School Ties

Time was, national styles of classical dancing – Russian, French, English, American – were distinctive dialects of an enduring language. The Russians emphasized a sculptural quality and soulful expressiveness; the French, a delicate precision, along with witty charm – and so on. This is no longer true. A homogenization of style has taken place, minimizing the regional differences and, in some cases, undermining local strengths.

True, most world-class ballet companies still breed their own dancers from childhood in academies closely attached to the parent troupe. St. Petersburg’s Kirov Ballet – which counts among its alumni Nijinsky, Pavlova, Balanchine, and Baryshnikov – still relies on its Vaganova Ballet Academy (founded in 1738), whose junior, intermediate, and senior students recently appeared at the Brooklyn Academy of Music along with a handful of the Kirov’s younger stars. The New York City Ballet is fed by the Johnny-come-lately of the grand training institutions, the School of American Ballet (established in 1934), which joined the Russian dancers in Brooklyn for a single performance flanked by public symposia.

The joint performance may have been intended to show the link between the Kirov tradition and the training program of SAB, which was co-founded by Balanchine. But the Vaganova Academy display, as well as four backstage classes for the students that I had the privilege of observing, suggested that distortions of Balanchine’s modernization of his own inheritance, along with a fierce will to win the international pyrotechnical competition, have come to dominate the Russian school.

While many of the great stars of mid-century Soviet ballet were sturdily built and of average height, today’s Vaganova girls and young women reflect the now-popular fashion-mannequin ideal: height that comes from eerily long legs, slenderness bordering on emaciation. The training for the female contingent stresses two elements, one being suppleness in the spine. This was part of the old Russian school, but it was used in the past to create pliant, musical dancing, not for the easy thrill of uncanny acrobatic contortion. The second element dominating the present school is the cultivation of a preternatural flexibility in the hip joint, which permits an extension of the leg so high, the toes seem to be rapping at the door of the heavens. This mistaken preoccupation affects all of the adagio work – and, oddly, some of the allegro work too – to the detriment of dancing. It ruins harmony of line (a pillar of classicism and formerly a Russian specialty), weakens the dancer by depriving her of a secure center, and fractures the desired flow of movement into a meaningless chain of discrete steps.

For the Vaganova men, high-speed, ferociously energetic multiple turns have become a full-time obsession. No wonder the fellows in the senior class look so sullen: They’ve been robbed of their souls. The virtuoso feats, which might be impressive if used sparingly, have more to do with circus than with dancing, since they are neither musical nor expressive. And they make an odd match with the long, floating leaps that are the male dancers’ other current specialty.

Despite fears about the future evoked by the appearance of the Vaganova Academy – will the current mannerist style for the pulled-taffy women and the kamikaze-style goals for the dour men prevail? – the students’ visit here was a happy event. The fact that it was allowed – for the very first time – attested to the new political freedom in Russia, which will foster better international communication among artists. The sight of so many bodies designed-to-order for the academy’s goals indicates a formidable talent pool, one not undermined, as is America’s, by a dearth of boys. The youngest students’ impeccable execution of their demanding assignments – from classroom exercises to miniature ballets – demonstrates rigorous training accepted by its initiates with avidity and delight. The accomplishment at all levels is uniformly high, though it’s hard to see any potential stars apart from the 16-year-old Ekaterina Osmolkina, who already possesses a ballerina’s radiance and aplomb.

The School of American Ballet weighed in for the occasion with a lecture-demonstration narrated by Suki Schorer, a mainstay of the institution. Her theme was Balanchine’s radical (though the word wasn’t uttered) extension of his Russian inheritance and his incorporation of American influences such as jazz. Interestingly, the varied anatomy of the senior students who illustrated her theories showed how the NYCB has retreated in the past decade or so from the preference Balanchine showed for the willowy female, once he had enough bodies to pick and choose from. The young men and women alike also displayed far fewer of the wrongheaded exaggerations in training observable in their Russian counterparts. The Americans’ level of achievement is more uneven, their dancing style wilder and more individual. Local dance fans often see SAB’s younger students when they perform the children’s roles in Balanchine’s ballets and the pre-professionals in their own annual showcase in May. Do we find them more thrilling and more touching than their Russian counterparts simply because they’re ours?

As I’ve said, another of the great ballet academies is the French. The École de Danse of the Paris Opéra Ballet (founded in 1661) demonstrates symbolically how essential it is to its parent company in a ritual known as the grand défilé. Performed on gala occasions, it is a solemn, elegant parade of the school’s 100 students, from neophyte 9-year-olds to graduating teenagers, followed by the 150 members of the company, rank by rank, from corps to étoile. (They seem to be bearing an invisible banner that proclaims WE ARE LINKS IN THE CHAIN OF A MAGNIFICENT TRADITION.) Witnessing a défilé lately in Paris (along with intelligent and beautiful performances of the repertory), I recalled advanced classes I watched at the academy’s headquarters a few years back. The students were breathtakingly adept, pure and precise in their classical technique, with a demeanor that combined the noble yet modest manners of ballet and the innate chic of the French. Their schooling is arguably the soundest being offered in the ballet world today, and it clearly suffuses the work of the company. But the mark of the future was on the young women – in their attenuated bodies and uncannily high, fluid leg extensions. These are signs as clear as the pervasive golden arches of McDonald’s.

School Ties