Ballet Coach Alla Lagoda: “Brains and individuality are the main features of a dancer”

Alla Lagoda should be reasonably considered a star teacher. Most outstanding world-famous artists of their days are among her students. A former principal dancer of the National Opera of Ukraine and the Georgian National Opera and Ballet Theater in Tbilisi, Alla Lagoda, used to work as a teacher with Alexei Ratmansky, Irina Dvorovenko, Alina Cojocaru, Leonid Sarafanov, Iana Salenko, Katja Khaniukova, Olesya Shaytanova and currently keeps on training young hopefuls. In this interview she told us what her passion for the legacy of classics is, how a dancer can reach stardom, why a matured artist still needs a teacher, and what is happening to ballet in Ukraine right now.

Throughout centuries, time and life itself have been proving that Marius Petipa is holding the sparkling pinnacle and just looking down from his height. No one has managed to match him in some way. I bet there are plenty of talented ballet-masters, interesting works, but hardly could they reach him.

The classical legacy is still difficult to master for ballet dancers. The classics reveal the level of the dancer immediately. There are no fouettes and lifts in Sleeping Beauty – you just stand in arabesque and do a pas failli (Fr. pas failli – a kind of jump from two legs to one). If you don’t fix the arabesque, the pas faille fails and the shoulder is out of position.

We still read Homer and don’t copy Raphael. So, why would the classical ballet lose its value? Moreover, the dancer will have problems with modern productions without the classical basis.

If a ballet dancer wants to become a prima ballerina – a real one, an obvious principal dancer – many factors should coincide. But brains and individuality are the main features. Of course, it’s better, if there are more potentials and more just proportions. But the talent will exceed the drawbacks that everyone has. For example, Ulanova had a hanging knee. But she was Ulanova, and no one promoted her in media on purpose, as some people do nowadays.

That’s why there are a few stars in the ballet – the dancer having both potentials and charisma at the same time is a very rare phenomenon. Of course, one can put «stars» on the poster and sell tickets at or better. But it still means nothing.

The world ballet community is very close. Everybody knows each other: we know who danced, where, when and how they danced. So, all these honors, medals, titles that we like to award so much are a complete devaluation of the profession.

Brains can be educated. However, a fool will never become smart or a good dancer.

You have to be born with individuality. Nevertheless, if the dancer is intelligent and obedient, knows the technique perfectly and is not constrained with difficulties, it is easy to imitate individuality. But how is individuality manifested? It’s a burst, a gesture, and if there is a fall right after it, the seams become visible immediately.

Go to the stage and move the audience deeply at once. I saw Boris Bregvadze (a Soviet dancer, a principal dancer of the Kirov Theater, now it’s the Mariinsky Theater – editor’s note) dancing in Don Quixote. He was a little too old, bandy-legged, and slightly bald. But he appeared onstage – and that was it! It seemed no one else was onstage until the very end of the performance. It’s just impossible to forget! Or for example, when Vakhtang Chabukiani (a Soviet dancer, a ballet-master of the Georgian National Opera and Ballet Theater – editor’s note) was elderly and danced in Othello or Laurencia. There was no dance actually, I don’t know what was so special about his dance. But I couldn’t take my eyes off!

On the whole, they say as follows nowadays. If dancers are good, they say: «Oh, what a nice boy or girl». If something’s wrong, they say: «Oh, who do they work with? What was done to them?» But that’s fine.

There should be contact between the student and the teacher, the student should trust me totally. I never oppress, I don’t demand that everything must be only my way. I express my opinion and let loose, let go on a loose leash – try to do it, as you want. Well, it doesn’t work, does it? So, do as I say. A person should be free.

I BELIEVE in my students, one must always believe. They are all different. Someone should be pestered, somebody should be praised, others should be restrained.

I have very close relationships with my students. After all, I must take into account all their personal problems while working with them. We still keep in touch even now, when almost all of them have already succeeded in life and work all over the world. They ask for help, invite to visit them and watch their performances. When there was the evening with me (the anniversary gala concert of Alla Lagoda in the National Opera of Ukraine, in May 2017 – editor’s note), I didn’t invite anyone, they all just came.

I was very lucky because after the Second World War all teachers moved to Kiev from Leningrad. After all, there was always some kind of livelihood in Ukraine. And after the Siege of Leningrad, they came for a while and worked with us. They formed us up somehow. Then I went to Tbilisi to Chabukiani, he taught me a lot as well. He was old-school.

I think that the vision of the teacher is given by nature. Moreover, you get experience as time goes by. I helped my peers, when I was studying. I suggested how to make a certain move. Then the peers asked me for advice, even when they became teachers themselves.

I was familiarly acquainted with Maya Plisetskaya, and even she worked with the teacher to the last. The dancer always needs an outside point of view to fix the position, work on expressiveness. After all, you lose your stance and fall out of the image, if you constantly look in the mirror.

Previously, dancers cherished individuality most of all – it was not about being an athlete, it was all about being an artist. Then, they really improved the technique in the West: they made a high passe (Fr. passé – moving of the preferred leg from one open position to another), chaines (Fr. chaînés – a spin chain) on pointes, which we used to spin on demi-pointes. And now they tell their students: «Don’t look at the Russians». And who should they look at?

Of course, I watch videos, I see how the ballet develops. Especially male dance. I know who and how danced in New York, what they did and what innovation they brought. But still, there are the purest classical texts in St. Petersburg. And I don’t mean potentials, I mean the school.

A character dance is the achievement of Russian ballet. It’s impossible to forget the way they danced krakowiak in the opera “Ivan Susanin». This shouldn’t be changed, this should be studied, studied, studied. Once again, this is the old school. It means something. The folk stage dance is really bad in the West. I worked in Japan, they are not good at it at all. It is even funny to them. They don’t understand it.

I’ve been working at the opera house for 62 years and it’s the first time I see that no one wants to work here. Administrators should reckon on why this happens. It is a well-known theater, a calling card of the state. Chiefs of other theater companies engaged all graduates in Kyiv, and our management did nothing at all. It makes me very sad because people like me gave their lives and endless love to the theater. And we did it selflessly, by the way.

If you don’t love it, you mustn’t work and live here. If you love it, you can give your all to it.

When I was young I had a trauma, I thought that I wouldn’t dance anymore, and I even entered the university. I succeeded in studying English, but eventually I recovered quickly and decided to return to the stage. And the teacher told me: «Why do you need ballet? You will earn much more money, if you become an interpreter». And I responded: «You’ll never understand me. This is love. And money has nothing to do with it».

If you want to become a teacher, you must receive a good education and broaden your outlook constantly. Art, music, opera, history. It shouldn’t be the way we do it: you dance somewhere in Kherson and get a sheepskin.

As for me, I studied at the Russian University of Theatre Arts, full-time department. After classes, I put my books in my bag and went to the performance, at 09:50 p.m. I took the train and went home, and in the morning I went to my favorite teachers again. After classes, we got a recommended reading list, and we had a recitation the next time. I mean, we really studied. And our university of culture (Kyiv National University of Culture and Arts – editor’s note) is such kitsch!

We must learn from good dancers: we shouldn’t simply watch what they do, we should see it.

I study every day. For example, now I rehearse with a man – all my female dancers have joined foreign companies. I listen to remarks because I have never lifted or held a woman, I have never been a male partner. But I know the expert text and techniques very well. You should be able to tell everything to the student and explain how to do it.

I have 23 top prize winners with medals. I have never been mistaken.

Everything fascinates me in the profession of a teacher. It feels like bliss for me, when the students come onstage and do what I want, the audience greets them, they get good reviews, they get loads of ​​invitations, and they are in demand everywhere.

The corps de ballet also wants to succeed. For example, sometimes they dance shadows so well in La Bayadere that the audience doesn’t let them go. Dancers are very happy about that, they want to go on stage and continue to study. They know that it’s only for better, if they accomplish my tasks.

I work with a classical legacy. This is my love, the only true love for life. I can’t imagine another life for me.

I’m not capable of putting a ballet on stage at all. Baryshnikov was once asked: «You are such a great man. Why don’t you stage performances?» And he replied: «Because everyone else does it much better than me!»

Competent choreography is when the movements are set in such a way that a trained dancer can easily perform them, when there are no wrinkles, and nothing disturbs the audience. First of all, the choreography should excite at the emotional level.

Why is there no strong classical school in Ukraine anymore? They didn’t save it, so it wasn’t saved. This is the case when the house doesn’t need to be cleaned, the main thing is not to litter there.

If I start training the dancer that used to work with another teacher, I try not to retrain them. Still, there is some kind of professional ethics. But it’s better to start teaching the raw material: 15-16 year old girls and boys that weren’t touched by other teachers’ remarks. Sometimes, I wait for them in the theater on purpose.

It’s good when graduates have the base, the basis for work. But nowadays, the incompetence is widely spread. Specialized schools are almost equal to the amateur performances, they supply us with unqualified performers. And everyone in the theater just doesn’t care. Nobody keeps the talented ones.

Musicality is an essential condition for the dancer. Now they don’t even teach music at specialized schools. As for me, in the 8th grade I performed Impromptu by Schubert on TV. We were taught this. It was simply ridiculous if the student couldn’t keep up with the beat. After all, even muscles work properly then. They must always move strictly to the beat. If you don’t move to the beat, you lag behind somewhere. This is the case of the ballet in Kyiv.

I love modern choreography. But now basically everyone is lying on the floor, in the dark, in leotards, and they constantly move their arms rather than legs. I don’t think it’s a real dance. These are body movements.

I don’t train children, it’s a rough labor.

I had so many stories with boys on contests! We arrive, and there is a pretty girl, and that’s it, the competition is over. I can’t find him anywhere from now on. I arrived with one boy, and he won the grand prix. They call him on stage to award him, but he is not there. But there are a lot of acquainted teachers from different countries at the competitions, and one comes up to me and says: «Don’t worry. Your boy is with my girl under the stairs». Well, thanks for winning the grand prix at least! The girl will never run away. She’ll hang out a little, but she won’t run away. And these boys…

You can turn a cobblestone into a good brick, and a rough diamond can be turned into a cut diamond. Bricks are very necessary, but you can’t make cut diamonds from them!

 

Photo: Vadim Khudoliy