Getting to know Russian ballet

Russian ballet is known all over the world. Even if you have never seen a ballet, you most likely heard about Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” or the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, about the magnificent Maya Plisetskaya or the defectors Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev.

Getting to know Russian ballet

Russian ballet has a long, rich history and one of the most recognizable styles others imitate around the world.

How everything started

In Russia, the art of ballet for the first time appeared in the 17th century, and the first ballet school appeared in the 18th century in the city of Saint-Petersburg. Today this school is one of the main ballet educational institutions in Russia – the Academy of Russian Ballet. It is named after Agrippina Yakovlevna Vaganova – the woman who made Russian ballet as it is known today.

Agrippina Yakovlevna Vaganova (1879 – 1951) was a ballet dancer, choreographer and teacher. She is most remembered for her method of teaching ballet, which became the starting point for the formation of the style of the Russian classical dance and the creation of the so-called “Vaganova system”.

Agrippina Vaganova in La Esmeralda'. St. Petersburg, around 1910
Agrippina Vaganova in La Esmeralda'. St. Petersburg, around 1910. Source: Wikipedia.

A. Vaganova used the experience of the best performers, systematized knowledge, proposed and justified a structured system of teaching classical dance, which today is considered fundamental.

In addition, she proposed a system of positioning the hands, head and body in the dance in such a way that it not only significantly improved the quality of performance, but also added a unique character to the Russian ballet. The harmonious movement of the hands in the dance, emphasized by a specific turn of the head, creates the so-called “mannerism”, which has become a hallmark of Russian ballet. This made Russian classical dance especially sensual and hid from the uninitiated viewer the complexity of this art form that requires incredible physical strength and long training.

In 1934, Vaganova wrote the book “Fundamentals of Classical Dance”, which outlined in detail the basic movements reflected in her system.

Stars of Russian ballet

In addition to Agrippina Vaganova, Russian ballet became famous for such names as Maya Plisetskaya (1925-2015), Matilda Kshesinskaya (1872-1971), Anna Pavlova (1881-1931), Galina Ulanova (1910-1998), Svetlana Zakharova (born in 1979).

Among the men the famous names are Vaclav Nizhinsky (1889-1950), Rudolf Nuriev (1938-1993), Mikhail Baryshnikov (born in 1948), Vladimir Vasilyev (born 1940), Alexander Godunov (1949-1995), Sergey Polunin (born in 1989).

We invite you to enjoy some of their performances below:

Russian ballet today

Today in Russia, there are 2 classical ballet academies (named after A. Vaganova in St. Petersburg and the Moscow State Academic Art Theater in Moscow), the Boris Eifman Dance Academy that combines classical ballet with modern trends, as well as many professional schools that train future ballet dancers.

Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow
Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow

A ballet dancer in Russia is a full-fledged profession, requiring great involvement in the work process. This work is well-paid, even for artists of the Corps de ballet (the group of dancers who are not soloists), not to mention soloists. Nevertheless, since the period of a ballet dancer’s career is not very long (the age of retirement is about 35 years), many professionals get additional education in order to dedicate themselves to something else moving away from work in the theater. Other artists remain in the ballet domain as teachers and educate the younger generation.

Also, in large cities, the ballet schools for non-professionals are gaining popularity. These schools are accessible to people of all levels of physical fitness and ages and become a place where people who love the classical dance can not only improve their physical shape, but also get in touch with the beautiful world of Russian ballet.

If you are interested in Russian ballet, we invite you to enjoy a big collection of documentaries dedicated to it.

Author: Viktoria Gorchakova.
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