The Willis Ballet
The following Review is from Amazon.com
Agrippina Vaganova, Ni Zabila (not forgotten), December 24, 2002
Bravo to Professor Peggy Willis-Aarnio for her efforts in detailing the life
and times of Agrippina Vaganova! In this extremely well-documented book, she has
included historical and biographical information on A.Y. Vaganova that has
previously not been available in or translated into English.
The following Review is from
The Russian Review (Volume 62/Number3):
An American Quarterly Devoted to Russia Past and Present
Reviewer: Carolyn Pouncy, Russian Studies in History
Willis-Aarnio, Peggy. Agrippina Vaganova (8179-1951) Her Place in the History of Ballet and Her Impact on the Future of Classical Dance. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press,k 2002. xxxvi +637 pp $159.95. ISBN 0-7734-7074-3.
Outside the former Soviet Uniion Agrippina Vaganova, while almost a brand name in dance, remains virtually unknown as an individual. According to one of the many nuggets of information in Willis-Aarnio's exhaustive study, 70 percent of ballet schools in the United States claim to teach in the Vaganova style. Even so, few people recognize the full contribution that this remarkable woman made to the dance world, of which revamping the Soviet curriculum and establishing the Vaganova method of ballet teaching were only a part. Until now, there has been no full-length biography of Vaganova in English and little appreciation of where she fits in the overall tradition of Russian Ballet.
Although pedagogy was clearly Vaganova's great gift---it was said she could teach a stick to dance---her career also included performing, directing, and writing. The child of an usher at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, she graduated from the Imperial Theater School (now named after her) in 1897, joined the corps de ballet at the Mariinsky, and worked her way up to the rank of ballerina just before her mandatory retirement in 1916. The Imperial Ballet was then in its heyday, and competition for the top roles was stiff. The tsar's former mistress, prima ballerina assoluta Mathilde Kchessinska, ruled the imperial stage; and the future international stars Anna Pavlova and Tamara Karsavina---more beautiful and stylish than Vaganova if not more skilled---graduated at almost the same time. The early twentieth century was also, however, a period of great opportunity. The great imperial ballet master Marius Petipa---creator of Don Quixote, La Bayadere, Sleeping Beauty, and many other ballets---was nearing retirement; he taught Vaganova most of the classical roles. Michel Fokine began choreographing in the last decade or so of her career; one of her early ballerina roles was in his Les Sylphides. [Known as Chopiniana in Russia]
After her retirement Vaganova moved into teaching, but by 1927 she had already been tapped as deputy artistic director of the future Kirov troupe. In 1931 she replaced Fedor Lopukhov as artistic director, a post she retained until 1937. During her tenure, a series of innovative works set the tone of soviet ballet. In 1934 she published the first edition of her textbook, Basic Principles of Classical Ballet. Known all over the world, it has gone throught six Russian editions, the most recent appearing in 2001.
All this, and much more, can be found in Willis-Aarnio's survey of the Russian balletic tradition. The book is, if anything, mistitled: Vaganova's contemporaries, predecessors, and students occupy at least twice as much space as Vaganova herself, and even fewer pages tackle the book's stated theme---to identify Vaganova's specific contribution to the teaching of classical ballet. This is more a strength than a weakness; it is questionable how many readers, other than ballet teachers, appreciate the precise placement of the arms, head, and back that constitutes the core of the Vaganova method. Far more useful are the book's many excerpts from Vaganova's articles in defense of classical ballet, her memoirs, and biographies and dance histories published in the USSR. Because Soviet publishers tended to favor extremely small print runs, much of this material has been inaccessible even to readers of Russian. Making it available to students of dance and of Soviet culture is the major achievement of Willis-Aarnio's book.
Because the book is targeted to nonspecialists, it is unfortunate that Edwin Mellen Press is demanding such a high price for it, making course adoption less likely and, in this age of diminishing budgets, probably causing even libraries to hesitate before purchasing it. Mellen should also have checked more vigilantly for typographical errors (variations in spelling, for example) that could confuse students. Such shortsightedness in the publisher limits the availability of this otherwise useful book.