Vaganova Ballet Academy Rector Nikolai Tsiskaridze Gets Candid About International Students
Translated by Helena Terteryan
What does it take to train at Russia’s prestigious Vaganova Ballet Academy? Established in 1738, the venerable institution began an international trainee program in the early 1990s, accepting up to 40 foreign students each year. Pointe caught up with former Bolshoi Ballet star Nikolai
Tsiskaridze, who took over as rector at the Vaganova Ballet Academy three years ago, to ask him what he looks for in potential international trainees—and what he thinks of American training.
When you attend competitions, do you look for candidates for the Vaganova Ballet Academy’s international trainee program?
I’m more curious to see what is going on in the ballet world. I have a very clear view of the level of education everywhere. When it comes to classical ballet, it’s pointless to try to compare Russian ballet to others. Nobody comes to that level yet. Of course, when you talk about contemporary and modern dancers, you have to look elsewhere. But it’s very interesting to see where other countries are going, what route they are taking in classical ballet.
Where do you see things going here in the United States?
Some things make me very happy and some things are unsettling. But I understand that this country does not provide ballet education on the government level, like in Russia. And it very much affects the dancers, since every school is different. It really depends on how lucky the students are with their teachers. You can tell immediately which kids have Russian teachers and which kids don’t. And which have teachers who are not at a professional level.
Are there specific American schools that you find impressive?
Unfortunately, I’ve only seen individual children in competitions, and it’s very difficult to judge the level of an entire school by one person. The difference between American and Russian schools is that in Russia there is the same system. The teachers all follow the same curriculum of dance. Some teachers are better than others, but the system of training is the same and you can tell right away.
When you’re thinking about admitting a foreign student, what do you look for?
We have them take class at the school with their own age group. And we just ask, Can this particular student come up to our level, of what we’re asking of them? Of course, I’m also looking at their physical abilities and how they have been trained to begin with. It’s understandable that anyone who is coming to our academy [from the outside] is going to be very different and at a completely different level.
Then I talk to them and ask why they want to train specifically with us. Some answer, “I just want to learn from you and go back to where I’m from.” Others say, “I’ve already been through auditions, but I’ve been told I don’t have a strong enough foundation and I came to you to gather that experience.” And some say their dream is to dance with the Bolshoi or the Mariinsky Ballet, so they have more long-term plans. Then it all depends on how everything comes together and how life plays itself out.
When foreign students say, “I want to dance with the Bolshoi or Mariinsky,” is that a realistic dream?
Yes, now the companies are starting to take them. This year, one girl from Belgium and another from Switzerland were invited to join the Mariinsky Ballet. And last year we had an American boy and a Swedish girl go to Mikhailovsky Ballet.
The Russian theater culture is magical—it’s very different from other cultures around the world. A lot of dancers love it so much that they don’t have the strength to leave it—they become fascinated by it. And along with the education they have, it’s a big boost for their resumé to be a dancer in the Mariinsky or any other Russian theater. Besides, they have different passports, so anytime they want to leave the theater they can!
When someone from the outside comes into the school, is it difficult for them to adjust?
Students who come have already made a decision within themselves that they’re going to change their lives on a grand scale, so they easily adjust. Plus, we don’t take little kids; they’re over 15 years old. I have to point out that foreign students are much more mature than Russian students. They have a completely different view of life.
Russian teachers sometimes seem overly harsh and demanding. Is that a cultural misunderstanding?
Ballet is a very harsh discipline. You cannot be sweet and nice and tender when teaching on such a demanding level. It’s very repetitive, difficult, tiresome work. You can’t get results very quickly, so you have to be pretty demanding. When teachers act harshly, it’s not because they have something personal against the student. It’s because they want to get the best result possible from each dancer. Of course, when they leave the studio, they become normal people who really love these children and have feelings towards them.
When you read all the interviews and press about Balanchine, you’d think he was a tyrant. But look at how much he did for his artists and how much he loved and cared for them. There is work, and then there is life. And unfortunately, serious art forms can’t be taught any other way. It becomes very complicated to make a student point his toes when he just doesn’t want to do it anymore. You have to put a lot of effort into it. It’s a difficult job.
What do you think is more important in a dancer, dedication or talent?
Talent is the only thing that you can take inside the theater. However, to become a true artist, you need to have both extraordinary talent and extraordinary dedication. But there also has to be one more thing: luck. Without luck, you’re not going to get anywhere.