Vera Volkova - Looking and Seeing
by Alexander Meinertz
26 June 2010
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Vera Volkova (1905-74) was a unique figure in 20th Century ballet. Brought up in imperial Saint Petersburg as one of the last “Brides of the Czar” - an epithet used for girl students at the Smolny Institute for noblewomen - the 1917 Revolution catapulted the privileged girl from her protected life into the chaotic and passionate world of ballet, where she studied intensely with Agrippina Vaganova, Maria Romanova (Galina Ulanova’s mother) and Nicolai Legat, both as a private pupil and at the now-forgotten School of Russian Ballet. The latter School play an important role in the battle for the survival of classical dance, in the years immediately following the Revolution.
Living at the centre of Russia’s doomed intelligentsia as the protégée of the School of Russian Ballet’s founder, the philosopher and critic Achim Volynsky, Volkova carried his secret legacy with her when she fled to Shanghai in 1929, and then to London in 1937.
From this fount of knowledge – part traditional, part innovative and unique - she influenced the European ballet world for almost four decades as advisor, friend and, above all, teacher to iconic figures from Margot Fonteyn, Erik Bruhn and Rudolf Nureyev to Sir Frederick Ashton and John Neumeier. Perhaps her most important and controversial contribution was the work she did with the Royal Danish Ballet over 25 years, reviving and transforming the moribund company and its distinct Bournonville style of dancing.
Invitations to teach in the US, Canada, Australia and South Africa further extended her teaching. Self-effacing and intensely private, her story remained a well-kept secret nonetheless, and her system personal to her although many of her most prominent collaborators – Henning Kronstam, Erik Bruhn, Stanley Williams, Flemming Ryberg and more – went on to promote her teachings and certain of her ideas.
In the Anglo-Saxon world, because she had studied with Vaganova, Volkova became known as the professor who brought Vaganova technique to the West, although Volkova herself pointed out that she had left Soviet Russia as early as 1929, before Vaganova had codified her system, that she had studied with Vaganova to become a dancer, not a teacher, and had not absorbed the latter’s method with an eye to teaching herself.
Watching how Vaganova had worked, however, Volkova had seen how a system could be developed in an almost scientific way and this served as her inspiration in the years before World War II, when she began investigating and studying with almost every teacher working in London. In Paris in 1939, she worked with every teacher living there, from Egorova and Preobrazhenskaya to Leonid Massine, and the eclectic Boris Kniasseff who claimed that he gave the classes his wife Olga Spessivtseva took every day. At La Scala in Milan, where she was appointed head of the ballet in 1950, she scrutinised the classes, consulted the old teachers and analysed the published works and notes by Carlo Blasis.
Working in Copenhagen from 1951 to her death in 1975, she conducted a great historical experiment, consciously creating a new Danish School, blending the traditional Danish School, based on Bournonville, and the Russian Schools, just as Vaganova had merged the old French School with the Italian to create the Vaganova Method a generation before.
By 1964, she had taught for almost 24 years, and had studied practically all the existing schools; she therefore began to write down a curriculum with publication in mind. For reasons unknown, she abandoned the task.
Although the fragile legacy of her teaching has, for the most part, been lost, scholarly interest has kept her name alive. Work is underway to reconstruct classes, and identify the guiding principles behind her teaching. There exists a set of notes entitled Some Fundamentals, as well as a comprehensive set of notes for a curriculum she conceived for the ballet school at La Scala during her time in Milan. Audrey Harman, who had been her student at the West Street studio in London, painstakingly noted down Volkova’s classes, daily, for nigh-on two years. (Unfortunately, Miss Harman died shortly after suffering a traffic accident in 2007, before she could publish the notes, that she was carrying in her briefcase at the time – editor’s note).
These, and other sources including notebooks from Volkova’s own hand, form the basis of work done by Professor Archibald McKenzie in Australia.
While it might be possible to distil from all the above, a rough idea of Volkova’s principles and certain specific technical points, what cannot be mapped or copied is her humanity, inspiration and vision. To David Moroni, former Director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School, Volkova had arrived at “the truth about classical training”.
From conversations with her former students, her exceptional charisma as a teacher is unmistakeable. What they remember most vividly is the imagery, which was so specific to her, and an important vehicle both in getting technical points across, and in imbuing dance and movement with expressive quality - a mysterious fusion of aesthetics, ethics and technique where the “the Beautiful” and “the Good” become hard or impossible to separate. It is a concept typical to 19th Century thought, and close to the heart of Russian Symbolism as advocated at the School of Russian Ballet where Volkova herself had studied.
She felt that as a teacher she was responsible for her students not just as students but also “as people”. “I will not have injuries in my class. It is a great responsibility”, she said, but her involvement went beyond the classroom, and beyond the physical. She believed classical ballet to be as intensely technical as it is deeply personal,. To her, life as an artist is inseparable from one’s private life. Intent on the students’ well-being, she encouraged them to further their education in other domains of art and ideas.
Her vision – and ambition – were greater than those entertained by most teachers, and in this, were probably shaped by the high-minded ideals of Achim Volynsky. Amazingly, he had identified Volkova’s talent for teaching at a young age, and wrote of her potential to become “an entirely new kind of teacher in the sphere of ballet”. He came to see her as a “bearer” of the School of Russian Ballet’s ideals and a keeper of its traditions, calling her “heiress of all our hopes”.
Volynsky wrote that any artist’s greatest talent is “the ability to mould the materials of the outer world … into images of a precisely-apprehended inner world”.
Inspired by Immanuel Kant, Volynsky lectured on the power of “apperception”: the dancer must have a degree of self-awareness, if he is to express inner emotion through the external means of a dance movement. The inner spirit both inspires the movement, and is expressed by it. Apperception is the spirit’s instrument, and manifests itself, for example, in outwardly-turned positions, or in verticality.
“What we can discern about the hands, we can also see in the eyes,” he wrote.
“They are always as if closed, looking inward, looking and not seeing what is happening around them. Then an act of will occurs, ‘apperception’ as it is called in psychology, and the eyes that were not shut but not watching, open in actuality. They look and see.”