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Interview with Lawrence Lambert, a 20-year-old dancer studying at Vaganova Ballet Academy

Ballet Shoes and Bobby Pins
September 3, 2013

Lawrence Lambert, 20, at the National College of Dance, Australia (Photo by Branco Gaica)Being a male in the ballet world takes a lot of hard work and focus. It is a very different experience for males. Lawrence Lambert, a 20-year-old dancer studying at Vaganova Ballet Academy, shares his experiences. Lawrence tells of his journey from his small mining hometown of Cessnock, New South Whales, Australia to Vaganova where he is currently in level 7.

Read the entire story:

Kristin Lewis
Dance Spirit Magazine
April 1, 2010



The Vaganova Ballet Academy, based in St. Petersburg, Russia, is nearly as old as ballet itself. Through the centuries, czars and governments have come and gone—but the Academy has remained. It’s where legends like George Balanchine, Rudolf Nureyev and Natalia Makarova did their first pliés. It’s also where Agrippina Vaganova developed her groundbreaking methodology.

So what is it like to be a student there today, and to feel the weight of history on your shoulders every time you step up to the barre? DS takes a peek inside one of the most distinguished ballet training institutions in the world.


A Glittering Tradition

Two hundred and seventy-two years ago, the Russian empress Anna Ivanovna issued a royal decree to start a ballet school in St. Petersburg. The first class had only 12 boys and girls. But over the course of the next 100 years, the school blossomed. It became the principal training ground for its affiliated company, the Imperial Ballet, where choreographer Marius Petipa created ballets like Don Quixote and Sleeping Beauty.

The biggest development in the school’s more recent past was the arrival of Agrippina Vaganova. A graduate of the school and a former dancer in the Imperial Ballet, Vaganova found her true calling as a teacher. She was hired in 1921—the same year Balanchine graduated—and later became the director of both the school and the affiliated company, which by then had been rechristened the Maryinsky Ballet. (The school was renamed for Vaganova in 1957, six years after her death.)

“Today, the whole school is full of this spirit of history,” says Irina Tolchilshikova, 18, who is in her eighth year of training at the Academy. The hallways of the school are lined with photos of classes from the last 150 years, an inspiring—and intimidating—reminder for the students of the great dancers who came before them.


The Vaganova Style

During her tenure, Vaganova created a syllabus that is now the standard in Russian training. “Vaganova was a pioneer, and we owe her a lot in the ballet world,” says John White, a former National Ballet of Cuba dancer who teaches the Vaganova syllabus at the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet and gives Vaganova workshops across the country. According to White, one distinguishing aspect of the technique is its emphasis on the arms, hands and eyes. “There is a total involvement of every part of the person in each and every movement,” he says. “The eyes, the upper body, the facial expression and the arms and hands are all connected. It’s different from some of the other schools, which often focus on the legs and feet.”

This isn’t to say that the legs and feet aren’t important. To Vaganova, “everything leads to allegro,” White says. “She felt that adagio is nice—it gives the eye a chance to rest, and has beautiful poses and positioning. But dancing becomes true dancing when you leave the earth and fly.” 

To maintain the Academy’s style and technical standards, all of its teachers and coaches receive extensive training before they are allowed in the classroom. “It is much the equivalent of the American master’s degree in that they study every aspect of training dancers of all ages, from 10-year-old beginners to 18-year-old preprofessionals,” White explains.


Student Life

From dawn to dusk, the Vaganova student’s life revolves around training, a point driven home by the fact that the dormitories and dance studios are all part of the same immense, majestic facility. Most students head to the dance classrooms—with their raked, usually wooden floors, sprinkled with water, rather than rosin, to prevent slipping—early in the morning to warm up before their 9:30 am technique class. Then they have academic classes, followed by another dance class. In the evenings, there are rehearsals for various student concerts and for the small roles they perform with the Maryinsky Ballet. 

In addition to their dance classes, students at the Academy study history, algebra, geometry, geography, biology, Russian language and literature, French, English, physics, chemistry, music, music history and ballet history. Sometimes academics and ballet intersect, as when students are required to write essays about their technical mistakes. “There is usually a discussion with the coach regarding each mistake and how to correct it,” says school principal Vera Dorofeeva. “Classical ballet is a long road to perfection, and the student must understand that every step is important.”

It’s not surprising that Irina says her biggest challenge is overcoming tiredness. “I have very little free time during the school year—only on Sundays,” she says. And like most Vaganova students, she’s relentless about pushing herself. “If something isn’t working, I can’t give up,” she says. “If I don’t manage to do the movement the first, second or third time, maybe I’ll manage it by the sixth time.” In fact, after a long day of classes, Irina usually returns to the studio to do extra stretching and technical drills. “The most important thing,” she says, “is to overcome difficult moments and win.”


Fierce Competition

It would be a huge understatement to say that getting a coveted spot at the Academy is a challenge. Between 4,000 and 7,000 children ages 8 to 10 audition annually for about 70 openings in the beginner class. And despite this extreme selectivity, getting into the Academy doesn’t guarantee a professional career. It doesn’t even guarantee graduation. Only 20 or so students actually complete the program and join companies.

In order to proceed to the next class, students must pass an annual exam. “There are fewer positions in each subsequent year,” explains events coordinator Olga Abramova. “This means that there is competition for each student’s position.” Former Maryinsky Ballet dancer Dmitry Trubchanov, currently a soloist at Colorado Ballet, began studying at the Academy at age 8 and recalls that during his first year, there were 10 boys in his class. By the time he graduated, there were three. “It’s tough. If the staff doesn’t see you progress, then you’re dismissed,” he says. “It’s easier for them to be so harsh because the government supports the school, so they don’t have to worry about making money from tuition.” (The school is still fully state-funded; all of its 320 students attend for free.)

At the end of their training, students take a state graduation exam attended by artistic directors from various Russian companies looking to fill open spaces. “Sometimes a student may receive more than one invitation to join a company,” Abramova says. “The most desired company is the Maryinsky Theatre [known in the U.S. as the Kirov Ballet]. However, some students not accepted by the Maryinsky may go to the Mikhailovsky Theatre or the Eifman Ballet.” Others, like Trubchanov, decide to dance with U.S. companies, while extraordinarily gifted alums like Diana Vishneva and Svetlana Zakharova may become stars of an international scale, performing with companies all over the world.


Looking Forward

Though Russian ballet has seen a lot of changes since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Academy remains a strong symbol of the country’s glorious ballet tradition. It’s also improved its already impressive international reputation, especially since the 1999 appointment of former Maryinsky dancer Altinai Asylmuratova as the school’s artistic director. “Because of her extensive contacts, representatives from foreign ballet schools often visit us,” says press secretary Julia Telepina. “This allows the students to broaden their outlook and introduces them to ballet trends in other countries.” There are even opportunities to tour abroad. Vaganova students have performed in the U.S., Japan and Italy.

And the Academy continues to evolve. Students can now study for two diplomas: ballet dancer and bachelor of performing arts. Additional classes in performing arts management and choreography have been added recently. Dorofeeva is also overseeing a restoration of the Academy’s facilities and theater.

“The Academy has witnessed many changes of political power, and has seen revolutions and wars,” Telepina says. “Yet, despite all the hardships, it has preserved its place in the culture of the world.”

A Typical Day At The Vaganova Academy

9:30–11:00 am: ballet technique
11:00 am–1:00 pm: academic subjects
1:00 pm: lunch
2:00 pm: character dance or dance history
4:00 pm: academic subjects
5:00 pm: rehearsal

Note: Special thanks to Olga Abramova for her translation assistance.


© 2010 Macfadden Performing Arts Media LLC.



Related Articles:  

Student life at the renown Vaganova Ballet Academy

Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet Exams (Videos)

Paquita – Polonaise and Mazurka – Vaganova Ballet Academy



The Crew
Guest Contributors
August 26, 2009


We are five 10 year-old boys. We have known each other since preschool. Our parents call us “the Crew.” Boys and Ballet is our blog. You can read more about us here.


One of our favorite channels on YouTube is  ilyaballet.

Ilya is better known as Ilya Kuznetsov. He attended the Bolshoi Ballet Academy from 1984-1992. After graduating, he was a soloist for the Bolshoi Theatre (’92-’94) and the Moscow Classical Ballet (’94-’95).  In 1996 he was a finalist in the Nuriev Ballet Competition and the International Ballet Competition. Mr. Kuznetsov  was a principal soloist for the Imperial Russian Ballet (’95-’98) and the San Diego Ballet (’98-’02). He has been a classical ballet teacher at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy since 2002.

Mr. Kuznetsov has uploaded videos of student from Vaganova and a large number of shorts of current and former Russian dancers and teachers.

The Vaganova Ballet Academy videos are well worth watching. The boys demonstrate each level of the Vaganova syllabus through grade five (Grade 4 is currently unavailable. Perhaps Mr. Kuznetsov will upload it later).


Playlist (8 videos): Vaganova Ballet Academy Boys’ 1st grade Academy of Russian Ballet Exams (10-11 year olds)


Playlist (5 Videos):Vaganova Ballet Academy Boys’ 2nd grade Academy of Russian Ballet Exams (11-12 year olds)


Playlist (8 videos): Vaganova Ballet Academy Boys’ 3rd grade Academy of Russian Ballet exams (12-13 year olds)



 Playlist (17 videos): Vaganova Ballet Academy Boys’ 5th grade  (14-15 year olds) 


Young dancers of the Vaganova Ballet Academy dancing the Polonaise and Mazurka from the ballet Paquita

Additional videos may be found here

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.”


          vaganova-ballet-academy-alexander-2007-by-rachel-papo    vaganova-ballet-academy-ilya-backstage-2007-by-rachel-papo    vaganova-ballet-academy-batyr-2007-by-rachel-papo   

         vaganova-ballet-academy-two-2nd-class-boys-vlad-and-vadim-2007    vaganova-ballet-academy-two-3rd-class-boys-denis-and-kostia-2007-by-rachel-papo    vaganova-ballet-academy-yana-backstage-2007


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). vaganova-ballet-academy-1st-class-boys-2007

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.

These photographs will be on show at the ClampArt Gallery, New York ( ), from February 12 to March 14, 2009;



Copyright 2008 Times Newspapers Ltd.

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