Biographical Notes About Vera Kostrovitskaya
Written by Natalia Roslavleva René in the Preface to 101 Classical Dance Lessons*
Born on January 16, 1906 in St. Petersburg, Vera Kostrovitskaya was placed in the Theater School (now called the Vaganova Choreographic School) in 1916, at the age of ten. She was a resident student having all her expenses borne by the school. The Revolution [Bolshevick Revolution] took place in 1917 in the spring of her first academic year. At that time, the course of study was seven years long. For her first year, she had Olga Preobrajhenskaya for a teacher. Her two senior years, 1921-22 and 1922-23, were spent in the class of Agrippina Vaganova. She, Mungalova and Mlodzinskaya were the first graduates from Vaganova's class; and they were all accepted into the ballet of the Mariinsky Theater (formerly called the Kirov Theater).
Kostrovitskaya was soon assigned the role of the Chief Polovtsian Girl in Fokine's production of the dances from the opera Prince Igor, and she also danced various "miseries" (i.e., groups of two) and in groups of four (such as the four big swans in Swan Lake). At the same time, she was in Vaganova's daily classe de perfection, a small and select group of the finest girls in the company; and she remained in that class for the thirteen and a half years that she worked in the Kirov Ballet. She was obliged finally to leave the theater because of tuberculosis of the lungs. It is well known in Leningrad that, had it not been for her delicate health, Kostrovitskaya would have been the outstanding premiere danseuse of the company.
During her years in the Kirov Theater, she participated in many concerts on other stages as well, dancing Nikia's famous dance with a snake from Bayaderka, the Dying Swan and many of the standard classical variations. For her graduation performance, she danced the pas de deux from the Shades scene in the last act of Bayaderka partnered by Pyotr Gusev, who was already a member of the company. Soon after her graduation, she became a member of the Molodoi balet, for which George Balanchine did his first choreography. In fact, she had been promised the part of Columbine in the production of Stravinsky's Pulcinella which Balanchine was preparing just before his departure from the Soviet Union. After he left, the Molodoi balet fell apart. It later reassembled under Vassili Vainonen's direction, rehearsing Pulcinella; but it was, in effect, an entirely new company. There is a photograph of Kostrovitskaya on pointe (in Balanchine's Marche Funebre) in Bernard Taper's biography of the choreographer.
In the academic year 1936-37, Kostrovitskaya began her teaching career at the Leningrad Choreographic School, working with the Third Year Class of girls. At the same time, she graduated from the pedagogical department that was attached to the school and headed by Vaganova. She became straight away secretary of the Method Committee, giving serious attention to the study of teaching from the point of view of method (that is to say, how steps should best be broken down and taught and in what order).
During the war, she remained in Leningrad throughout the nine hundred days of the notorious blockade of the city by the Nazis. She worked as a rehearsal coach and ballet mistress for those dancers who had remained in the city (the company and school having been evacuated to the city of Perm in the Ural mountains) and organized over two hundred and fifty concerts in hospitals for the wounded. In the second year of the war, she took a very active role in organizing concerts for the army and, as leader of small "concert brigades," constantly travelled between Leningrad and Lake Ladoga, often under fire. In these concerts, Kostrovitskaya danced character roles.
When the siege was lifted, with the first set of children to be accepted, she again began working at the school; but, simultaneously, she worked as a plasterer with the brigades of citizens who were engaged in the restoration of the city of Leningrad. After the main part of the school had returned from its evacuation, she resumed her former position as teacher of senior and intermediate classes.
In 1947, when the Leningrad Conservatory (named after Rimsky-Korsakov)* added a pedagogical department with Vaganova at its head, she became Vaganova's assistant and Vaganova was given the rank of Professor. So, while continuing to teach at the Choreographic School, Kostrovitskaya conducted classes for student teachers on the method of teaching classical dance. When Vaganova died in 1952, she conducted the final course of students to its end. Then, the department was closed.
Several years later, the Leningrad Choreographic School opened a refresher course for ballet teachers, who came from all parts of the Soviet Union, including Moscow; and it was Kostrovitskaya who taught these courses. From 1958, she was senior teacher and senior method instructor of the Leningrad Choreographic School. She retired from the school in 1969 on a pension because of a bad knee. However, she continued to teach the refresher courses for teachers, who now come from many countries outside the USSR as well. She has twice headed pedagogical seminars in the Moscow Choreographic School.
In addition to the present book , she is the author of a pamphlet, "The Teaching Method of Temps Lié", and the textbook of the Vaganova Choreographic School, School of Classical Dance (completing the work of the late Alexei Pisarev). Both of the books have been translated by John Barker, the New York ballet teacher, who is a great authority on the teaching method of classical dance.
She is the teacher of Gabriella Komlieva, a leading ballerina with the Kirov Ballet, Marina Vassilieva, ballerina of Novosobirsk, and Leocadia Ashkelovicute, ballerina in Vilnius, Lithuania. Malika Sabirova, who won high honors in the First International Competition for Ballet Artists (1969) in Moscow, was her pupil for some time in the Vaganova Choreographic School.
* Currently named the N. A. Rimsky-Korsakov Saint Petersburg State Conservatory.
* 101 Classical Dance Lessons is a publication of the John Barker School of Ballet. It was only published once with limited numbers of copies in the late 1970'S.
Kostrovitskaya, V. (1979). 101 classical dance lessons (J. Barker, Trans. First ed.). New York, NY: John Barker School of Classical Ballet.
Preface to the School of Classical Dance*
By Vera Kostrovitskaya
In the Leningrad Choreographic School named after A. Y. Vaganova, much fruitful work is being done, perfecting the teaching method as a process for mastering the technique of dance. The program for the study of classical dance has been continually re-examined and broadened.
My generation of ballet teachers is obliged to Vaganova and to her amazing teaching method. Still, Vaganova often expressed the thought that there was a necessity for compiling a textbook that would be broader and more detailed than her Basic Principles of Classical Ballet, and that would set down the development of technical execution and the whole method of teaching classical dance. The authors of this book [Vera Kostrovitskaya and Alexei Pisarev] have taken upon themselves the task of providing this.
The textbook has twelve sections. Section I covers the basic concepts: the meaning of the barre and centre exercise, the meaning of adagio and allegro; Section II deals with all forms of battement; Section III discusses ronds de jambe; Section IV treats of port de bras; Section V treats temps lié; Section VI describes the basic poses of classical dance; Section VII covers connecting and auxiliary movements; Section VIII takes up all the jumps; Section IX describes beats; Section X deals with tours on the floor and in the air; Section XI explains turning movements in adagio; Section XII covers the pointe work.
The first part of the book (Sections I-VII) is the work of the late A. A. Pisarev, a teacher of the choreographic school. The second part (Sections VIII-XII) was written by me. In its structure, the book is similar to Vaganova’s Basic Principles of Classical Ballet, which defines the form of the Russian classical dance; the movements are grouped by their basic genres, the technique of execution is described, etc.
But in contrast to A. Y. Vaganova’s book, in which the movements are described mainly in their final form, as well as in contrast to the recent book by N. P. Bazarova and V. P. Mei, The ABC of Classical Dance, which covers the program of the first three years of training, this textbook describes the evolution of each movement from its simplest to its final, most complex, form, as well as different versions of each movement.
The book thus includes the method of teaching classical dance for the entire eight-year course of training in the choreographic school, for men’s as well as women’s classes, since the development of the method of classical dance brings the system of teaching in women’s and men’s classes to mutual enrichment and even almost to full community. Thus, the series of methods for the execution of jumps used in the men’s class (for example, the short spring-board-like rebound from the floor) has been adopted today by teachers of the women’s classes; and to the men’s classes have come, from the women’s class, the sequence of movements and the sequence of the exercise at the barre and in the centre of the room (as being the most logical and useful for the muscles), the construction of the adagio combinations, and the co-ordination of the movements.
All the movements are described here with their musical counts and are supplied with a detailed explanation of the method of their execution. Beginning with the section on allegro, at the end of the description of each movement, an example of a combination with the given pas is offered.
For the execution of most of the movements that have been described in this book, stability (aplomb) is essential. “The centre of balance is in the spine,” A. Y. Vaganova said in her book, Basic Principles of Classical Ballet.
Defining this in more detail, it should be added that, for the stability of the body, the one most important thing is the gradual development of the small but very strong muscles in the small of the back, approximately in the area of the fifth vertebra.
Precisely this part of the back (with lowered shoulders and shoulder blades) must be felt by the dancer as if tightened and pulled upwards.
While in the first year it is not recommended that the small of the back be pulled up too strongly (for this can lead to an undesirable “caving in” of the back), in the following years, a well-developed back not only helps to provide stability in the poses and in tours on the floor and in the air, but makes possible a thorough mastery of the movements of the body as well. For the complicated work of the torso which consists of harmonious transitions from one pose to another, small inclinations and bends in the adagio, in the barre and centre exercise, in allegro, and in the movements on pointe, furthers a more complete mastery of the whole complex of dance movements and, consequently, permits the development of technique and a high artistic quality of execution.
But, by the words “development of technique”, we do not imply work only on swift chainé, a great number of fouetté, or the like. For it is possible to speak of a real technique of execution only when the body, arms, and head of the dancer become the means by which the language of dance is expressed and are responsive to every emotion.
The basic as well as the principal goal of the preparation of the ballet artist is the maximum development in him of his capacities to embody concrete theatrical images.
In connection with this, it is necessary to mention also the great importance of the development of the quality of “danciness”, the elements of which are first absorbed in the elementary years, when even the simplest port de bras must be done expressively, intelligently, and unmechanically. For a dry execution of port de bras, in the various poses at the beginning, can leave a bad mark, and dry up the student for years to come.
Even in the first year, in the barre and centre exercise, when the hands slightly open on the upbeat with a turn of the head, before raising the arms to a position, there already is laid one element of the development of future “danciness”.
In the second year, battements tendus are sometimes done with a port de bras (that is, with a gradual raising and lowering of the arms accompanied by turns of the head and eyes), and this also trains for a “danced” co-ordination of movements. At this stage, battements frappé, rond de jambe en l’air, etc., done in the number necessary for the development of the strength of the legs, finish in the small poses croisées, effacées, and ecartées.
And in intermediate and advanced years, of course, the goals of a “danced” co-ordination are considerably broadened.
It is necessary, however, to approach the development of “danciness” carefully, with a sense of moderation, a feeling for the limits of correct form and a clear and methodical foundation, so that in no case do false “danciness” and empty posing conceal a weak execution.
In speaking of the arms, it is necessary to emphasize especially their double role in classical dance.
On the one hand, the arms, like the body, are one of the main elements of the expressiveness of dance; but, on the other hand, they actively help in dance, assist in providing stability in the poses, provide force for all tours and other turning movements on two legs and on one. Furthermore, the arms play a special role in the execution of the big jumps, where, by energetically helping in the take-off from the floor and the suspension in the air, they simultaneously preserve and emphasize the design of the pose.
In the big jumps (with the legs at a height of 90°), the arms will usually be in full positions in the big poses. But, in small jumps, the arms are held at a half-height (in half positions) in
the small poses, which creates an entirely different design for the dance, emphasizing the difference between the big and small pas.
Furthermore, there must be a constant careful attention to the arms during the whole lesson, beginning with the barre exercise.
These general remarks on the holding of the lower back and the use of the arms, which I have written for the English edition of this book, should make it easier for the foreign ballet teacher to perceive at once a number of important principles that are fundamental to the Soviet method of teaching classical dance.
For I should like to hope that this work will do its modest bit in the pursuit of the general improvement of the teaching of classical dance throughout the world. With this in mind, I dedicate my work, with great respect and love, to the memory of Professor Agrippina Vaganova.
Merited Art Worker of the Byelorussian SSR
* The School of Classical Dance was first published in Russia by Progress Publishers in 1979.
Printed in the USSR, it was later published by Dance Books, Cecil Court, London. ISBN 1 85273 0447
Kostrovitskaya, V., & Pisarev, A. (1995). School of classical dance (J. Barker, Trans. 2nd ed.). London, UK, MPG Books Ltd.: Dance Books Ltd.
The Vaganova Choreographic School During the War (WWII)*
By Vera Kostrovitskaya
June 1941. There were already no more lessons in the Choreographic School – just rehearsals. Everyone looked forward to the coming vacation, either in the South or here around Leningrad. The music from the radio wasn’t loud, but suddenly it became still. Then, the voice of an announcer: the German troops had crossed the Soviet border.
Everybody immediately became silent. What was heard wasn’t penetrating our consciousness. We were quiet a long time, but then began the excited questions: What must one do now?
The second day of the war came, then the third – and the tenth. The teachers and students continued to come to the school. Over the city hung barrage balloons, silvery oval balls (used to hide certain buildings from aerial attack). Here and there they were lying on the lower beds, resembling enormous sea monsters. From the radio came resounding marches and air alarms. Nobody was scared of them, for there were still no attacks from German aviation. The people with MPVO (local anti-air raid defense) insignias had to practically force the citizens to hide themselves in the bomb shelters and the trenches that had been made in the gardens.
July - August. Solitary fascist planes were getting over the city and dropped for a while only incendiary bombs, which the inhabitants learned how to make harmless. Preparation for evacuation was underway. In the school, a list was being made of those who wanted to leave. I had a dear old grandmother who couldn’t walk, and my mother had just gone through a serious illness; so we were remaining, certain that everything would not be so horrible and that we would live through it.
Very soon – still before the departure of the school, the help of blood donors was needed at the Institute. They were continuously bringing in the wounded and there were not enough working hands to wash the glass utensils. I spent several weeks in the basement of this Institute without pay, returning home only late in the evening hungry and tired; so I almost didn’t notice how the school and the Kirov theater were evacuated or how the face of the entire city was changing. Strips of white paper crossed the windows of the buildings. Because there were no streetlights, the evenings were dark. There were almost continuous air alarms and the roaring of our anti-aircraft artillery. Almost at once, all the stores became empty. At the bakeries, there were long lines. They gave out only black bread and had decreased the amount of that.
The school was unusually quiet. One didn’t hear the pianos or the class bells. The girls, who so recently had been running in the corridors and on the stairways in their dancing dresses, had departed along with the boys in knickers and sport shirts. Those few who had remained were all wrapped up, freezing and silent, shyly waiting and wondering whether there would be brought to the school that day the soup [made from green cabbage] called khryapy. The Choreographic School, properly speaking, no longer existed. There remained an "object" which by all means had to be protected.
There was the foyer with the assigned people on duty and the stairway leading to the fifth floor where there are two dancing halls, a corridor and the office in front of the director’s study. Into three or four small rooms in a square on the fourth floor had settled the few remaining students of the pedagogical department and an actress from the variety stage. All the other numerous rooms had been occupied by the staff of the MPVO. The doors were firmly locked, and we knew nothing of what took place there.
“We" were the elderly, lonely women who taught geography, Pavla Nikolaevna, a quiet, reticent woman; the librarian, Yaroslav Vladimirovich, a tall, thin, consumptive-looking man; and Aunt Nyusha and Aunt Lorochka, our old school nurses; the librarian in charge of the music library, Sergei Mikhailovich Loginov, a man with a big, kind heart; old Uncle Styepa with the dashing Ukrainian moustache, good-natured and happy, who spent his entire life in the school as janitor and custodian of the school theater; the secretary of the director, Valeria Semyonovna; the head of the unit and also the temporary director of the school, L.S. Tager, our former school superior; and the group of children that remained–a few boys from the intermediate classes and the senior girls.
All the school corners and the nearly empty attic were filled with boxes and sandbags. A stove appeared in the office with a pipe leading to a ventilating opening in the window top. Boiling water was on top of the stove and one kept close to it after many hours of duty in the attic. These duties became dangerous, for the Germans began to throw destructive demolition bombs on the city. However, into nobody’s head came the idea that they should sit in the protection of the bomb shelter. So, when the alarm signaled, everybody took their position by the telephone, the fire extinguishers, in the attic or on the roof. When a bomb fell nearby, the whole building shook and swayed like an enormous ship, for this was not a building built to last a hundred years; and we firmly believed that it must remain standing.
In the beginning of September, I started rehearsals with the group of remaining students. Daily announcements of small concerts came from the Directorate of Artistic Affairs. These had to be given in the departure stations for the military units leaving for the front and in hospitals. The concerts were accompanied by an accordion and were made up of two or three numbers that could be produced in any square place. A Moldava - Nyeska from Moldavia, a Caucasian Lezginka, an Hungarian Czardas and a simple Russian Gopak made up our entire repertory. Beginning to be exhausted by hunger and cold, one could invent nothing else. This small group gave over two hundred and fifty concerts during September and the first half of October.
Like the adults, the children were on duty for many hours keeping watch in the attic. They wanted to be useful.
From the end of October, several boys began to stay overnight in the dark corners of the corridors; because, after the air attacks, they had neither homes nor relatives. Exhausted by hunger and the increasingly freezing weather, others stopped coming. Day after day, I observed how their faces were getting more yellow and swollen. The concerts ceased.
There were almost no street cars, and the long trip by foot from Petrogradskaya became more and more difficult. It was 25 - 30° (centigrade) below freezing. The streets gradually were being covered by snow, which was so plentiful that mounds reached the first-floor windows. In the wide avenues, narrow paths had been tramped out in the snow and over them the exhausted people were slowly making their way to work.
I came to the school at nine o’clock in the morning. Life was concentrated there in the office by the stove. There were enough old textbooks and the necessary paper to supply heating fuel for a long time. Nobody complained about anything. They were barely walking but spoke only about the fact that soon it would be better.
In the institutions, they understood that if a man didn’t come to work then he either never would come or he would return many months later. In December, I could no longer go to duty. My strength was barely enough to go to the bakery for the rationed bread and to collect snow in the yard for the tea pot. The city was completely snowbound. It was 40° (centigrade) below and there was a frightful quietness on the streets and in the buildings. Against the white background of snow, those from outside the city were shivering terribly, their emaciated faces completely grey from grime and soot, but in them there was hope–a small addition to the bread ration was introduced. It meant that there would be life and the possibility to work again.
I started to go back to the school only in March. Everybody I had not seen for three months remained alive and had not lost their spirit, their faith in victory nor their hope for a better time. They dreamed of arranging a vegetable garden in the spring. This could be done in the city itself.
It became entirely light and the sun was warming; but this time the spring did not make the city attractive, for it exposed what during the winter had been hidden under the snow. There was an order in the city: "It is necessary to save Leningrad from an epidemic."
Awards were given to the school in the square near the Kazan Cathedral. Streetcar tracks were laid around and platforms were set up. We were six adults and two girls, and we rejoiced that we could get back to life again.
The snow mounds on the street were enormous and our strength was not much. Possibly the square would have to be cleared. The iron shovels were very heavy. With great pain we dug into the frozen mounds of snow, gradually throwing it onto the platforms; but as a result, in a few days we had cleared everything.
It became easier in April and at that time they added a little more bread to the ration, but the heavy dystrophy could not be handled right away. They opened "two-week stations" for the exhausted ones. By the presentation of a special tag, they were given half a liter of hot soup and two hundred grams of kasha. A station like this was opened for the school near the Philharmonia, and every one of us went there in turn during the two weeks.
Everyone spoke a lot about the resuscitation of Leningrad. The city and those remaining alive had half dead people who had to be revived. Having lived through such a winter, one could not give in either physically or morally right on the threshold of warmth and summer.
I don’t know into who's head came the idea of arranging the first concert in the Philharmonia in April and, in addition to that, with the participation of our school. It is true that there appeared several senior girls who had preserved relative health by working in the hospitals or by simply sitting out the winter at home. But everybody’s legs were caving in–legs covered with abscesses and blue spots from scurvy.
I sat directly on the floor in the dancing halls with the girls in fur coats and felt boots, for the chairs had disappeared. They had been burned apparently for fuel. We discussed what in the world we were to do.
Lusya Alekseyevna cried. She couldn’t get up onto pointe. So, we decided that she would dance a comical Russian number as a boy and Petya Kosarkov, our only man, would dress like a girl, for this way it would be easier for him. We would comically play up this number. Then Ira Kuznyetsova would dance a czardas with Petya. Everybody was saved by Vita Potyemkina, who declared that she was ready to get onto pointe in anything. It meant that there would be a "Dying Swan".
Instead of rehearsals, we were recalling all these numbers and agreeing which movements would be replaced by easier ones that would be more possible for the legs.
And there was the concert!
There comes to mind a small notice in the record of the school pedagogical council for the year 1940–V Class. Petya Kosarkov, a complete success."
This tall, fifteen-year-old boy, pink-cheeked and clean like a girl, was amazingly capable. He had a quiet, gentle character, big trusting eyes and prime physical health brightly and harmoniously expressed.
Yet he lived out of town in Ligovo [south-west of the city center]; and, during one of the days in the fall of 1941, after the concert and the duties in the attic, he wasn’t able to return home. Ligovo had been occupied by the Germans. The dormitory for the children of the school had not been organized yet, so he was sleeping wherever he could in inconspicuous corners on sandbags.
When I returned to the school in March, along the corridors, holding onto the walls, slowly moved the emaciated ghost of Petya Kosarkov. By then he had a cot, but more often he was sitting in a corner somewhere on a chair. He would be softly sighing, guiltily smiling with parched lips burnt with boiling water; and, when grownups passed by, he always would try to stand up to greet them.
Now Petya, after having been carefully made-up by me, was "dancing" two numbers. In order to support him a little bit, the girls were bringing him bread and a small amount of kasha in a glass jar.
The second section of the concert was composed of several musical numbers and art readings and performances by the famous artists of the Pushkin Theater, Zhelyeznova and Studyentsov.
Studyentsov saw how, in the first section, I was bringing Petya to the stage and taking him away and understood everything. He himself was barely moving and, before going out onto the stage, was half lying in a deep armchair. But during the entr’acte, having said something to his wife, he took out of the make-up box a neatly made little package wrapped up in a clean white napkin and, quietly caressing Petya, put this package in Petya’s pocket. It was a slice of bread acquired by the artist for the return trip.
Several days later, Petya and the two girls were sent to the children’s hospital. There they tried as much as possible to feed the children, and the girls returned to us after a month considerably fortified. Petya didn't return. What, after all, against the background of so many tragic deaths in this war, means the death of one boy–perfectly ordinary, who hasn’t left anything after him? But the heart for some reason remembers and contracts itself up to the present time.
WRITTEN IN 1973
Kostrovitskaya, V. (1994). The vaganova choreographic school during the war (J. Barker, Trans.). In Soubresaut (Vol. Eleven, pp. 16). New York, NY: John Barker.
Vera Kostrovitskaya’s Students and their Performances
Malika Sabirova High honors in the First International Competition for Ballet Artists (1969) in Moscow.
Marina Vassilieva Ballerina in Novosobirsk, Dean, Vaganova Ballet Academy
Leocadia Ashkelovicute Ballerina in Vilnius
Kostrovitskaya names the following three dancers as having mastered the School of Classical Dance
Irina A. Kolpakova Ballerina in Kirov Ballet and American Ballet Theater Coach.
Gabriela T. Komlieva Ballerina in Kirov Ballet and Ballet Mistress and Coach, Mariinsky Theatre; People’s Artist
Ksenia Ter-Stepanova Ballerina