The New Détente
January 3, 2011

Valentina Kozlova is a winning envoy to the grand Russian tradition.

Valentina Kozlova demonstrates from Grand Pas Classique for her student, Veronica Verterich.

In a studio with garnet red walls that evoke a belle époque parlor, Valentina Kozlova coaches 16-year-old Veronica Verterich in the Grand Pas Classique. Kozlova danced Classique when it received its premiere with the Bolshoi Ballet. Now she is preparing her student, who will perform the solo in Moscow in two weeks’ time. Historic continuity is in the making. Classique is a proving ground for generations of dancers; it requires regal confidence. Verterich’s long lines recall Kozlova’s, but in rehearsal Verterich’s near-perfect execution of the steps is offset by her facial shyness. “Stronger eyes!” demands Kozlova. Then she demonstrates for Verterich two ways of coordinating a lift of the eyes with a drop of one shoulder (one is certain, the other coy). She asks Verterich to try both and pick the stronger of the two. “Ballet dancers today have everything technically,” says Kozlova. “The difference is which one of them comes across onstage?” Which one, she suggests, will become a dramatic dancer? 

After defecting from the Soviet Union in 1979 and immersing herself in the work of contemporary European and American choreographers, Kozlova has returned to her native Russian roots, where narrative rather than abstract ballets reign. Her hard-earned artistry is shaped by Imperial-era ballets like Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty and by training principles handed down to her through a 273-year-old Russian ballet tradition. Since she retired from New York City Ballet in 1995, Kozlova has created a niche for herself as a teacher and coach in the Vaganova tradition, distinctive for its expressive use of the upper body and face. When dancers embrace Kozlova’s approach, they apprentice to a specific style and that tradition.

Known as a performer of golden luminosity, Kozlova’s vitality now streams through her bevy of young dancers, some of whom are winning medals. (In 2008 former student Whitney Jensen was the youngest dancer to win the rarely bestowed Special Distinction Medal and Diploma at the Varna International Ballet Competition.) Kozlova says she coaches as she was coached in Russia: through “hands-on, one-to-one training” where the steps are not sacrosanct. “In Russia,” she explains, “the dancers are given material tailored to their abilities. There is no standard or set version of the choreography.” What is paramount is the relationship formed between a coach and a dancer. It was former Bolshoi principal dancer Raisa Struchkova who helped Kozlova find her voice in roles synonymous with late, great dancers. Now, she is passing on her experience to her protégées.

Kozlova’s decision to dedicate herself to teaching and coaching came after a three-decade-long performance career. At age 11, she was dancing small solos at the Bolshoi Theatre. In her early 20s, she was a Bolshoi Ballet principal dancer. In her mid-20s, she globe-trotted as a guest artist, performing lead roles in well-known works such as Don Quixote and La Bayadère. This four-year period (1979–1983) following her defection from the Soviet Union with former husband Leonid Kozlov was challenging. The couple declared themselves to U.S. authorities during the Los Angeles leg
of a Bolshoi Ballet tour and soon after made a home in Englewood, New Jersey, and began learning English.

In 1983, they joined New York City Ballet as principals. Kozlova’s critically hailed performances involved leads in ballets buoyed by narratives, such as Balanchine’s Slaughter on Tenth Avenue and Swan Lake, and in Eliot Feld’s The Unanswered Question. Because individualized coaching isn’t consistently practiced at NYCB, Kozlova coached herself, sometimes with the aid of a video camera. “She was a fish out of water,” says former New York City Ballet principal dancer Philip Neal, who began dancing with Kozlova at the beginning of his career. Neal treasured her artistry and their partnership onstage. “She was very interested in how I progressed.”

Progress plays itself out daily on the fifth floor of a building in midtown Manhattan, where, in 2003, Kozlova established the Valentina Kozlova Dance Conservatory of New York, modeled after the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet. With two studios, three dressing rooms, a waiting room and an office, the school isn’t big. But grandeur radiates from the walls. In photographs, Kozlova and her prized students strike arabesques and arch their backs luxuriantly. Fifty students are accepted by audition only and are divided into four training levels, from pre-ballet to apprenticeship. The faculty of eight teachers, whom Kozlova supervises closely, teach classes in ballet, pointe, contemporary and Russian gymnastics. The majority of Kozlova’s students attend the conservatory six days a week; they go to private coaching sessions with Kozlova, and they take part in ensemble rehearsals with resident choreographer Margo Sappington. Kozlova believes pre-professional students need more performance opportunities than the two shows per year that the school produces. Competitions are the next best thing. “Younger students need a deadline,” she says.

At the Bolshoi, Kozlova says she was always preparing for a performance. The practice made her mature rapidly as a dancer. The corrections she received there were direct, sometimes stern because, she says, “there was no time to waste.” She tells her students the same thing her teachers told her: “Don’t wait for me to chew and swallow for you. I can explain. I can teach. But I cannot be your nurse after you have achieved a certain age—and certain results. You are now in the big world.” She understands that though the ballet world is about magic and love—it also entails adult responsibilities. Ballet competitions, Kozlova says, put dancers on a fast track to becoming adults and professionals. They give young talents opportunity to become “emotionally stronger, develop artistic qualities, see what’s going on in the field—and be seen.”

With this in mind, Kozlova announced last September the launch of the Boston International Ballet Competition (May 12–16). The question on everyone’s lips—including Boston Ballet Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen, who will be the jury president—is whether the world needs another ballet competition. Kozlova believes that it does, specifically because her competition will offer a student division, where dancers ages 13 and 14 can compete. Most ballet competitions open their doors to dancers when they turn 15. But as with the trend in figure skating, Kozlova says, 13- and 14-year-olds can be “pushed to a technical level beyond their years,” and should be given the opportunity to perform short variations.

Besides jury president Nissinen, judges for 2011 BIBC will be Hae Shik Kim (South Korea), Andris Liepa (Russia), Maria Luisa Noronha (Brazil), Violette Verdy (France) and Septime Webre (U.S.). Margo Sappington will choreograph and teach the compulsory contemporary solo to the women participants; Edwaard Liang will do the same for the men. The participants (no more than 120) will take part in a master class taught by former Bolshoi Ballet principal Alex Lapshin. The gala on May 16 could feature up to 20 prizewinners. The highest honor offered will be the grand prix with a $4,000 honorarium.

Despite Nissinen’s reservations about the formation of another ballet competition, he says he is backing this one because Kozlova is in the driver’s seat. He finds her ability to quickly produce high-caliber dancers particularly compelling. Several of Kozlova’s students have been accepted into major ballet companies. Whitney Jensen is a demi-soloist with Boston Ballet; April Giangeruso is a corps members of American Ballet Theatre and Skylar Brandt is a member of ABT II. Their training included the kind of exercises, which Kozlova teaches six days a week, that are long and grueling and reminiscent of those seen in the 1977 Vaganova Academy documentary called The Children of Theatre Street.

During one of Kozlova’s advanced-level classes, 14 dancers (ages 12 to 22) execute a four-minute center adagio with multiple promenades, a succession of turns (in arabesque, attitude, passé), développés galore, an explosion of échappés and circular walks demanding charismatic hauteur. Kozlova’s students seem to love the challenge. But what distinguishes this scene from that of the Vaganova Academy is Kozlova—demonstrating in orange flip-flops with a CD remote in her hand.

However, what does make Kozlova’s class a twin of the Vaganova Academy’s is its concluding moment, when the students individually curtsy to their master. Kozlova acknowledges each dancer with an eye-to-eye affirmation. This ritual underscores the tradition, where technique, expression and dramatic nuance are passed from one generation to the next. “Valentina reminds me of designer Bill Blass,” says her former partner Neal. “He kept doing what he did regardless of what was happening in the fashion world. Valentina has a vision of classical ballet and she has stuck with it.” And now it will be up to her students to take that vision into the future. DT

Rachel Straus is a scholar in residence for Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.

Photo by Rachel Papo

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