Under communism, ballet students were driven to achieve international fame for the glory of the state. In Putin’s Russia, nothing has changed. Alastair Gee investigates the post-Soviet machine.
August 10, 2008
Photographs: Rachel Papo
Zhenya Ganeyev is marooned on a sofa bed in the corner of his St Petersburg living room. A narrow, sinewy 15-year-old, he has been forbidden by doctors to walk since early June. So the ballet student rests on an elbow tucked behind his head, a position that seems to verge on contortionism but is not uncomfortable for him, and occasionally curls his long feet into the en pointe position. His schoolteachers, who have a distinctive take on such issues, are pleased about his injury.
Ganeyev is enrolled at the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St Petersburg, perhaps the most famous ballet school in the world. He suffered a compressed spinal fracture while lifting a partner. But he was thought by instructors to be too short, and they hope the bed rest will give him a chance to grow. If he doesn’t, he may not have much of a future at the academy. No matter how talented, dancers of the wrong height, weight or shape are expelled. Standards have not slipped in the age of Putin – though many young Russians these days turn away from the classical tradition.
The US-born Israeli photographer Rachel Papo spent five weeks photographing students at Vaganova and at the Mariinsky Theatre, where pupils perform after school. Papo herself studied ballet between the ages of 5 and 14 in Haifa, although she left after realising that she was less able than some of her classmates. She saw similar frustrations at Vaganova. “I was heartbroken the whole time I was there,” she says. “When they graduate, only very few will make it.”
But how has the Soviet-era ballet system fared in the gaudy, wealth-obsessed new Russia? Boris Akimov, a former artistic director at the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow and now a senior coach there, suggests it can weather anything. “Whatever the historical event – perestroika, the Soviet collapse – ballet is never touched.” Vaganova isn’t stuck in the past, however, despite its adherence to a notoriously strict training technique developed by the ballet dancer Agrippina Vaganova after the 1917 revolution and copied worldwide. As Soviet habits decline and Russia becomes richer, the school’s character and demographics are changing.
Vaganova occupies a colonnaded yellow building in a picturesque part of town, surrounded by titanic neoclassical and neogothic structures that enclose delicate parks. The school has been here since 1836, and is undergoing a £15m restoration as city coffers benefit from Russia’s soaring oil and gas profits. Laminate has replaced battered wood floors, and the changing rooms are fitted with handsome lockers, while boarders, about half the student body, have a computer suite and sleep two to a room (at Russian universities, four or more may share).
Students enrol at the age of 10, after a multi-hour exam that tests their ballet technique, rhythm and health. Five years ago, there were about 100 applicants for each place. Today, there are about 20, and there’s a specially steep decline in the number of boys applying. A contributing factor is parents’ awareness of the unremarkable salaries earned by most dancers other than soloists. “I live in a dormitory,” sighs Anna Lavrinenko, 21, a gentle, slightly built Vaganova graduate and a mid-ranking Mariinsky dancer. “The wages are enough to live on, but not enough to buy somewhere of your own.”
The Vaganova style fuses elements of the Russian, French and Italian ballet schools, and the academy produces dancers who move their upper bodies particularly well. The teaching is codified and precise – rivals at the Bolshoi school in Moscow suggest that St Petersburg dancers are overly focused on technical details. A quirk of the system is that beginners write essays on steps they have learnt, describing which muscles are used and how their bodies should move. They also write analyses of their mistakes.
Classes for Vaganova’s 350 or so students begin at 9am and continue till 6pm – or till 11pm and later if students are performing at the Mariinsky. Younger students have two hours of classical dance per day and five to six hours of academic lessons; older students have four to six hours of classical dance and fewer academic lessons. Historical, modern and character dances are also fitted in. It’s a six-day week, and the day off, Sunday, may be taken up by rehearsals. “You sometimes feel like you’ll die of tiredness,” says Aleksei Popov, 18.
While some teachers are miserly with praise, cruel behaviour, like that of a notorious teacher who enjoyed telling students they were worthless, has all but vanished. Younger, mellower instructors have been employed (and even getting inside the tightly guarded building has become easier). Still, the atmosphere is hyper-competitive. Students battle for favour and roles at the Mariinsky. “I don’t have any real friends at the academy,” says Popov. “On stage, they’re rivals.”
And there’s an ever-present risk of expulsion. Dancers are weighed two to three times a year and before exams, and girls who don’t keep their weight below 50 kilograms are considered too heavy for boys to lift; they lose marks in exams and, if they don’t slim down, will have to leave. “Practically everyone in my class diets,” says Alexandra Somova, 16. “Most of all, they don’t eat sweets, then things made of wheat.” Cases of anorexia, however, are said to occur only once every few years.
A girl’s legs, meanwhile, should be at least half her height, a rule that inspires bizarre exercises, according to Elena Apakova, an English teacher at the school. “Sometimes they attach heavy things to their feet and hang from bars. Swimming with flippers helps. And they stretch most of the time. I allow students to sit stretching on the floor rather than at their desks.”
All this, together with near-unattainable standards, contributes to a high attrition rate. Of the 50 students who enrol in the first year, 40-80% might not graduate. This year, there were 30 graduates. In 2009, there will be only 12. Of all the boys Popov enrolled with in the first year, he is the only one left.
Copyright 2008 Times Newspapers Ltd.