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East Meets West in Washington D.C: Marat Daukayev

by Catherine Pawlick

Published June 2009

With his distinguished bearing and unflinching grey-green eyes, Marat Daukayev cuts a sharp figure standing at the front of the ballet studio in San Jose, California. This is just one of many auditions he will hold during his audition tour for the Kirov Academy of Ballet, in Washington D.C., where Daukayev is the new artistic director.

As his finely trained eye scans the aspiring students in the room for a series of strict criteria, it is clear that Daukayev’s knowledge is by now engrained. For 20 years he starred in St. Petersburg, Russia on the Kirov’s famed stage, and was subsequently named People’s Artist of Russia, the highest honor bestowed by the Russian State. At the summit of his profession, he retired from performing and became a highly sought-after teacher and coach to Kirov principal dancers. With perestroika, Daukayev came to America, first acting as Ballet Master for Colorado Ballet, and later establishing his own school in Los Angeles, the Marat Daukayev School of Ballet, which he still manages from afar.

After the auditions for several age groups, we meet in the lobby of his San Jose hotel at the end of a long Saturday. Daukayev seems tireless despite his constant travel schedule. Several other cities still await him on this tour. Still, he is happy to discuss his new position.

“I am very thankful for the opportunity to continue to work with Oleg (Vinogradov),” he says. “He was my director at the Kirov for all the years I danced in Russia, and his knowledge of ballet is immense. It is an honor to carry on our tradition of Russian classical ballet here in America.”

Tradition, indeed, is the name of the game in an institution tied to the famous Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg, Russia, responsible for creating such great stars as Anna Pavlova, Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Natalia Makarova, and, more recently, Farukh Ruzimatov and Diana Vishneva.

“The Mariinsky Ballet has a rich repertoire,” Daukayev comments. “In so many years of existence, many ballets have been lost, but the classics as we know them today —‘Swan Lake,’ ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ ‘Bayadère,’ ‘Nutcracker’ — those remain. Only the Kirov dances the originals — insofar as they adhere to the notes of their creators. These works are the foundation and the face of the Petersburg ballet phenomenon.”

However, while Daukayev is a product of both the Vaganova School and the Kirov stage, he has also been shaped by the experience of working in America and a lifetime of touring the world. He is reinvigorating the school through his inspiring presence, a deep knowledge of and dedication to art, and even his connections to the international ballet world. He is, in effect, bringing part of the rich Russian ballet tradition to Washington D.C. Look for him any day and you are as likely to find him in the studio as behind a desk.

“The sine quo non for a dancer is professional training,” he says. “Once the details are in your blood and your bone, they shape every move you make. A dancer with Vaganova training can perform Balanchine, Forsythe or Graham because they have the fundamental preparation for it. It’s like any other kind of education--you don’t think about it, but it informs everything you do, even the way you think and feel.”

The main requirements for teachers at the Kirov Academy, Daukayev says, are “talent, love for children, love of ballet, and the interest in deepening one’s own grasp of methodology. I respect all of our teachers deeply.”

He points out that all the Academy’s teachers offer a profound knowledge of Vaganova technique.

“One of our most respected teachers, Ludmila Morkovina, was, as a child, a student of Agrippina Vaganova herself, who created this system of ballet training. Morkovina has been with the school for 19 years. While she is a treasure chest of traditional knowledge, she loves to learn and is receptive to new ideas about the process of creating a dancer. This desire to learn and to improve one’s craftsmanship is crucial to maintain one’s growth as a teacher. Ballet is a living art transmitted from hand to hand. It sounds simple and obvious, but it isn’t.”

“But we don't restrict the staff to Russians,” Daukayev adds, frankly. “We take the best teachers who work in the Vaganova tradition. Anatoli Kucheruk, our advanced men’s teacher, is a superb professional. He comes from the Ukraine. Yee-Jung Lee, our girls’ teacher, is Korean. She studied at the Vaganova School and taught at Universal Ballet Company in Seoul. She perfectly transmits the Vaganova technique, even though she is not Russian. When I watch her teach, I have am reminded of my very first teacher in Leningrad. It is the mix of old and new that makes the Kirov Academy one of a kind in America.”

But Daukayev explains that there is still work to be done. “The world standard is being raised constantly. Dancers can do things that were unheard of in the past. This makes it a very exciting time to work in the world of dance.”

But dance classes, steps and choreography are only part of the job. Although academic studies are not his specific responsibility, Daukayev believes that “academics and the study of ballet are one and the same. Both must begin with passion, for this is the creative urge that gives meaning to our work. Students must work in an atmosphere of love and respect. That is very important. Their hearts and minds must be nourished so that when they have the opportunity to speak on stage, they have something intelligent to say. In the world today, students must also be prepared for life after dance. In Russia we never had to think about this. There were so many theatres, wonderful schools, and companies that everyone could be assured of work at the end of a career. This is not always true in the West.”   

In part it is the success and popularity of Russian ballet that has kept the Kirov Academy in the spotlight. “The Academy provides a unique opportunity to learn the traditional Russian training in the United States,” Daukayev explains. “We are preserving tradition, but I feel it is very important to expose students to contemporary dance too. If you look at international ballet companies today, an increasing percentage of their repertoire is contemporary.” Dancing ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ as the Kirov does is very difficult for those who are not trained in the Vaganova style. It simply doesn’t look the same. But, we also have to prepare our students for any company, and that means training students in contemporary dance and neoclassical ballet as well. If a dancer has a firm base in classical technique, they can dance contemporary ballets well too.”  

While Daukayev presents a new face to the Kirov Academy, he brings with him both the mantle of tradition and a keen appreciation for contemporary dance. He has hired several contemporary choreographers to give students experience in contemporary repertoire.

“Viktor Kabaniaev, Nikolai Kabaniaev and Viktor Plotnikov are three wonderful contemporary choreographers based here in the United States who work regularly with the Kirov Academy’s students. They are all Vaganova graduates as well, with experience performing in international companies. Because we share common training, our understanding of movement is consistent. Each choreographer has his distinctive and recognizable style and vocabulary. For Kirov Academy students, working with contemporary choreographers is not only exciting and enriching; it’s an essential part of their professional preparation. When they join companies they will know how to quickly assimilate a new choreographer’s vocabulary. Our students feel equally at home in the classical repertoire and in contemporary roles. Almost certainly, this versatility will be required of them in their professional life.”

Having trained dancers at his own Los Angeles school for the past nine years, Daukayev understands how to get students ready to secure contracts in the highly competitive international ballet world. His former colleagues from Russia are now directors, teachers, and coaches at companies around the world, thanks to the post-perestroika artistic diaspora. Keeping in touch with former colleagues means Daukayev’s finger is on the pulse of what companies are looking for. Kirov Academy graduates are hired to fill positions in top-tier companies across America year after year.

“I try to help our graduates find work, even if it is just a phone call to another artistic director,” he explains. “We want to help our students find work in the best international companies. By the time they graduate, we have passed on to our students the same 270-year old heritage we were so privileged to receive. With a Russian classical ballet foundation and a familiarity with contemporary dance, Kirov Academy students are well equipped for their next stage: learning to work in a company and to speak as artists to a new generation of audiences around the world. For me, this work brings me full circle: helping shape the next generation of professionals is engaging work. I feel very fortunate to be doing what I love, and fortunate to apply my understanding of the larger picture to this link in the cycle of creating ballet art and artists.”

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