This past summer, OWDF held its annual Summer Intensive and Teacher Training program in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Students and teachers attended the program from all over the world, including participants from Estonia, Costa Rica, Germany, Italy, Australia, Argentina, Singapore, and the United States. (Click here to read more about our 2019 SI/TT.)

Among our Teacher Training participants was Ms. Sylvia DeLourdes from New York. In “St. Petersburg, Russia. The Cradle of Ballet,” she elegantly describes her experience in St. Petersburg and working with Ms. Ekaterina Schelkanova. Read her words here, or in the transcript below:

St Petersburg, Russia. The Cradle of Ballet

August 8, 2019. Sylvia Patricia DeLourdes

From Agrippina Vaganova, to Tamara Karsavina to Ekaterina Schelkanova.

If you know ballet, you know about Agrippina Vaganova and her legacy to the ballet world.  The distinguished ballerina, choreographer and teacher developed the Vaganova Method drawing from the teaching methods of the great French Ballet Master Marius Petipa towards the end of the 19thcentury.  The Vaganova Method, still taught today with integrity at the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St Petersburg, came alive in front of my very eyes during the Vaganova Teachers’ Training Workshop I attended this summer in St Petersburg.  

I had gotten on a plane with destination to St Petersburg with a book for light reading, the prima ballerina Tamara Karsavina’s autobiography, Theater Street, not knowing that on my way to the workshop I would be tracing her very steps in the city, from the street where she had lived on the canal where it curves round to join the River Fontanka to walking through the colonnades of Kazan Cathedral, the ones she used to count as a child in order to fall asleep.  In her book, Karsavina shares her story as the daughter of  a first dancer at the Imperial Ballet and former Petipa’s pupil and describes the rigorous system under which she trained, based on the Vaganova Method of course, which saw her rise to stardom during the golden years of ballet.

The Vaganova Teacher Training Workshop was led by Ekaterina Schelkanova and her teaching guests this year included renown ballet master Anatoly Sidirov (pas de deux), Elena Sherstneva (character dance) and Aleksander Stepin (acting). Ekaterina herself studied with Ludmila Safronova, one of Agrippina Vaganova’s last students, who eventually went on to develop the Vaganova curriculum.  In addition, Ekaterina was soloist with the Kirov, now Mariinsky Theater, and with American Ballet Theater, and together with Anton Boytsov (Mariinsky Theatre) founded Open World Dance Foundation in 2010 with the purpose of promoting and preserving the tradition of the Vaganova Method within the context of professional ballet education. The intensive summer workshops is one of their many efforts to further this goal.

I participated in the workshop both as a dancer in the technique classes, which ranged from level 5 to 7 based on the Vaganova curriculum, and as a teacher in the lectures, observing how classes were taught the way it was done by the founders of the Vaganova Ballet Academy.  Other participants included teachers from the United States, China and Argentina. We were totally immersed in the method and we witnessed how the method was dissected in order to impart a clear understanding of both the tradition and the technique.  We do it all for the sake of beauty, Ekaterina would tell us.  Mastering the creation of beauty is what we do in class.  We create elegance, shape, and emotional harmony.  She spoke of the smooth and clear classical line, free of distractions, pure, crystalline, unadorned, and of a professionally organized technique that does not look for freedom but for proper, and neither has entertainment as a scope but the creation of a living art of perpetual beauty.  For us dancers she provided the most accurate images.  In our minds we were dancing with ribbons in our hands, keys in our feet, slicing cakes and watching the fire line.  Anything hurts, do everything a terre.  When tired, save your feet and do everything with the upper body.  As I listened to Ekaterina’s lectures and danced in her classes more than ever did I realize that, as Karsavina puts it in her book, nothing more is required of ballet than a perpetuation of tradition and a high level of execution. (p. 93)  

I have always been an intrinsic student, I treasure learning for leaning’s sake, for the benefit of the now rather than the promises of the future. I have an insatiable taste for learning, reason why during my long and rather unorthodox years of training I never minded dancing in the back row, ignored by most teachers.  Provided I was learning, little mattered to me if they knew I existed. Karsavina tells us that her father used to say who knows too much, grows old very soon.  Somehow I never seem to mind about my age either.  Besides as teachers, we want to know more and more so we can give endlessly because the teaching profession is a very giving profession; teaching is not about us the teachers but about them the students.  

Ekaterina raised one question towards the end of the workshop:  What are we going to do with the world of ballet?  Nobody volunteered an answer, neither did I, but I do believe that ultimately what concerns us now is how to teach the masses who want to learn ballet, without asking ourselves what they will ever be able to do in the future with what we teach them today.  I think Ekaterina, unbeknown to herself, answered her own question a few days later:  Let’s stop exercising and make art, she said.

And I would add.

 Let the embodiment of the classical spirit shine through that art.

I realize that teaching is not  the conveying of your personal knowledge to the pupil, neither is it to model the pupil after your own individual shape.  Teaching of art can only be based on what the consecutive achievement of the ages has built up—technique, in fact. (Karsavina, p.171)

Tamara Karsavina. Theatre Street.  Great Britain: Columbus Books, 1988.

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