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Interview with Maya Popova, Modern Dance Teacher at the Vaganova Academy

by Catherine Pawlick

October 20, 2006 -- St. Petersburg, Russia

“Their constant strife to improve is a pledge to continuously increase one’s competency. The alternative would be decline. It sounds strange to say this profession isn’t intellectual. I think dance is one of the most intellectual professions there is. For a dancer, it is his life, a means to relate to the world. It demands his soul, his intellect, and spiritual attention.”

I’m listening to Maya Yurievna Popova, the modern dance teacher at the Vaganova Academy. We’re ensconced in a cozy corner of a café near the Academy, discussing her work and modern dance in Russia.

“Sasha is an intelligent, analytical dancer, for example, and if you talk to him this becomes apparent. This will be the third year my students have been on the Maryinsky stage, and it is wonderful to see them.”

She is referring to Alexander Sergeev, a recent Vaganova graduate who learned the male lead in William Forsythe’s “Approximate Sonata” during his first year with the company and debuted in the role on November 1, 2005. Since then he has added the role of Espada from “Don Quixote” to his repertoire, and was nominated at the age of 19 for a Golden Mask award, dance’s most prestigious prize in Russia. This past spring Sergeev danced alongside budding star Olesya Novikova in the premiere of a short, modern work to Leonid Desyatnikov’s genius score, entitled “Swan’s Way”, created by Mariinsky resident choreographer Alexei Miroshnichenko. In short, Sergeev is one to watch, and Maya is pleased. “It is a subject of my pride to see my students on stage because … there is a freer dancer. My work doesn’t guarantee that Forsythe will be lighter or easier to dance. For any artist, Forsythe will be hard, it just isn’t comfortable choreography. But I can give them the key, and if they have the key, it is easier to ‘unlock’ the choreography.”

For dancers drilled for eight years on the tenets of classical ballet in its strictest terms, the challenge of switching to the dynamics of modern movement can be a great one. The pride of the Mariinsky Theatre, its corps de ballet, has gained historical recognition precisely, one may argue, for their ability to suppress individualism and present uniformity to the audience night after night. It is Maya’s job to ease that transition and broaden the scope of their movement possibilities.

“Classical ballet also demands individuality from a dancer. But the load is so big – repertoire, technique, classes, and the history of ballet – and the pressures on the students so great, that individuality is not always easy to feel inside. Modern helps bring out individualism, as well as a greater understanding of movement.”

Clearly, uncovering individual means of expression is an invaluable component of the modern dance curriculum within the Vaganova Academy.

Maya is young, small in stature, with auburn hair, and clear, understanding eyes. At first glance she doesn’t strike you as the ballerina type, although her arm gestures, infused with grace, and her stride, slightly turned out, hint at her background. Her relaxed, unassuming nature underlines that she is a modern dancer. I inquire about her studies to learn about where she began her dance career.

“I received a master’s degree from the Rimsky Korsakov Conservatory as [a] ballet director with a specialization as [a] choreographer. The Conservatory doesn’t have a modern department as their focus is on classical repertoire, so my education is about 90% classically related. But for the past 15 years I’ve had outside supplementary education with modern dance. I’ve attended different master classes and festivals, twice participated in European contact improvisation conferences and once given my own master classes in contact improvisation in St. Petersburg, Florida.” She also just completed her third year of study towards an additional teacher’s diploma from the Vaganova Academy, for which she is writing a thesis on the relationship of form to movement and how it relates to psychological processes.

“But,” she says explanatorily, interrupting herself, “I would emphasize that it is less important where I studied than how I work. The Conservatory gave me a good professional base, because in any case it is a professional education, even if it isn’t modern. It covers everything related to dance.”

Following graduation, she taught at the Conservatory while also dancing for the St. Petersburg State Musical-Dramatic Theatre BUFF. She worked in both capacities for two years before joining the staff at the Vaganova Academy. She explains the transition.

“Alexander Mikhailovich Polubentsev, a choreographer who taught me during my master’s program, knew that I wanted to teach modern. He recommended that I meet with Altynai Abduakhimovna. She told me what she wanted, and I started to teach.

“Modern had existed in the Vaganova Academy before me, but it had been taught by people who also worked in the music hall and who saw modern dance as a distraction of some sort. It was more like jazz that they were doing, but even true jazz doesn’t relate to it. So, earlier, these lessons were oriented not to what the students needed, but to what the teacher wanted to give. Fortunately I know how it should look ... and now it looks like modern dance.

“I definitely include contact improvisation in the classes. You can’t do that all year long of course, because I have limited time, but each student is exposed to it. I didn’t think they would like it, I thought they’d not want to do it. But Altynai Abduakhimovna considers it essential, and now it is in the program.”

Maya emphasizes that Assylmuratova’s belief in the importance of modern dance as a component of the Vaganova education stems in part from her own exposure to it during her career. Assylmuratova worked with Roland Petite previously, and starred with Farukh Ruzimatov in a dance film by Maurice Bejart, “White Nights”, in 1985. While the two choreographers aren’t extreme post-modernists, when compared to Petipa and Fokine, and for a Soviet era ballerina, the two qualify as contemporary.

Maya speaks to me more about her students, and it becomes clear from her enthusiasm that they are her greatest inspiration. Anton Valdbauer, who graduated in 2003, just began his first season with Netherlands Dance Theatre I, following some dance internships elsewhere in Europe. “This was his dream, to dance with a European company,” she explains. “And that process of natural growth, of blossoming as a human being is a beautiful, poetic one. It’s at once universal and individual. To facilitate it, to help a student find himself and achieve professionalism in the realm of modern dance, is extremely gratifying.”

“My first year at the Academy the students were happy because they knew they were my first group. I had four classes that started their modern dance experience with me; I was their first exposure to it. I had four other classes who had had some previous modern dance training or exposure. Those who had had modern previously had been doing everything in jazz shoes until that point.”

One wonders how a budding professional dancer, bent on joining the Maryinsky or another classical troupe, and surrounded by the history of the Vaganova Academy every day, would react to these non-classical dance classes. Maya advises that they in fact enjoy the break from the classical focus.

“One of my students came to me after class and said he feels better after modern. I told him, ‘that is how it should be.’ If a student thinks modern dance isn’t helpful and decides to skip class, that’s a personal decision of course, but it is rare. They can’t skip all the time because they have to pass a modern exam as part of their graduation process.”

Until now those exams have taken place one year early, after the students’ seventh year of study, leaving the eighth year completely focused on the classical syllabus. Starting with the fall semester in 2007, the Vaganova Academy will be extending its course of study to nine years in length, in tandem with a governmental initiative aimed at aligning Russian educational institutions with European systems. At that point modern will be added back into the syllabus during the final year of study, so that both classical and modern exams will take place at the same time. Additionally, upon Maya’s request, a second modern teacher has been added to the Academy’s staff this year. The new addition will provide a means of collaboration in developing the modern program at the Academy and also help to ease Maya’s teaching load, which recently peaked at 40 classes per week.

“Six years ago, modern had only existed in the Vaganova Academy for two years. Now we have almost ten years of modern dance classes behind us. At first they asked me how much time I would need for the modern exams. Before I began teaching at the Academy, one exam for two classes would take 30 minutes; the students were in and out quickly. But I have 40-45 students per level now, and now the exam is in the standard form, about one to two hours for one group. During the first set of exams, the exam observers asked why the students were barefoot. ‘Isn’t it harmful?’ they asked.”

In a school whose origins herald from 1738, traditional views still persist. This has proven an additional challenge for Maya, who is at least 25 years younger than most of the Academy staff. In fact, she is often mistaken for one of the students.

I inquire as to what her typical class load is like.

“Currently I have four classes. My youngest students are 14 years old. The last three years of their education at the Academy they have modern classes, starting with the fifth year and going thru the eighth.

“This is my sixth year of work here and the other teachers relate well to it now, they’re supportive. They also consider modern necessary and helpful in dance education. Altynai’s certainty that modern was needed has also been very helpful to me.

“It goes without saying that the Academy offers excellent dance training. Now modern dance supplements that classical base. In other schools modern is given for one, maybe two years, maximum. But the fact that we have it for three years here is a big advantage for our students.”

We pause to order tea and I ask Maya how the students change in the course of those three years. Is there any visible result in the end?

“Older students learn faster and understand what is needed,” she explains. “Several times in that third year those who were previously slower have managed to catch up and surpass the others. Yes, a big difference is seen at the end of their studies: coordination is vastly improved. It is hard when they first start, because at that point it is not visibly modern. But by the end of the three years, they’re used to it, and deep in their souls they think it is important. When they finish their course of study in the seventh class, modern dance is no longer a surprise to them, the students have a comfortable relationship to it. Some have even said that they want to focus only on modern dance. This isn’t my goal – to convert them to modern dance – but it shows a person who has felt a connection to that type of movement. One student said he only feels his soul in modern. So, for many it becomes more than a subject they have to study, more than just a part of their routine program.”

But Maya underlines that the process isn’t always trouble-free. “This isn’t to say it is easy for them. Difficulties arise in contact improvisation because everything else, in all their other classes, is choreographed for them. Here they have to improvise, which it isn’t a physical difficulty – they are more than capable – but it is an intellectual and creative challenge. Before, they may have wondered why modern was needed, but now they understand: it is an organic part of their dance education.”

Maya explains that the atmosphere of the Academy is very much like an extended family. Close relationships form between the students and their teachers over the course of the eight-year period. One would assume that would pose difficulties upon graduation, when it becomes time to part ways. Maya illustrates the situation with an apt metaphor.

”Sure it’s difficult, but that is purely based on emotion. If you have a beautiful bird in a cage, and it eats whatever you feed it everyday, sure, you could keep it locked up in the cage and look at it every day, but you’re only stifling the bird. Once you set something in motion, if you’ve prepared it well enough, it will continue on in motion, further, to achieve greater things. That’s how I view my students. It is the teacher’s responsibility to share our knowledge and help the students open themselves up. It isn’t my goal to create clones, dancers who think or dance like I do. It is our job to give them the foundation, prepare them well, and then set them free. I know deep down they can always come back to me if need be.”

Maya underlines that, given the age range of her students, the knowledge base required for her teaching is not limited only to dance. “Psychology, physiology, biology, life experience in general is really needed in order to understand how to approach 14- and 15-year-olds. Last summer my youngest group was still children. They returned this fall and they’re adolescents – the entire dynamic between the boys and girls in the classroom has changed in the span of three months. You have to be prepared to deal with that.”

I’m interested to learn what techniques or choreographers have influenced Maya, and what she focuses on in the classroom.

“I try to integrate different techniques into my classes,” she says. “Graham, Cunningham, and others. There are basics the students need to learn: contractions, flat back, curved back. Post-modern dance comes from both Graham and Cunningham, so sometimes it is hard to pinpoint the source of a certain movement, but I try to use all of them and synthesize them together. At one point I chose modern and post-modern as my focus and left jazz out of it, but depending on desire and mood I may integrate it back in. Generally though, jazz comprises a small percent of my teaching.

“How to get in and out of thematic movement is important. Graham is tight. In modern, less is more. The tension is less, the strain is lower so that the effect is greater. Modern, post-modern, and contact improvisation – these are the best for developing a dancer. Jazz is good to know for energy, strength, and emotion.”

Maya’s explanation was supplemented with the opportunity to watch one of her classes. In a sunny, fifth-floor studio of the Vaganova School, with arched windows that stem from the floor, about fifteen students of Level Six gather for their third class of the school year. Indeed there is no pretense of classical ballet during the lesson. Some of the students have bare feet, others wear socks or slippers, and all have on jazz pants or leg warmers of some sort. The focus for this hour and a half is the use of a stomach contraction as an impetus for movement, rolling from an open, lying position to a closed, fetal position. Many of the students grasp the concept the first time, others struggle with the turned-in lines and unflaired feet. The common tendency is to repeat the classical tenets they are drilled on daily, for eight years. It’s Maya’s job is to release them from that habit. One tall, lithe, dark-haired girl dances the combination particularly beautifully, and Maya herself comments on the achievement. Towards the end of the lesson, Maya gives them a longer combination using contractions and the momentum of swinging limbs. It becomes clear in the course of their work that this sort of physical awareness is necessary not only for modern dance, but for some of classical ballet’s most well-known roles as well. One can imagine it useful, for example, in preparations for the final scene of Romeo and Juliet, where a limp body being rolled or dragged on the floor is paramount to the libretto.

“The more a person knows about his body, and its possibilities, the better he or she dances,” Maya continues. “Modern has developmental functions. The best theatre in the world, the Maryinsky, has Forsythe and other modern choreographers in its repertoire and the students have to know how to dance them.”

Given the Maryinsky’s recent additions to their repertoire (“Approximate Sonata” - 2005; “Steptext”, “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude”, “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” - March 2004), I ask Maya if she finds his work more balletic or more modern.

“It’s hard to divide ballet and modern because all leading choreographers in the world now tend to use a fusion of the two. I tend to think that if there is a synthesis of classical and modern, and contact improv, and if it isn’t done in pointe shoes, then it can be modern. Even despite the pointe shoes, based purely on the idea of what occurs in space in Forsythe’s works, it is modern in my point of view. Forsythe uses classical dance and classical ballet and gives movements new perspective, new life. Classical music finds new meaning. It’s like a classical ballet, only shifted, and it incorporates a lot of improvisation as well. He creates a unique wonder, he takes a step, twists it, and puts it back in. He deforms it, but somehow it becomes beautiful in the process.”

All of these modern dance influences and exposures are still fairly new to Russia. I inquire about how things have changed in the past ten or twenty years in terms of dance.

“Our country lives differently now,” Maya explains. “Usually artists’ reaction is the line that ‘classical is best, modern is not needed.’ Or, they think ‘it’s great that you have modern but you have to be born in the USA and dance that way from childhood to really understand and master it.’ Because when adults encounter modern dance for the first time, they’re already formed humans, already adults, and it is hard to change and accept it.

“But currently, most of those who are exposed to modern dance avoid this complex. It doesn’t mean they love it, but their relationship to it is different. ‘I can’t’ isn’t in their vocabulary. To accomplish it, they have to work hard. The richness of classical ballet has its limits nonetheless, and young artists can expand their repertoire to include modern dance now, which wasn’t an option twenty years ago. Artists who touch modern dance from childhood open something up within themselves, and will be more open in their dancing in the future.

“Great artists like Baryshnikov and Makarova are a subject of world pride. But I think they left Russia not for the money but to be freer in their choice of repertoire. Modern choreography means a wider repertoire; it’s a greater achievement if you can dance Robins and Balanchine and Forsythe and Kilijan too. Now in Russia there is ample choice, there’s no need to leave your native country forever in order to try out these choreographers’ works. In this profession it is necessary to develop. In life, if you stay in one place and stagnate it is hard to be happy.”

“If we had a different director now, things might be different. Altynai couldn’t be better; she is great. She is objective in relation to form. She always wants the students to be better, and I share that goal. Without her help these modern classes would not have happened; she is the only person who has never suggested to shorten or speed up my lessons. She has always wanted more: harder, more serious. She’s interested in the results, and so am I.”

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