On a Monday evening at Valentina Kozlova’s Dance Conservatory of New York, 15 teenagers chatter and stretch before their advanced ballet class. When Kozlova enters the room, the students snap to attention, standing elegantly, awaiting the first exercise. This atmosphere of discipline is integral to developing the artistically and technically mature dancers that go from Kozlova’s school to companies such as Boston Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, and win honors at international competitions like Varna and Youth America Grand Prix.
Kozlova trained at the Bolshoi Ballet School, entering the Bolshoi Ballet in 1973. While on tour in the U.S. in 1979, she defected and went on to join New York City Ballet as a principal in 1983. An exquisite dancer, she performed a wide variety of roles during her 12 years with NYCB. With Margo Sappington, she co-founded the Daring Project, a chamber company for new ballet works that toured from 1995 to 1999. In 2003, she opened the Dance Conservatory of New York, where she passes down the grand traditions of Russian ballet. Charlotte Stabenau, a former student of Kozlova’s, observed her class and spoke with her afterward.
Has Balanchine technique influenced your teaching of the Vaganova style? Definitely. The classics you dance by phrase; Balanchine you dance on every beat, so it has to be completely precise. As hard as it was at first, I learned that this sort of technique was very good for speedy stuff—fast jumps and fast tendus. Since I’m teaching the Vaganova method, it’s very classical. But I like to give a combination of slow and fast exercises. With jumps, for example, I like to make them fast, but I also give them at a slow tempo because in order to have a high jump, you have to deepen your plié and stretch your Achilles.
Which of your own teachers made the greatest impression on you? I had many great teachers. But my last coach at the Bolshoi, Raissa Struchkova, probably had the most influence on me. We didn’t work on the actual technique anymore—how to do jumps or turns. We were working on why I should do something one way and not another. She was able to draw out of me things that I did not know were in me because I was young at the time. She opened me up emotionally, and increased my depth. You always need an eye—a coach, not a teacher. They are two different things.
How does the ballet tradition get handed down at the Bolshoi? It goes from one generation to the next through an older star passing on her knowledge and working with you. My coach would say, “This is the way it should be.” I would try it, and she would say, “It doesn’t suit you; let’s do it the other way.” If it suited me, it opened up my personality more. When you become a principal dancer yourself, you gain your own knowledge and experience to pass to a new generation.
How do you prepare your students for performances and competitions? They come and take class every day in a very serious atmosphere and yet they laugh, which is also important. When we go on to variations, I usually try a few and find the one that works best for the dancer. I coach her from A to Z: how she comes onstage, how she leaves the stage, her arms, her épaulement, her neck, her eyelashes and where she looks—exactly the same way I was taught.
How does competing benefit students? Competitions don’t make dancers, but they help students to understand a most serious and professional way of preparing yourself. They are a great way of gaining stage experience, and they give you a deadline. There’s no such thing as “OK, I’ll do this tomorrow.” Interestingly enough, you also make progress after the competition, even those people who did not place. The fact that you went through this difficult process helps you improve.
What do you emphasize in teaching port de bras and épaulement? Your spine, your back, and your neck are like the trunk of a tree, the stem of a flower. Your back and arms are supporting you, carrying you, and they should be round and elegant, not tense. The way it was explained to us in Russia was that port de bras are like rose petals; every single finger has its special placement. You dance from the tip of your fingers through to the tip of your toes, and that’s what gives you line. Line is everything: It’s the position of your neck, your épaulement, your eyes, your chin.
Why do you incorporate pirouettes into so many of your barre exercises? When you use the barre to do pirouettes, you consider it to be your partner. You don’t release it before the turn—just like you wouldn’t release your partner’s hand—and you push off with the edge of your palm. Barre isn’t just for getting warm; it’s already practice for center. That’s why mine has a lot of fouettés, and sometimes jumps and cabrioles.
You also include gymnastics in the students’ schedule. Why? We had this at the Bolshoi Ballet School. It’s Russian rhythmic gymnastics, and it’s necessary because it builds strength, extensions, and incredible flexibility. Everything helps to create the dancer.
Kozlova corrects a port de bras during her advanced class at the Dance Conservatory of New York. Photo by Boz Swope, courtesy VKDCNY