Teacher's Wisdom: Pyotr Pestov

September 30, 2009

Pyotr Pestov is one of ballet’s greatest men’s teachers. His illustrious alumni include dancers and artistic directors like Vladimir Malakhov, Nikolai Tsiskaridze, and Alexei Ratmansky. From 1963 until the mid-1990s, Pestov was a pillar of the faculty at Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet Academy. In 1996, he moved to Stuttgart Ballet’s John Cranko School, where he teaches today. Paying tribute to Pestov at the Youth American Grand Prix gala in April, Ratmansky noted the “elegance, musicality, and solid discipline” that Pestov instills in his students. An advocate of “honesty with oneself,” Pestov stresses the purest classical ballet principles while encouraging students to think freely as artists. Evan McKie, a Pestov alum recently named principal dancer at Stuttgart, sat down to chat with his charismatic mentor.

What made you want to teach?

It was accidental. I was a senior at the Perm Ballet Academy in Russia during World War II. After the war was over, many of the area’s children were left without parents. These kids had developed behavioral problems, and the government’s solution was to send them to ballet school to learn discipline and culture. Here they were, 9-year-old boys who wouldn’t respond to authority and wreaked havoc wherever they went. They even smoked and drank! “Little bandits,” they were called.

The director of the academy felt they might respond to us older boys. The first day I tried to work with them they laughed in my face—impossible to control! So I decided to take them to the theater—kicking and screaming. Incredibly, when the curtain rose, they were suddenly silent, all eyes glued to the magic of the ballet. The next day they begged me to teach them!

This was when I learned the beauty of schooling young minds. Getting through to children, anticipating what they need to grow properly, is an art in itself. In 1958, after a short career as a dancer, I entered a pedagogy program in Moscow. I have been teaching ever since.

What advice do you give those who have chosen to become students of dance?

is the word I use most while working, “honest” in Russian. Good classical dance is about sincere attention to detail and patience—a constant, concentrated effort. I am often asked why I always give the same long warm-up facing the bar. It’s because if you don’t return to a strong, simple base, how can you expect to juggle all the details of ballet technique honestly? My students know that good work often means “swimming against the current of a long stream.” It can be endlessly tedious, but if you stop, then where are you?

Back where you started. I still remind myself of this all the time. You had a special name for this kind of work.

I call it “dark work,” because it is so tiresome mentally and physically.

How can a ballet teacher instill that work ethic in his or her students?

I learned from the Perm School’s founding director, Ekaterina Geidenreich, that everything a teacher says to the students has to mean something. She rarely spoke, but when she did, her words were well thought out and her criticism useful. The work you give students has to inspire them. I once asked Alexander Pushkin why he barely spoke to his boys in class. He replied, “The beauty has to be in the work.” I talk quite a bit to my classes but find that an exhilarating combination speaks louder than most words.

What quality do you value most in a dancer?

Musicality. Regardless of how physical your movement is, you need to understand that even in silence your body must create musical accents. “Character” is also a great gift. Be in touch with who you are. Don’t get caught up in the world’s trivial distractions.

You’re known for being very specific regarding the accompaniment of your classes

Yes. I treat my boys like an orchestra. Each individual reacts to music differently, like instruments. I try to find something specific for each combination that they can all respond to symphonically. And I strive to find pieces from a classical repertoire that the boys have never heard. It’s interesting to see how they interpret these “new” old melodies from Glinka, Kreisler, Chopin.

You are heralded as a men’s master teacher. Have you ever wanted to teach ladies?

Switching from men’s teacher to women’s is not the tradition in Russia. But aside from that, I never wanted to go back and forth, even here in Stuttgart. It is difficult to anticipate the beauty of a flower before it has bloomed. I can do this with boys better than I ever could with girls.

Do you advise specific cross-training for dancers?

The more sports one does, the better! If you want to become a better artist, enrich your mind by playing an instrument or appreciating literature; that is cross-training.

Which ballets or dancers move you?

If Chopiniana or Giselle are cast and danced well, they can be exquisite. I never liked Swan Lake much. Everyone thinks they can do it. Marina Semionova moved me immensely as a student. She was stunning and never the same. I don’t like when dancers do ballets the same way all the time.

As you look back, what are some vivid memories or feelings you wish to share?

Every time I take a new class of boys I have this magical feeling. It is part uncertainty, part worry, part excitement. Each soul will react to my class in a different way. It takes a while to get to really know them. I can’t just force my methods on them. I have to understand them so that they can understand me.

In 1975 there was a wonderful moment when I took my boys to a festival in Kiev. We brought a small bit of choreography set to Bach’s Passacaglia. Everything fell into place for the first time in my teaching career. The boys danced in brilliant harmony—exceptional artists in their own right. All of the work suddenly paid off. I was proud and others praised them for their incredible attention to musicality. Moments of such synchronized clarity are rare.