies for this performance was Anna Lavrinyenko, 18, a Muscovite who began her ballet studies at the rival Bolshoi Ballet academy in the capital before transferring to the Vaganova three years ago. Why the switch? "Because this school is better," she said emphatically.
Many of the students at Vaganova have some family connection to the dance. Asylmuratova's parents in Kazakhstan were both dancers. But Lavrinyenko came up with the idea of becoming a ballerina on her own, after seeing a ballet when she was 6. Her father is in business renovating apartments. She gave up an ordinary childhood to devote herself to this dream; she willed it to come true.
"We had very little time to take it easy," she said of her student years, just coming to an end. We talked while she did stretches and splits in a corridor in the rabbit warren that is the Maryinski's backstage area. At Vaganova "we were almost always in our tight little circle" of fellow dancers. "Sometimes you just wanted to be alone, or with people who knew nothing about ballet." Mostly it was practice, study and watch; the students are given tickets to virtually every Maryinski ballet performance.
Was it worth it? She answered quickly and firmly: yes. A few minutes later I saw one reason why. Anna is a budding star. On the Maryinski rehearsal stage, buried somewhere in the bowels of the old building, the girlish adolescent with whom I had been talking a moment before was banished, and in an instant Anna was transformed into a serious artist.
With a piano playing the Chopin music that the full orchestra will perform two days later, this year's graduates (augmented by some younger students) went through the rehearsal under Asylmuratova's stern eye. The director paid as much attention to the corps as to the principals. "Listen!" She ordered, using a microphone. "You must hear the music. Light feet! Light feet! Feel each other."
Lavrinyenko learned in May that she would be invited to join the Kirov/Maryinski company after graduation, the ultimate payoff for her years of hard work. This set her apart from her classmates: Only three girls and six boys from this year's class were taken by the main company, she said. She will start in the corps de ballet, just as Asylmuratova did in 1978. Four years later she became a principal dancer.
A note on finances: Lavrinyenko's starting salary as a new Kirov/Maryinski dancer will be a little less than $200 a month. Her pal Yelena Silyakova, with whom she stretched that morning, will dance in St. Petersburg's second theater, the Maly, for about $110 a month. These are the facts of artistic life in the new Russia. The entire budget for the Vaganova Academy is just about $1 million a year for more than 100 faculty, half a dozen administrators, support staff and 350 students, plus a separate pedagogical department that teaches ballet teachers. In this Russia the arts are a labor of love. Luckily, a lot of people are prepared to share a lot of love.
On Sunday, the theater was packed for the noon performance. Young people, largely friends and siblings of the dancers, made up about a fourth of the crowd -- the Maryinski rarely has such a young audience. "Chopiniana" was the first number, 30 minutes of glorious dancing by 22 young women and a single male soloist. The costumes, white lace and chiffon, were splendid (specially made for the academy for this occasion). Lavrinyenko danced with consummate grace and palpable emotion. The two lines of women in the corps danced as one; their arms (a Vaganova specialty) rose and fell as though propelled by a single body. When the half-hour ended, the crowd applauded and cheered.
For another 90 minutes, the 263rd graduating class of this oldest of the world's ballet schools performed magnificently. It was extremely difficult to believe that these performers were all 18 or younger and just graduating from the equivalent of high school. These hardly looked like students -- they were fully formed professionals, impeccably trained and rehearsed.
Sitting in my armchair in the orchestra, listening to the bravos tumble down onto the stage, I realized that the grand old Maryinski Theater is a kind of church, and ballet is the religion. The religion survived 74 years of communism, has survived 14 years of new Russian capitalism, and will continue to survive for a long time to come. Religion may not always be rational, but when the faith is strong, it cannot be denied.