The Evolution of a Style

There are three primary styles in the world of ballet: Vaganova (Russian), Cecchetti (Italian), and French Style. Additionally there is also: Balanchine (American), Bournonville (Danish), and Royal Academy of Dance (RAD/British). But how did all of these styles come to be? And really, where is ballet from?

The short answer is that ballet began in the Italian Renaissance courts of the 15th and 16th Centuries. It eventually made it’s way to France by way of Catherine de’ Medici when she married Henry II. But ballet really didn’t reach it’s height in the French court until the reign of King Louis XIV nearly 100 years later. From there ballet spread to Russia and Denmark by way of Marius Petipa and Antoinne Bournonville, while still continuing to develop in Italy. Fast forward to the late 1800s, when Agrippina Vaganova begins taking ballet at the Imperial Ballet School in present day St Petersburg Russia. Upon her graduation she begins dancing with the Imperial Ballet (now known as the Kirov Ballet). By the time she reached the rank of soloist she had been dubbed the ‘Queen of Variations’ for her unlimited virtuosity and level of technique. She later became the Artistic Director of the Imperial Ballet, and in 1934 she published the Fundamentals of Classical Dance. This book solidified the Vaganova technique, and is still used to this day.

Ballet did not come easily to her as a child, and this early struggle was the basis for her creating this technique that pulled from the French and Italian styles she was taught as a child.

This photo of Agrippina Vaganova is from a performance of Pequita in St. Petersburg circa 1910.

The hallmark of the Vaganova technique is that the whole body is involved in every movement, and that equal attention is paid to the upper body, legs, and feet. Vaganova believed this approach increased the dancer’s body awareness, therefore creating a better harmony of movement and greater expressive range.

No doubt one of the most famous dancers to attend the Vaganova School is none other than Mikhail Baryshnikov. Born in Latvia in 1948, he attended the school from 1964. In 1967 he made his debut with the Mariinsky Ballet (previously Kirov Ballet). In 1974 he defected to Canada before making his way to the United States. He is, by far, one of the best dancers the world has ever seen. He was the Artistic Director of the American Ballet Theatre, White Oak Dance Project (with Mark Morris), he now runs the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City, and that’s the Cliff Notes version.

What I’ve always found to be so beautiful about his dancing, is the ease and exuberance he exhibits on stage. Unfortunately I was born after he stopped performing, however through the miracles of technology his work can still be appreciated to this day.

Below I’ve inserted a video of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Elaine Kudo performing the Sinatra Suite choreographed by Twyla Tharp. This has been one of my favorite pieces since I was a kid. Please enjoy.