Teacher's Wisdom: Stanislav Issaev

July 24, 2007

As dance department chair at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts, Stanislav Issaev is known for preparing ballet students to compete at the highest levels. He trained at the Perm Dance Academy in Russia, was a gold medalist in both the National Soviet and Varna Ballet Competitions, and received the Nijinsky Award in Paris. He enjoyed a 20-year performance career with the Moscow State Ballet and the Atlanta Ballet. Sandra Neels, who teaches at Winthrop University, spoke with Isaaev.

Who have been your primary influences in teaching ballet?

My teacher, Julius Placht, shaped me as a dancer and gave me all my technique. When I graduated he told me that I would never be injured because I had great schooling. I went straight to work with the Moscow State Ballet Theatre’s directors, Natalia Kasatkina and Vladimir Vasilyov. This opened a whole new world for me—that of contemporary ballet. I was looking for freedom of style. Also, the great coaches Azari Plisetski and Marina Kondratieva taught me good taste and excellent knowledge of movement and choreography. I was privileged to work with the legendary ballerina Ekaterina Maximova. She was a tremendous influence on me both technically and artistically. Just to dance next to her, I had to rise to a higher level.

How do you compare Russian ballet technique to other ballet syllabi?

I think that Russian technique is a little more organized and structured. But Russian ballet is a combination of influences from other countries. For example, Petipa from France and Cecchetti from Italy both worked at the Maryinsky (Kirov) Theater, helping to form what is known as Russian ballet. I think that good ballet technique is international. But even for me, Russian ballet holds a kind of mystique.

How are you able to produce strong, articulate dancers in such a short time?

Class has to be very intense, difficult, and structured. Combinations have to be constantly challenging. Dancers learn to do choreography by being given steps in class. And musicality is extremely important. However, being “musical” doesn’t mean always being on the beat. It means being able to dance with, through, alongside, and sometimes even off the rhythm.

How do you develop competition-worthy jumps and turns?

Class must be shaped in such a way that the student receives an equal amount of time between barre, center, and jumps. More focus must be brought to details—especially during barre because it is the basis for everything that follows. Placement, port de bras, and épaulement require much more attention from teachers and students. Young dancers have to remember that it is more important to have good quality of movement than incredible technique. Technique will come. I prefer to see four clear and nicely shaped pirouettes than 17 sloppy ones.

How do you help broaden your students artistically?

Students must be focused and open-minded. They must study contemporary dance alongside their ballet training. Also, original choreography is the biggest gift one can have as a young dancer. Classical repertoire is, of course, important; but I think that students benefit greatly from choreography created especially for them. I make sure this happens when I hire reputable choreographers for my students. Also, a dancer must learn about music, art, theater, and literature. It’s important for a dancer to study acting as well.

What kind of atmosphere do you try to create in class?

I was a dancer for 20 years and learned always to be polite and friendly. When dancers are tense, they can’t work properly. They must be relaxed to receive information and direction. I am working to provide a profession for my students. At the same time, I must be distant. Teachers can make so much difference, but they are still not parents. Also, teaching is a mutual venture. Teachers are teaching, students are learning. We cannot do the actual work for students. They have to be responsible for themselves. Students must be focused on their work and not be afraid of their teachers, and yet always respectful. I had a student once—Joseph Phillips—who arrived for class early, left late, and was in the studio working at every available moment. Now he is in San Francisco Ballet. Dancing, for him, became almost as important as religion. (See “Potential Over Perfection,” April 2004.)

How do you feel about your students entering ballet competitions?

Competitions raise technical bars. The judging is not always the most important. What is beneficial is that the students have a reason to work hard. They work three times more intensely if they know they are going to a competition. Sometimes the results of the competition can be depressing, but they do not diminish the level to which the dancer has risen.

What is your advice for a young dancer seeking to become professional?

Remember that a dancer’s life is very short and competitive. You cannot afford to skip any moment of your training. Don’t compete with your peers. The ballet world is so much larger than your classroom. Just be very honest with yourself and your teachers, and be responsible for your part of the work.