Bringing Balanchine back to Vaganova
It’s hard to believe but the world-famous Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg Russia–– the school that gave rise to the great choreographer George Balanchine –– has yet to perform even one of his masterpieces . . . until now.
It’s taken a former Vaganova student –– who happens to be a former American Ballet Theatre ballerina –– to bring Balanchine back to the Russian school that started it all for him and, by extension, 20th century American ballet as we know it.
On Nov. 29, Vaganova students will perform Balanchine’s Raymonda Variations at St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theatre. These are not your ordinary ballet students, they are the 2015 graduating class, most of whom will go on to have careers at the Kirov Ballet and elsewhere. Preparing them for graduation is part of the passion behind staging a Balanchine.
“This is a dream come true, to bring Balanchine back to Vaganova to help these students discover something new artistically” and to get a taste of what they’ll be performing after graduation, says Ekaterina Shchelkanova, founder of Open World Dance Foundation and the person behind this performance. Her foundation worked hard to make this possible, raised the necessary funds to do so, and it continues to receive support from many ballet luminaries including another famous Vaganova graduate, Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Ekaterina Shchelkanova (left), Open World Dance Foundation founder, and Darla Hoover looking on during Raymonda Variations rehearsal at St. Petersburg’s Vaganova Academy.
“This unique foundation supports preserving the history and traditions of ballet, and in doing so it enriches the lives of young ones by opening doors to professional education for this beautiful art form,” Baryshnikov wrote in a letter of support for the group.
At 16, Shchelkanova was the first Russian to dance in a Balanchine ballet in her homeland while still a student at Vaganova. Coming from a strictly classical ballet background, performing Balanchine’s modern and free-flowing steps came as a revelation to her.
“It was such a wonderful challenge,” Shchelkanova remembers. Her dance career included ABT, where she performed a lot of Balanchine, and Broadway, and she has always wanted to bring Balanchine back to her alma mater.
“I want these kids to understand what kind of treasure they have and how incredible our school is,” she says. “If you have pride in everything you do, and where you trained, it makes you a better artist.”
She’s always stayed actively engaged with Vaganova over the years, but recently delved in deeper as her foundation has been able to help area orphans thrive from ballet, a few even making it into the school. One orphan in particular, Tatiana, who is now 14, is thriving at Vaganova.
Balanchine Repetiteur Darla Hoover instructs Vaganova Students in Raymonda Variations. Photo courtesy Open World Dance Foundation.
Shchelkanova’s endeavor did not come easily as she worked for more than a year through some challenges. Her foundation is producing the Nov. 29th show, subsidizing the cost for the entire staging, what a ballet company normally handles for such a performance. Though she is a Vaganova graduate, she is not employed by the school and worked from the outside to make this happen. School officials were open to her idea, but, she says, “everybody thought it would be almost impossible to accomplish.”
She approached Balanchine Trust’s director Ellen Sorrin who welcomed the idea. “There was a lot of enthusiasm about it,” Sorrin says. “The Vaganova school had not requested that Balanchine be done before. It seemed very fitting that one of his works should be done there.”
Vaganova director’s suggested Raymonda Variations and after Sorrin reviewed the school’s students’ ability to perform this work, she says, the project got the green light. The school, founded in 1738, is one of the oldest ballet academies in the world and is considered the toughest to get into with its rigorous standards set by master teacher Agrippina Vaganova, credited for forging several ballet styles into the Vaganova method, widely considered ballet’s gold standard.
Balanchine attended the Imperial Theater School (now the Vaganova Academy) when he was known by his real name Georgi Balanchivadze, graduating in 1921. He then joined Mariinsky’s company, then called the State Theater of Opera and Ballet. He left in 1924 with three other dancers for a western Europe tour and never returned. The group was invited to dance with Ballet Russes. He went on in 1934 to found the School of American Ballet and eventually the New York City Ballet in the late 1940s.
Vaganova students during a rehearsal break. Photo courtesy Open World Dance Foundation.
As a student, Balanchine danced in the Mariinsky Theatre production of the original Raymonda, a three-act ballet by Marius Petipa with its musical score by Alexander Glazounov (1865-1936). During the time when Glazounov was director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music, he was called to the Mariinsky to play piano for a Raymonda rehearsal, where Balanchine was one of the dancers.
In 1946, Balanchine and ballerina Alexandra Danilova staged a full-length Raymonda for the Ballet Russes, but he didn’t care for the storyline. Instead, he used excerpts from the score for several other of his plotless works that he staged for New York City Ballet, including Raymonda Variations, Pas de Dix and Cortége Hongrois.
Raymonda Variations, with its cast of 14 dancers including several solo parts, will be performed by Vaganova’s graduating class. Balanchine Trust Repetiteur Darla Hoover arrived in St. Petersburg earlier this month to stage the ballet on the students.
(Top photo: Balanchine Repetiteur Darla Hoover instructs Vaganova students in Raymonda Variations in St. Petersburg, Russia. Photo courtesy Open World Dance Foundation.)