Today ballet is danced all around the world, and although every company and school has some treats of their own, in a big-picture there are two major classical ballet styles every other is referring to, the Vaganova style and the Balanchine style. Vaganova style is taught in its cleanest form in the Russian Ballet Academy named after A. Y. Vaganova and most ballet schools in Russia and Easter-Europe follow the same system. Balanchine style is taught at its purest at the School of American Ballet, but it has influenced many other schools and companies in the ways of approaching movement and stamina, and the popularity of Balanchine’s choreographic legacy has made it inevitable that his means and goals had to be spread around the world. Professional dancers are required to be familiar with both styles as companies may share repertoire from all around the world. In this article, the founders, main principles and characteristics of both of the major styles are introduced.
The Vaganova style is notorious for delicate arms, well-set poses, overall danciness and strict logic in the order and possibilities of the dance movements in class. Balanchine style is praised for fastness, sharpness, cleanliness, and phrasing. While the Vaganova system is built on learning dance movements the student is going to show on stage one day, the Balanchine teaching method also includes a lot of training exercises that improve the quality of the dancer’s movement but are not to be shown outside the studio.
The Vaganova method and birth of the Russian ballet style
At the end of XIX and beginning of the XX century, there were two ballet teaching systems at the Imperial School of Theatre: French and Italian. The French system worked on a specific decorative delivery, the Italian boasted with aplomb, dynamic turns and good stamina of legs and feet. There was no Russian school yet – this was for Agrippina Yakovlevna Vaganova (1879-1951) to create.
Agrippina Vaganova graduated from the Imperial Theatre Ballet School of St. Petersburg in 1897 and joined the corps de ballet of Maryinsky the same year to work herself up through all the ranks. She was very critic about her dancing skills, mostly she felt that her arms are not helping her at all and in her artistic researches she always wanted to escape the indifferent dance “with the feet, with the feet”. Unsatisfied with her performance, especially with the coordination of arm movements, spine and upper body, Vaganova started to work with herself using as a helping tool the mirror and “the right physical cognition of the body”. She carefully worked out a system truly derived from practice.
In 1919 Vaganova was invited to teach at the Imperial School of Theatre. Her theoretic work on ballet teaching system “Основа классического танца” [Basic Principles of Classical Dance] was published in 1934 and remains as the primary textbook for most ballet teachers to date. She systematized all the pas’s and put them in the order we are familiar with today (curious fact: for example, before Vaganova, the Italian style teacher Enrico Cecchetti gave grand battement jeté right after the first plié in his class). Urging the students to analyze movement was Vaganova’s means of incorporating a more intellectual or even scientific approach to movement, and one that had not, to date, been widespread. The training regime for the Vaganova method is complex and rigorously planned, to produce a clean, virtuoso technique. Due to its strictly codified training system, the Vaganova method is widely considered to be injury-free, if taught correctly. She developed and codified a system of ballet training that became the standard against which many great dancers are judged. Despite the immense progress of the ballet technique Vaganova system has lasted, in part, evolving to meet new artistic needs.
The “Quintessential Petersburg Ballerina” Ulyana Lopatkina (born 1973) has said: “The tendency of modern classical ballet to change measure of degree of the pose, the approach toward what is artistic gymnastics, it’s my opinion that the Vaganova system saves classical ballet from entering into sports, if you understand her system correctly. [..] No matter how high you lift the leg, each position must be a harmonious composition that incorporates the diagonals of the legs, arms, and the pose of the head. [..] This is not an issue of returning to the old poses of the past but of perfecting the new ones. It is like a new level of harmony. Vaganova’s system allows you to understand where that harmony lies and find the new framework of classical ballet. The system of Vaganova cultivates the logical implementation of poses”.
The success of the Vaganova system lies in scientifically created development of the whole learning process giving it liveness and unstoppable growth. Following strictly the induct method of transitions from easier to more complicated [movements], from cellular to integrity – this is the principle of development of an artist’s consciousness and the dance technique of the student. The Vaganova method is the most popular ballet teaching method in Russia and Eastern-Europe and dancers trained in a good Vaganova-style school are valued all over the world.
George Balanchine and the birth of American Ballet
In the first quarter of the XX century in North-America ballet was introduced by touring troupes from Europe and it was taught in some studios held by emigres from Europe and Russia. There were no permanent local ballet companies and there was no centralized school of ballet. George Balanchine is to be celebrated as the founder of the American ballet and the unique and renown style of his.
George Balanchine [born Georgi Melitonovitch Balanchivadze] (1904-1983) graduated the Imperial Theatre Ballet School of St. Petersburg in 1921 and joined the corps de ballet of the Maryinsky, by then renamed the State Theatre of Opera and Ballet. In 1924 he escaped from the newly formed Soviet Union and joined Sergei Dyagilev’s Ballet Russes as a dancer and a choreographer. After Dyagilev’s death, he worked with several ballet companies including some of his own until the Young American arts patron Lincoln Kirstein invited him to the United States to build up American ballet by establishing a local company. Balanchine eagerly agreed, “but first a school,” he is famously reported to have said.
In 1934 the School of American Ballet was founded and Balanchine got the opportunity to mold dancers to his choreographic needs. He succeeded in creating an independent American school of ballet that derived from the basis of Russian ballet but took into account the national character of modern Americans to raise unique dancers with a completely different look and technique than their colleagues in the Old World. The “Balanchine type” ballerina was tall, skinny, quick and sharp with long lines and tall feet (in Maryinsky the feet had to look small). Emphasize was on mounting new heights in a sporty and cheerful manner rather than following the bath of inner nobility and tranquillness still present in the Vaganova style. In Balanchine’s class, there were a lot of exercises that did not evolve into dance (a very different approach comparing to the Vaganova method) but were only for increasing strength and self-control, offering freedom and lightness of the movements for the real dance.
By 1948 when George Balanchine finally got his permanent troupe – the New York City Ballet, he had already established a strong and independent ballet style for the Americans and given the audiences various modern repertoire. He worked as the artistic director and ballet master of New York City Ballet until the end of his life (1983). An authoritative catalogue of Balanchine’s output lists 425 works the great choreographer created during his lifetime, many of which are still very desirable assets to the repertoire of the ballet companies all around the world. Balanchine’s legacy is protected and preserved by the Balanchine Trust and the Balanchine Foundation.
Some differences in the styles of Vaganova and Balanchine.
The list can continue quite a bit. However different the Vaganova and Balanchine technique may seem at some point, they both derive from the same source and serve the same purpose: to build remarkable dancers. Certified teachers will gladly explain and show all the valuable details of both methods in class and in the repertoire.
 Silkin, P. A. [“History and theory of ballet pedagogy. Classical dance”] «История и теория балетной педагогики. Классически танец. Учебное пособие», Академия Русского балета имени А. Я. Вагановой: 2014. p. 178-181
 Ibid. p. 185
 Pawlick, Catherine E. „Vaganova today. The Preservation of Pedagogical Tradition“, University Press of Florida: 2011. p. 39
 „Exceptional holistic ballet training with the Vaganova method”. Russian School of Ballet http://russianschoolofballet.com/the-vaganova-method-of-ballet-training/
 Pawlick, Catherine E. „Vaganova today. The Preservation of Pedagogical Tradition“, University Press of Florida: 2011. p. 179
 Ibid. p. 180
 Ibid. p. 156-157
 Silkin, P. A. [“History and theory of ballet pedagogy. Classical dance”] «История и теория балетной педагогики. Классически танец. Учебное пособие», Академия Русского балета имени А. Я. Вагановой: 2014. p. 178
 Silkin, P. A. [“History and theory of ballet pedagogy. Classical dance”] «История и теория балетной педагогики. Классически танец. Учебное пособие», Академия Русского балета имени А. Я. Вагановой: 2014. p. 263
 Ibid. p. 281
 Silkin, P. A. [“History and theory of ballet pedagogy. Classical dance”] «История и теория балетной педагогики. Классически танец. Учебное пособие», Академия Русского балета имени А. Я. Вагановой: 2014. p. 268-282