November 01, 2008

Ballet Bastion

Inside the Vaganova Academy

Every little girl dreams of becoming a ballerina — at least for a few weeks after seeing The Nutcracker. In my case, the reverie was Russia-inspired and lasted almost 10 years. For most of the 1970s, I attended a ballet school run by Czech émigrés on the outskirts of Washington, DC. While they didn’t have much love for Mother Russia — they left in 1968 when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague — the couple readily acknowledged the superiority of Big Brother’s national ballet tradition. 

My teacher, Irina Prochotsky, was both a beneficiary and proponent of the dance pedagogy of Agrippina Vaganova, the renowned ballet teacher who developed a formal syllabus that codified Russian dance. The “Vaganova method” —which most American culturati had never heard of at the time — set ours apart from other ballet schools in the Maryland suburbs. Plus, we had Madame Sophie Firsova once a week. In my memory, she was a graduate of the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg, a direct link to the celebrated school that has turned out almost every major Russian ballet star who ever leaped across a stage, from Anna Pavlova to Mikhail Baryshnikov. 

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