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' Laws are constantly being passed, regulations that contradict the needs of ballet and music education as such'

Nikolai Tsiskaridze [photo: Victor Chernov / Russian Look]

Tsiskaridze: 'Russian ballet still has no equal'

1 NOV 15  

Here's an interview with Nikolai Tsiskaridze focusing on his stewardship of the Vaganova Ballet Academy, two years after he arrived as (then) acting Rector. He talks about conflicts between the needs of ballet training and the forest of regulations governing teaching in modern times.

He tells how he did fouettés and developpés in the Duma to show some uncomprehending deputies the physical realities of ballet, and insists that he will resist the imposition of children's rights and human rights that threaten the old ways of teaching ballet.

He also explains how he decided what the Vaganova training orthodoxy should now be.

A short separate report in Rossiyskaya Gazeta quotes Tsiskaridze's concerns about the physical condition of children coming to audition at he Vaganova. Despite huge numbers of applicants, he says, 'there are not very many talented ones', and even fewer are in the necessary health required to pass the medical examination.

The RG report also lists his achievements as the reconstruction of the school's historic building, resulting in additional space of 5,000 sq m, carpets on the staircases to protect the children from injuries when they dash between classes, and musical equipment in every studio.

Back to the main interview with the RIA news agency.

'It's impossible to change things suddenly, only gradually'

RIA Federal News Agency, October 28, 2015, 20:28, by Evgenia Avramenko

Two years after taking up office as the rector of Russia’s oldest ballet school, the Vaganova Ballet Academy, Nikolai Tsiskaridze asserts that leading the country’s great ballet institutions is more complex than leading theatres. Today he is one of those people on whom the future of Russian ballet depends, and who will be responsible for ensuring that the names of new Russian stars will appear on the posters outside the world’s theatres.  

In his two years working at the Academy Tsiskaridze has gained a reputation as a demanding and strict coach, and as a rector who personally takes part in performances and in exams in literature and ballet history, in order to be sure that his students will go out onstage in major theatres as well-educated people. Our correspondent talked to the head of the legendary ballet school about how Russia can keep its great tradition.

RIAFAN: Nikolai Maximovich, what does the future of Russian ballet in the world depend on? Is it more on the schools or on the theatres where the students will go on to?

TSISKARIDZE: A great deal depends on the training establishments, of course it's nothing to do with a theatre. But ballet schools in Russia today are put under very difficult conditions. Laws are constantly being passed, regulations that contradict the needs of ballet and music education as such. We no longer have the right to teach in the old ways - we would be violating various human rights and the rights of children. So what we have to do in this system is find a good way around it.

Unfortunately, because the Academy’s previous leaders for years never reacted to all these regulations, I and our coaches are trying to disentangle it all. Many regulations have come into force which cover how we teach children. But the fact is that the way we taught 300 years ago is the way we still teach today. The profession of the ballet art can't be compared to children’s rights today.

For instance, our ballet class lasts two academic hours, and under the rule we’re supposed to have a break. But we can’t have a break; we have to teach for 90 minutes without a break. To explain this to officials or authorities is difficult, from the moral viewpoint. Last year in grades 8 and 9 they had to take two compulsory certification exams, this year they’re having to take four. But our kids who are being prepared for exams are also regularly dancing, their days are full. So we have to teach them very well.

Could you influence officials, if you see that certain regulations can’t be applied to ballet without wrecking it?

Why was it me that people started pushing to get me to work in training and come to Petersburg? When we joined up to the Bologna process [a Europe-wide standardisation of higher education qualifications], I had a call from Grigori Ivliev from the State Duma (he then became deputy culture minister) and said, “Nikolai, we need someone from ballet to come and talk to us, explain some things.”  

So I started going regularly to Duma hearings, in a personal capacity. You know, I am not party-political, I am not ideological. But in order to speak to deputies about certain things I had to go and read up what the law was, and when I did, my hair stood up on end: much of it was quite inapplicable to our profession.

But then - partly thanks to me - a great part of these laws were seen off. I turned fouettés in front of the officials and showed how to extend the leg. It seems as if everyone should know about turns or developpés but unfortunately officials don’t understand. They are complex things you have to work at constantly. You see, no one wants to make our education worse, it’s just that the Ministry too must live within the rules of international law.

But as regards not just general education but ballet training itself at the Vaganova Academy, should we be confident in the famous Russian school? Will we lose our place?

As regards classical ballet education, it’s difficult to compare us with the rest of the world. This system keeps rolling on with time, it’s handed from hand to hand, from foot to foot. I can honestly say to you that I'm sure, having been director for two years now, that everything depends on the specific person in leadership of a teaching institution. On how he thinks and how he wishes to organise the process. Because it’s a huge responsibility.

When I began coming to work and getting to know the people at the Academy, I realised that for 23 years since the death of Konstantin Sergeyev, who directed this school, there had not been a single methodological conference. I began going to classes and I saw one coach taught a movement this way, another one that way. I began asking, “Why is is like that?” There are some old coaches, students of Vaganova, who are still alive - I asked their opinion. They told me, “Kolya, first of all, no one ever asked, and second, they didn’t invite us to exams.” When I called the first methodological conference, these old ones started thanking me.

To start with I spent a long time hearing everyone out, what was good and what was bad. Now I'll simply say, “This is how we do it,” but I am not saying that because it’s  just popped into my head. Firstly, we have Vaganova’s textbook. Secondly, in the 1940s a film was made about the teaching system: in it Vaganova and Tarasov explain for an hour and a half how to do this or that movement. Thirdly, I am the very person who has been on the world’s stages performing everything that was possible to do. I know just what part of what we were taught is useful on stage and what isn’t.

So, when some coaches tell me that they're studying this or that under to our system, I say, "Fine, study like that according to a system but then we’ll go off to the Mariinsky theatre and people will say it isn't danced like that." Time has moved on. Even if in the 1940s and 1950s lifting the leg high was indecent, nowadays if you can’t stand in a split you’ll have no right to go onstage.

We live in constant contact with the Mariinsky Theatre. The main exam is approved by all of those who were stars of the Leningrad ballet, and they all express their opinions, sometimes fairly harshly. There have been some very difficult debates, but afterwards I required this of all my coaches: not to change anything all of a sudden. The tragedy of the Titanic came about because the ship, once under full steam, couldn’t stop suddenly, it would always carry on by its own weight. It’s the same with any theatre - it’s impossible to do things suddenly, only gradually.

I feel quite sure somehow that in Russia this will always remain - assuming the state keeps funding it, of course. There’s no such system as this anywhere in the world. In English ballet is 75 years old, the Royal Ballet School did not become a state institution that long ago. The French school is older than ours, more than 300 years old, but they don’t have an eight-year training as we do. They learn for five years, and they have a different system, they organise lessons differently, they have no character dance the way we learn. Not one school gives such a volume of dance training as ours. And no school teaches historical dance, as we do. And so forth. There is no equal to us in the world.