Students and Classical Ballet Thrive at City Ballet School

Students from City Ballet School have enjoyed tremendous success, joining prestigious companies and winning competitions. Yet, until recently, the school was almost a secret. Artistic Director Galina Alexandrova quietly and passionately applies her decades of experience with the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, Bolshoi Ballet, and San Francisco Ballet to instilling classical ballet excellence in her students. City Ballet School also boasts a year-round boys’ program, led by former Kirov soloist, teacher, and choreographer Nikolai Kabaniaev. You can learn more about his pedagogy for young men and watch his remarkable students in action in this video. You can also learn about the school’s summer program here. The World Dances spoke with Ken Patsel, City Ballet School’s Administrative Director and husband of Galina, about the school’s methods, Vaganova technique, advice for dancers, and more.

What makes City Ballet School so special?

What we do is completely classical.  We’re teaching the classical Vaganova style. We stick to one style, one syllabus, and all of the teachers are dedicated to that syllabus. When we took over the school in 2003, Galina wanted to make it like what she had at the Bolshoi. We’ve been able to adhere to her recreation of her training in Moscow. For instance, they had a heavy emphasis on stretching and strengthening, so we brought in a rhythmic gymnast to work with the students. Our kids are incredibly flexible and it’s a great tool to prevent injuries.

Our kids are also incredibly supportive of each other. We bred that environment early on to try to avoid some of the hyper-competitiveness you sometimes see. The students hold each other up and push each other forward. The kids are all friends, and we’re small enough that every teacher knows every student and what they need to work on.  It’s incredibly helpful.

Also something that sets us apart is that we do at least three major performances a year at the palace of fine arts. The performances are of a really professional caliber and give the students important stage experience. [Watch videos of City Ballet School’s impressive performances here.]

When you walk into the school, we have these large pictures of kids who have gone off to join companies. There are two walls full of these pictures now. It’s inspirational for the students to come in and see all the students before them who have gone onto professional careers. It helps to lift their aspirations and hopes.

Why has the school chosen the Vaganova syllabus?

It’s our feeling that Vaganova technique is the most versatile. Our students are able to adapt to different styles from a strong Vaganova foundation, and some have even gone on to join contemporary companies. People sometimes pigeonhole the Vaganova technique as “too Russian,” but the syllabus was devised from elements of diverse styles from around the world. That comes into play importantly in the adaptability of the technique.

What Agrippina Vaganova did is an interesting story, going back to the time of the transition from imperial to communist Russia. Agrippina was a principal with the Mariinsky, which later became the Kirov, around the time of Pavlova and other legends of Russian ballet. After retiring, she said that she thought she would have been a much better ballerina if she had had more regimented, organized training. So she took it upon herself to create a syllabus. She took the best parts of training from around the world and incorporated them.  When it started teaching her system, the Imperial Ballet School (which was later renamed the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet in her honor) started producing legions of amazing ballerinas. There was so much success at the school in St. Petersburg that Stalin invited her to Moscow to install the syllabus at the Bolshoi. So the Kirov and Bolshoi are the truest bastions of Vaganova training. What we have is a mixture of Bolshoi and Kirov. Galina was with the Bolshoi and Nicolai was with the Kirov.

One thing that makes Galina such an incredibly special teacher is her mother, Svetlana. Svetlana was a principal with the Stanislavsky Ballet in Moscow for over 20 years. She was also a master ballet teacher who got her teaching diploma from the Bolshoi Academy. This woman forgot more about ballet than most people ever know and she was an amazing mentor for Galina. She was right there to answer questions about why we do what we do. Ballet history and wisdom was literally passed down with love from the source.

What are some distinguishing characteristics of dancers trained in the Vaganova style?

The calling card of a Vaganova dancer is definitely the relationship between the upper body and the rest of the movement—the emphasis on torso, arms, and head. 

City Ballet School students have won internationally prestigious awards. What is the school’s philosophy in regards to competitions?

We do have great success in the competitions. We use them as a tool for the growth of our dancers. Competitions can offer a student so much. One of those things is working with a teacher to perfect a piece and put it on stage. Another is the exposure and opportunity. For example, our student Rio Anderson took the silver in New York at Youth America Grand Prix last year and got a full scholarship to the Royal Ballet School. She’s a little bit taller, so being in Europe where some of the companies hire taller women is great for her. But we only send students to competitions when we think they’re ready for it and will really gain from the experience. [Watch a beautiful video about Rio from the Seeker Stories series here.] 

Your school has an interesting philosophy regarding your students’ academic educations. Could you please address that?

This was something we decided was important early on. Not everybody is actually going to become a professional dancer.  At some of the really serious ballet programs, around age 14 or 15 you have to opt out of a traditional academic experience. Schools will demand you get into the studio at 10 a.m. and you have to make a decision—do you want to pursue your dance education and do home school or make compromises? We start our program at 2:30 in the afternoon and most of the high schools can work with that. We feel it helps our kids stay more well rounded. We have two daughters who trained at our school and we thought, as parents, that it was important that they were able to go to regular high schools and socialize with non-dancers. So we originally did this thinking of our own kids and extended the philosophy to all the students as school policy. The discipline of ballet cross-pollinates with academics. The kids usually have no problem getting into great universities. If they don’t go straight to companies, they can go to excellent college programs.

What’s on the horizon for the school?

We’re getting a brand new location in 2021! San Francisco is morphing into a city of skyscrapers, and there has been a huge outcry that the tech boom was forcing out the arts as the landscape changes and gets more expensive. We were in the right place at the right time. Some investors bought our entire city block. They invited us to stay in the new building, where we’ll not only have a larger facility, but a working 250-seat theater. We’ll have the ability to house our own performances and the theater will be rentable. So this is fantastic and the end result will be a palatial place for dance. I think it’s important to know that dance is really thriving here.

Having six studios instead of our current four is going to open new worlds to us. One of the things we’ve been doing is really building the boys’ program, which is difficult. Most schools don’t have the resources to have a dedicated boys’ program. When we started out we had three boys. Now we have almost three times as many. That’s been a boon for us and we can have great partnering classes. We hope to expand all of that. We’re also in the process of getting our M1 certification, which means we’ll be able to open up to more international students. They’ll hopefully be able to stay here and not have to worry about tourist visas.

Eventually we’d like to have a junior company that focuses on what we consider to be a dying art form: purely classical ballet. It’s really our passion to pass on a love of classical ballet to younger generations. We don’t want the magic of classical ballet to be forgotten as people tend towards more contemporary choreography. 

What advice would you offer aspiring dancers? 

There are no shortcuts in ballet. You have to put in the work. You have to want it, to be hungry for it. Galina says, “The more they give, the more I give.” The greater a student’s passion for learning, the more the teacher wants to give them.  That said, try not to be too obsessive. Don’t force it. Continue to be a kid along the way.