Auguste Vestris


Book Review

Alexander Pushkin, Master Teacher of Dance

by Gennady Albert, New York Public Library, 2001

August 2005

Reams have been said and written about Agrippina Vaganova, rather less about Alexander Pushkin who, some would say, was equally, if not more influential, in the Twentieth Century.

However, in the year 2001, the New York Public Library published a book entitled "Alexander Pushkin, Master Teacher of Dance", by Gennady Albert.

So worthwhile is the book that, indeed, I have read it three times, and would need to read it again. I also wonder why it has not been more discussed. The only reason that might perhaps explain the silence, may be that, as dancers retire ever younger these days, they lack the time to look at the past. Very recently, when a Danish professor danced a step for students as "Erik Bruhn did it", the students started and said "Who's Erik Bruhn ?"

Well, Erik Bruhn as it so happens, was a contemporary of Gennady Albert's. And the latter was a student of Professor Alexander Pushkin in the 1960s. He now directs the Eifman Ballet at Petersburg.

What strikes one, first of all, about this remarkable book, is the acute - and astute - sense of history of which its author is possessed. I say astute, because he is writing, very clearly, for all time and not just for the present time. Therefore, he has refrained, in order that the book not be censored or shoved under the carpet, from making partisan remarks in relation to events of the Soviet period, despite an allusion in the chapter on the defection of Nureyev.

In any event, whatever M. Albert's precise political views may be, these are neither his, nor our, central concern here, although obviously, we none of us live in a "politics-free zone".

The history he deals with here is that of ideas, as those become manifest in the ballet. Here in the West, the ballet is not felt to be a major art form. Its practitioners are deemed entertainers, "men in tights". That is not the prevailing view in Russia. There, the transmission of a line of thought from one professor to the next, is given the same consideration as a step forward in theoretical physics or mathematics.

Accordingly, M. Albert has chosen to outline the central ideas of Pushkin's predecessors, including persons of whom we know far too little here in the West, such as Mikhail Obukhov (1879-1914) and Vladimir Ponomarev (1892-1951), who was Pushkin's own professor, and others that he discusses from the standpoint of how they taught WHEN IN RUSSIA, as opposed to the developments in their teaching when they fled to Western Europe after the Russian Revolution. Among them, Nikolai Legat (1869-1937), Enrico Cecchetti (1850-1928) and Mikhail Fokine (1880-1942). He also discusses the methods of Pavel Gerdt (1844-1917) and Bournonville's student Christian Johansson (1817-1903).

These chapters are illustrated with extraordinary photographic portraits of the aforesaid professors, in all their force and dignity, quite unlike the rather fey, Peter Pan air that many of our colleagues in the West somehow care to put on. The force and dignity of people who DEMAND to belong to the mainstream of their nation's intellectual life, and not some brackish little backwater.

M. Albert has been at very great pains to meet and discuss with everyone still alive today, who can recall the work of these professors, or what their students told of it. This is truly a look inside the studio with people like Pavel Gerdt teaching, and it is rather like jumping into a time-machine, being transported back one hundred years, to walk in and find Gerdt there teaching - it gives one the cold shivers.

There is much to admire in M. Albert's openness. Generally, when one writes a biography, it is because one is quite enamoured of one's subject, and seeks to "put down" the subject's alleged enemies, rivals or competitors. Not so M. Albert ! And that is precisely what makes his work so valuable.

For example, one thinks of Yuri Soloviev as a pupil of Pushkin's. Well, he was, and he wasn't, because on leaving the School, he studied exclusively with Boris Shavrov for four years, another of those persons of whom we know too little.

But M. Albert does not "run down" Shavrov. To the contrary, he reports thusly on his teaching:

"Speaking of Pushkin's structure fo the adagio, we must not fail to mention that at the choreographic school, there was another point of view on this part of the men's class - for instance, the principles evidenced in Boris Shavrov's class. He had been a very famous premier dancer at the Kirov Theatre, and was an authoritative pedagogue who began teaching before Pushkin.

"(...)° Shavrov graduated from the School in the class of Viktor Semionov, a strict classical dancer who retained the traditions of Legat's school in his pedagogy. Shavrov was extremely demanding in his observance of épaulement, watched closely for the position of the legs in poses croisée, effacée, écartée, and insisted on emotional colour in many movements. And his students were always excellently prepared physically and could bear heavy work loads easily. But his way of obtaining these results differed from Purshkin's. Shavrov usually assigned one adagio, constructed on various développés, fouettés, tours lents, and port de bras. And the port de bras was executed in poses with the leg raised at ninety degrees. A port de bras forward in the pose of first arabesque was his favourite passage. The second part of his adagio, like Pushkin's, consisted of battements tendus and battements jetés combinations. Shavrov's adagio was long - forty-eight to sixty-four measures - and was repeated twice, from the right leg and then the left, which was the basis of the students' physical preparation. Pushkin developed stamina through intense pace, a greater number of jumps and various turns. Pushkin's second adagio consisted almost completely of turns... The tempo of this adagio increased and demanded dynamics in the execution of the steps. It included tours chaînés, pas chassé, fouetté en tournant executed in accelerated tempi, which led to the next major combination - grands battements jetés ."

Shavrov's class sounds quite a lot like Blasis, in point of fact.

The way M. Albert has chosen to present this material, leaves the reader free to make up his own mind, or at least, to enquire freely, about certain aspects of Soviet-era teaching. For example, the defects in placement and consequent hypertrophy of certain muscle-groups observable in many dancers of that time and place, that were tolerated in order to quickly produce a certain dynamic and thrust. From the brief notes above, one also wonders whether perhaps Shavrov were not slightly more occupied with plastique, Pushkin perhaps less so.

Being the Second Section

Amongst the more intriguing aspects of Gennady Albert's study is a discussion of the teaching methods of the great Nikolai Legat. I find this so, first, because just at the point everyone seems to have forgotten Nikolai Legat, Professor Anna Paskevska, a disciple of his disciple Cleo Nordi, has brought out the work Ballet beyond Tradition based on Legat's precepts, secondly because the new étoile at Covent Garden, Sarah Lamb, is a student of Legat's grand-daughter Tatiana, and thirdly, because what Albert has to say about Nikolai is definitely not "mainstream" thinking in the West.

In Western Europe and the United States, we think of Fokine as the innovator, and Legat as an "old fogey". This would not appear to be the Russian view of the matter.

Gennady Albert thus explains in some detail the clash within the Maryinskii Theatre and its School over the precepts of Fokine, after the latter's Pavillon d'Armide had been produced there in 1907. By 1909, outwith Russia, the choreographer's works had of course created a sensation thanks to Diaghilev's "Russian Seasons".

In 1909, Legat refused to appear when Fokine's ballerinas came to pass their examinations at the Theatre School, and eventually gave Fokine's best dancers (Lukom and Lopukohova) the barely-acceptable mark of 6 out of 12.

This is Gennady's view,

"In his dream of new expressive means, Fokine seemed to have forgotten the school's primary demand - maintaining a literate execution of all the movements of the ballet catechism ... he considered the academic canon the heaviest chain encumbering contemporary ballet... In 1911, he left the School for good."

As a result, the work of Fokine's antagonist Legat because the decisive factor in the future of ballet pedgagy."

Legat considered himself to be a disciple both of Cecchetti, from whom he learnt control and pirouette technique, and of Bournonville's student Christian Johansson who, he was later to say, had revealed to him the "limitless reserves" of the classical dance, and who "amazed the thoughtful young artist [Legat] with the originality of his classroom assignments".

In 1904, Legat took over the Theatre's soloist class. The mind boggles at the names - Kchessinskaya, Trefilova, Anna Pavlova, Lydia Kyasht, Karsavina, Vaganova, Fokine himself, and Adolf Bolm.

"None of [Legat's] class assignments grew out of improvisation", writes Albert, and quotes the historian Liubov Blok as follows:

"the class was created according to a definite plan from beginning to end. Everything done at the barre was a preparation for what would be done in the adagio, and the allegro was the resolution of the tension. Legat changed his lesson daily in relation to the current assignment."

Cecchetti is said to have been the first to introduce that methodology, "but Legat was more flexible in the selection of movements and sequences.... the idea of the lesson was determined by his concern for the individual students ...."

"Diligently and lovingly polishing the details of execution of each step, he did not worry about emotional and stylistic aspects (....) that is the fundamental difference between him and Fokine (....) who insisted upon an aesthetic essence in the execution of steps. Fokine felt oppressed by the "dead" paradigms of mandatory classical exercises. Legat, on the other hand, could spend hours seeking through various combinations of connecting steps to find the most rational preparation for executing a turn or jump. [this] Rationality (...) would later be the hallmark of the methodology of Agrippina Vaganova (....)"

"Old fogey" perhaps, but Legat introduced a number of significant changes. For example, he felt that the greater complexity of technique required that the body be warmed up more quickly at the barre, to allow more time be spent on difficulties in the centre. Therefore, he was the first professor to start class with battement tendu, rather than plié, as "all the muscles of the legs are involved in battement tendu, and the load is spread evenly without causing over-strain, which is important at the start of work." Legat was also virtually the first to allow his students to use exercise equipment and massage to prepare the body, an approach to which Vaganova was categorically opposed. "Legat", writes Blok, "always protected his students from dangerous muscular strain", and may have been the first pedagogue to forbid his pupils to perform grand plié in fourth position, to protect the knee-joint.

The centre combinations were changed everyday, with one exception - the main forms of temps lié, that he considered a "hard core" exercise.

Legat's allegro combinations in the centre were apparently simple, save that they were invariably to be performed both right and left. Albert quotes the historian Blok again, "he designed his combinations in such a way that it made turns an inevitability. He would prepare a jump so that there would be elevation and power. He knew the very roots of a movement".

The combinations often ended with tour en l'air, that had to end in a neat fifth, and with a deep demi-plié.

Legat watched for "purity of leg positions, fluidity in the demi-plié, the precise direction of the head (...)° [his teaching] formed precision in positions, severity of pose, and clarity in the connecting steps."

Shortly after the Revolution, Alexander Pushkin came to study alongside Vera Volkova, at the School of Russian Ballet, founded by the art historian Achim Wolyinskii, where Legat was responsible for pedagogy. What is more, Pushkin's own teacher, Vladimir Ponomarev, had been trained by one of the greatest disciples of Legat and Cecchetti, Mikhail Obukhov.

I am very intrigued by Mikhail Obuhkov (1879-1914), and hope that Frenchmen will be able to enlighten us on his many study-visits to the Paris Opera School.

Obukhov (one could spend an hour studying that searching gaze, that slight ironical smile in the portrait photograph Gennady Albert has provided), graduated in 1898 from the Maryinskii School, in the class of Liubov Egorova, Yulia Sedova and Mikhail Fokine.

Mikhail Obukhov was probably a genius, and it is painful to think that like Chris Marlowe, John Keats or Shelley, he was cut off before his time.

By the age of twenty-one (21!), Obukhov, already a celebrated virtuoso, was asked to lead the men's classes at the Theatre School as Senior Instructor. In 1904, when Legat took over the Class of Perfection at the Maryinskii, Obukhov, then aged twenty-five (25!), was given the charge of Legat's students at the Theatre School. Obukhov's graduates included Vaslav Nijinskii and Georgy Rozai (1908, Boris Romanov (1909), and Viktor Semionov (1912).

In the clash between Legat and Fokine, Mikhail Obukhov ranged himself decidedly on the side of Legat.

I do not feel intellectually prepared to make a "final" judgment on this conflict. Certainly, there will always exist a tension between the creating of works designed for performance in the theatre, and the classical rigour that is proper to the classroom.

In essence, Fokine was a choreographer, not a pedagogue. As turmoil broke out in Russia early in the Century, and "cultural" movements glorifying vandalism and blood-letting came to the fore (rather recalling the "Strategy of Tension" displayed at this year's Avignon Festival), one suspects that people like Legat and Obukhov saw it as their mission to save the art form for future generations.

The flame of their concern, that became essential to the survival of the ballet in the wake of the Russian Revolution, was passed on by Legat and Obukhov to Vladimir Ponomarev, and through him, to Alexander Pushkin.

Being the Third Section

In search of a clearer understanding of the implications of Legat's method, it seems appropriate to interpolate here, discussion of a passage from Professor Paskevska's new book. She is, as we have just seen, a contemporary disciple of Nikolai Legat.

In the Chapter entitled "Opposition" of Ballet beyond Tradition, Professor Paskevska writes (page 57)

"Physically, the head is too heavy to be carried behind the line of gravity, thus the épaulement positions also ensure that equilibrium be maintained; whether in croisé, effacé, or écarté, the head is always placed to enhance, and most importantly to facilitate, the position or movement.

"There are two major schools of thought about the use of épaulement. Cecchetti (....) teaches épaulement as a shift of direction; for example in croisé devant (right leg front), the whole body turns to corner N° 8 (Russian numbering). The left arm is lifted to 5th, the right arm is in second position (4th en haut), and the head is turned to side N° 1. Similarly in effacé, the body turns to corner N° 2, with arms as above and head turns to side N° 1. (This is illustrated by Figures 14 and 15).

"By contrast, the Legat System teaches to execute these positions by spiralling the torso; the supporting leg shifts minimally if at all, and the body rotates around is axis. In this system, the positions are initiated by the spine spiralling around its axis in response to the direction of the working leg.

"(...° urging students to perceive oppositional tensions instead of exhorting them to stretch, also helps to understand the positions within the context of the classical line. Thus, while we may stretch the legs by straightening the knees, we do not stretch the arms by straightening the elbows. In both cases the feeling of extending our reach is internal(....)"

That is an experiment that I would suggest we all try. In other words, run through those positions a/ without épaulement, b/ as Cecchetti taught c/ as Legat taught.

Be sensitive to the shift in weight, to the sensations in the hip joint, to the amount of weight distributed over the gesture (working) leg, and where one "carries" the weight over the supporting leg.

One notes that as one focuses on the "spiralling", less and less weight goes onto the gesture leg - quite the opposite of the currently-fashionable "third leg" or "weight-bearing dégagé", while the weight over the supporting leg is carried by a criss-crossing of oppositions, which is the basis for Blasis' notion of aplomb. When the dégagé is taken from the torso and strongly épaulé, the musculature in the calf and foot feels oddly lighter and one finds it easier to resist the impulse to over-point or "parrot-beak" the foot. This has some fun implications for technique. As we have all noticed, in the classical dance one does tend to spend very little time on two legs! That's what makes it so tiring, eh  ? Generally, one leg does the standing, and the other does the fooling about. Now, if full use of the oppositions gives one a lightness, rather than a heaviness, in releasing the gesture leg, that's food for thought.

"The feeling of extending our reach is internal". As it so happens, what currently passes for technique not only allows, but encourages - as in Balanchine - poker-straight arms and entirely lengthened figures, presenting the body to the public and to the camera as though on an entomologists' needle (to no-one's surprise, Jan Fabre is an enthusiastic amateur entomologist). On the other hand, in the "Legat", or spiralling use of the body, the artist will look slightly "smaller" or "foreshortened" (raccourci), because the body folds and unfolds upon itself. It is however, a densely-charged figure, carrying more, and more complex, "events" per square millimetre, as the figure spirals upwards towards the face and eyes.

Being the Fourth and Final Section

There is often either a gap, or even a clash between what goes on in the theatre on stage in public, and what goes on in the classroom, for the simple reason that anyone who composes something designed to be shewn in public, knows full well that it will be publicly discussed and debated. The moment he attempt to have that play, that opera, that ballet put up on stage, it must be approved by someone with money and power, or it will never be shewn. In other words, all public events have some political overtone or undertone, and therefore, the staging of ballets, no matter the political régime, is always at risk at becoming a plaything of Power.

Accordingly, the question will always remain whether the guardians of the art form, the professors and the active practitioners, allow themselves to be manoeuvred about, and become simply a tool of the reigning Establishment, or whether they be strong enough within themselves, to cleave to the Ideal.

What distinguishes an art form from sport, entertainment or other similar pastimes, is that it is firstly a science, objective and universal; it can advance and progress, but cannot be a creature of opinion or fashion. Secondly, what takes it beyond pure physical science, is that it must, and I emphasise must, be an incarnation of the idea that Christians call "Caritas", love of mankind. IF PROPERLY TAUGHT AND EXECUTED, the actual movements of the classical dance, the ancient, if constantly-updated, forms are, in their unchanging essence, in their unearthly ghostly grace, proof that man has a soul.

Here in Europe, and also in America, we are now living through upheaval similar to the Russian Revolution, where so-called "liberalism" and "monetarism" are wreaking the same cultural, moral and physical havoc amongst the world's populations, as the worst elements in the early USSR.

Reading the lives of people like Legat, Obukhov, Shavrov, Ponomarev and Pushkin, it becomes plain that what allowed them to remain human beings and not selfish beasts or opportunists throughout war and revolution, was their conviction that they belonged to the chain of eternity. The history of the USSR leads one to speculate that they contributed, personally, to a thought-process that moved from the theatre into the general population, and that has changed the Russian character for the better.

On the face of the abundant evidence surrounding us, here in the West some would seem to be very worried that the classical dance could play a similar role here, which is why they are hell-bent on stamping it out.

In any event, as is well known, during the 1920s and 30s, manifold and destructive fads swept across theatre dance in Russia - the futurists, the Goleizovsky gang, the choreodrama, where there was virtually no dancing at all. Vakhtang Chabukiani's "Heart of the Hills" and "Lavrentia" (1938-1939) were the first major pieces of actual danced choreography since the Revolution. Chabukiani also revived La Bayadère.

We turn now to Pushkin's direct master, Vladimir Ponomarev (1892-1951). He too began to teach at the age of twenty-one. After the Revolution, when there was virtually no-one left to dance, Ponomarev could replace - to a very high level - any dancer in any role, including in the emploi of danseur noble, to which he was not, by appearance, suited.

Gennady Albert stresses the academically strict and calm atmosphere in Ponomarev's classes, that Petr Gusev described as "too calm for those stormy times in art". To which Albert replies "seemed too calm. Ponomarev's academicism cannot be overestimated - especially in 'those stormy times'". Ponomarev had, moreover, carefully noted down many Nineteenth Century variations and pas de deux, and taught them to his class, when they were no longer performed on stage. This had a great influence on Pushkin.

Ponomarev's barre, he took from Johansson: the order never changed, but the exercises themselves were constantly varied.

Unlike then-prevailing Soviet stage choreography, Ponomarev paid great attention to connecting steps - the glissade, chassé, failli, pas de bourrée, and to petite batterie, and to the landing phase of the jump, at which the plastique had to be firmly held.

The major difference between Pushkin's class, and that of his master Ponomarev, is that Pushkin introduced turns of every kind throughout the class, and made them grow out of the combination. Secondly, in the 1960s, under the influence of people like Grigorievich, Soviet choreography became inordinately brutal, spectacular, and hard on the body. Terminator-style eroticism and morbid fatalism, disguised as "heroics" (Spartakus!), swept the stage. The professors had to find ways for their charges to survive these orgiastic events. A number of the flaws that we might be tempted to attribute to the dancers' teachers (the book's photographs of Baryshnikov are pretty nightmarish) may in reality reflect the impact on the body, and on the personality, of appearing in such productions. That Pushkin continued to produce CLASSICAL dancers during this period is a great thing, and speaks of his integrity as a man and artist.

Thirdly, in Albert's words,

"The main difference between [Ponomarev and Pushkin] is the (...) technique and dancing ability required (...). Ponomarev's adagio, despite the turns, is rather static. Pushkin, by introducing the sissonne failli, pas failli, and jeté into the arabesque, expands the space (...) he taught breadth in dancing (...).

"Ponomarev's adagio is only a sketch for Pushkin's painting. The extremely difficult tour from a grand plié in attitude, a transition after two tours in first arabesque into pas failli with a jeté to follow, a fouetté en dehors from pose à la seconde into a croisé forward, a rarely encountered form in classical dance - all these movements evince a very high technical level in the adagio assigned by Pushkin."

Albert also compares Pushkin's teaching to that of Asaf Messerer, whose master had been V.D. Tikhomirov of the Bolshoi. Like the latter, Messerer believed in developing "individual choreographic themes during each weekly course of lessons", or the "single step method", that was influenced by Enrico Cecchetti. The Italian master's class had been built on variations on a single movement, each day. Pushkin did not endorse that approach.

(Incidentally, it is curious to see the photographs on pages 116 and 119, of classes given by Pushkin in the 1940s and 1950s, forms very similar to Bournonville, and that are no longer taught.)

Albert continues,

"Pushkin created his combinations in a way that forced the student's body to move in relation to the inner laws of combining classical steps.... so that performing them improperly will be uncomfortable. Thus, if you turn your head in the direction of the glissade during a linking movement, it will not be in the right position when the leg moves for the fouetté in first arabesque , and this will make the body 'shudder' in the air."

One thing that I find disturbing amongst many Western professors is their competitiveness. Perhaps, as dancers, they were essentially competitive, and relish continuing in that same vein, but one cannot but find it disheartening.

According to Gennady Albert, nothing could be farther from Pushkin's approach: "he was generous, and had no professional secrets. Thousands of combinations of steps were written down in composition books now to be found on the desks of dancers and teachers in various corners of the world. Pushkin allowed people to take notes in his class - it was natural to him to do anything that could help his beloved art (...) Invisibly, he entered ballet studios where his foot had never trod."

Finally, Albert believes that one may see behind Pushkin's teaching the words of the writer N.A. Dobrolyubov (1836-1861),

"The educator's obligation consists in making himself superfluous as soon as possible, training the child to understand moral law in its true essence, independent of the educator's authority".