Teacher's Wisdom: Eva Evdokimova

July 31, 2007
Eva Evdokimova’s illustrious career is filled with firsts: the first American to win an international ballet competition, the first foreign ballerina accepted into the Royal Danish Ballet, the first American to perform with the Kirov Ballet, the first American to perform in Peking after the Cultural Revolution, the first American to be awarded the title of “prima ballerina assoluta” abroad, and the first American recipient of the Ulanova Prize in Moscow. She was partnered by Nureyev for 15 years, and she holds the world record of 67 curtain calls with a 40-minute standing ovation in Berlin in 1990. These days she teaches and coaches all over the world, speaking seven languages fluently, and was recently a master teacher at the Dance Theatre of Harlem School. Sandra Neels, former member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and present Winthrop University faculty member, spoke to Evdokimova about her teaching.

Which ballet techniques have you studied and which do you credit with contributing the most to your career?
My earliest training was at England’s Royal Ballet School, which was Cecchetti-based and gave me the fundamentals of a clean technique. Then when I saw the Kirov and Bolshoi Ballet companies perform in London, I knew that I needed to develop a style with greater breadth and fluidity, as well as to continue my studies in music, theater, and art. Maria Fay had been teaching character dance at The Royal Ballet, and I loved it, so I decided to study ballet with her as well. The Royal Ballet teachers had suppressed individuality, and Mme. Fay’s classes were Vaganova-influenced and quite the opposite.
When I went to the Royal Danish Ballet School, Vera Volkova, who taught the Vaganova technique exclusively, provided me with strength and an elegant style. My frequent participation in the Bournonville repertoire, which emphasizes a joyous lightness combined with a tradition in mime, was of great assistance when I performed Giselle. These strengths, together with the precise footwork and solid base I had gained from The Royal Ballet, as well as the legato lines and elegance of movement from the Russian technique, served to aid my artistic development.

In the United States we are not readily familiar with the title “prima ballerina assoluta.” How does that differ from “principal dancer?”
Many ballet companies in other countries have different ways of categorizing their dancers in a way that creates a greater hierarchy. “Prima ballerina assoluta” is a title reserved for ballerinas who perform the major classical roles and are internationally recognized in those roles. I was given this status by Natalia Dudinskaya and the vote of the Berlin Senate when I joined the Deutsche Oper Ballet in West Berlin.

How do you structure a class?
When dancers have already had a class before mine, I give them a center warm-up, and then center work such as tendus combined with pirouettes, as well as a fondu exercise and adagio. Next, they do petit allegro. Volkova always gave an assemblé exercise, which I include also. I don’t think it’s beneficial to move from petit allegro directly to grand allegro. There always needs to be some middle-level allegro exercises such as assemblés.

You often focus on details of port de bras and épaulement. What is it about these qualities that dancers neglect?
These are definitely issues in American dancers. For one thing, the stance is incorrect. The rib cage is pushed forward, arms are behind the torso, and there is a general tendency to be too flat—that is, true effacé and croisé are missing. Hands and feet must be expressive. The classical repertoire is where it really shows up. Dancers here might have impressive technique, but magic and presence are missing. Characterization is so pale and weak that it doesn’t even travel across the footlights. These things must be encouraged from the very beginning.
You have enjoyed a wide experience of training around the world. Would you advise young ballet students to seek such a variety, as opposed to going into one approach in depth? No, not really—it’s about the teacher. A student under 16 needs consistency with one good teacher. If a student is hopping around from teacher to teacher, it’s not helpful. At the Paris Opéra Ballet School, for instance, a student may have only one teacher for an entire year.
You talked about connectedness in your class. If students aren’t connecting their arms and spine, how do you persuade them to do so? It’s partly through the breath. It’s a process, and it depends upon the individual student. Musicality and breathing with the music help. There is not one way, and it takes time. Some people learn from watching. Example is good, as well as visualization. I usually try to demonstrate.

What kind of information from your own performing career do you try to pass on to young ballet students?
I encourage the students to broaden their education and prepare themselves as artists, not just as technicians. In fact, sometimes I incorporate a 45-minute talk into a workshop. Dancers need to absorb all forms of art, literature, and history—everything that will develop them as complete artists. They need to study ballet and dance history to discover what inspired choreographers and what was happening culturally at the time of the different ballets’ creations. Then there is music training. Dancers these days seem ill-prepared musically, and it shows onstage. They should also study acting, and research their roles as they would do for a play. Many dancers focus only on the narrow aspects of gaining a brilliant technique. They need to delve under the surface.