NEW YORK — Ninel Alexandrovna Kurgapkina of the Kirov Ballet is no prophet of doom.
Unlike Yuri Vlasov, the outspoken former Soviet weightlifter who fears for his country's long-standing, institutional sports system, Kurgapkina expressed no serious misgivings about the survival of the enduring Soviet ballet system--even in these times of social change and economic uncertainty in the U.S.S.R.
"We kept our ballet through the war," Kurgapkina said, speaking through an interpreter and referring to World War II and its devastating effect on Russia. "And times can't really be much worse than that."
After ordering soup, salad and a beer, the 61-year-old one-time Leningrad ballerina spoke happily and freely of her role as a guest teacher at the School of American Ballet.
Kurgapkina is here this month at the invitation of Robert Lindgren, the school's president, after he and executive director Nathalie Gleboff observed her teaching pupils at the Vaganova Institute in Amsterdam last year when the two noted ballet academies were showcased at the Holland Festival.
For Kurgapkina, whose performing career spanned 1947-1981 and who studied directly under the legendary pedagogue Agrippina Vaganova, the stint is a brand-new experience. Once she was given the invitation and it was OK'd by Oleg Vinogradov, Kirov artistic director, Kurgapkina was on her own.
The contract was negotiated between her and the American ballet school. No state-run concert group was involved and no further involvement by the Kirov itself was necessary, she said.
She is uncertain of the actual financial outcome, especially as far as potential Soviet income taxes are concerned. "Because this is a first time for me, I really don't know what the final arrangement will be when I am back in Leningrad. Maybe it will the first, and last, time I don't pay any taxes," she said with a twinkle in her eyes.
The only stipulations on her work by the School of American Ballet were general--that she concentrate on variations (i.e. solos) from the standard Russian "text" of Marius Petipa's 19th-Century masterwork, "The Sleeping Beauty." In this way, Kurgapkina feels Lindgren is storing up support for the still-projected staging of "The Sleeping Beauty," which was announced three years ago by Peter Martins for New York City Ballet, the school's parent affiliate.
During one two-hour class, the Russian ballet mistress worked with two separate groups of upper-level girls, each for an hour. The first was taken through the ballerina's solo from the grand pas de deux in Act III of "Sleeping Beauty," and the second practiced the ballerina solo from the first act.
Into her almost constant flow of detailed information in Russian, translated on the spot by Antonina Tumkovsky, one of the school's Russian emigre teachers, Kurgapkina would interject a few commands in English.
"Kveekly," she would challenge, to encourage more speed. "Feefth," she would demand for the precise position of the feet. Overall, about midway in her stay, Kurgapkina said she was largely concentrating on the upper body, on the use of the neck, head, shoulders and arms, "to get them to work all these parts \o7 together\f7 with the legs."
In general, she said, these American-trained dancers tend to turn more easily and securely than other dancers. "Everybody says, everybody here can turn," she said matter of factly.
The democratic arrangement of her schedule here is slightly bewildering, coming from the still imperial system that produces Soviet ballet. Her American hosts have her teaching a wide span of variously accomplished dance students (four different levels, ages 14 to 18), rather than the few select pupils she'd be working with at home.
"It's hard to compare the students here to those at home," she said, "because here I am working with so many different levels."
While Kurgapkina understands the reason for her teaching arrangement is to give as many students as possible contact with her and her expertise, she feels she would accomplish something more substantial if she worked with a handful of exceptional students.
By way of example, she cites the fact that she recently graduated into the Kirov company five young women from the Leningrad school with grades of 5, the highest mark possible. Of these, all of whom will be known throughout their careers, in Kirov tradition, as "pupils of Kurgapkina," three have already danced leading ballerina parts.
Kurgapkina expressed no misgivings that the now-steady flow of Kirov personnel to the West on "free-lance" assignments would weaken the company's very foundation.
The "moonlighting" pedagogue is undisturbed as Irina Kolpakova works for extended teaching and coaching periods at American Ballet Theatre; Farukh Ruzimatov spends an equally flexible amount of time performing there, and Vinogradov takes a goodly amount of time to oversee the running of the Universal Ballet Academy in D.C.
"Be serene," Kurgapkina said. "Our system is secure. Maybe if such important personnel were away from the Kirov five years or so, some real damage could be done. But, with our school's tradition of coaches and teachers, even if there were one or two inadequate artistic directors, our ballet company could still be strong and healthy."
In Kurgapkina's view, all this current outside activity can only be good for the longtime insular institution of Soviet ballet. "When we all come back," she noted, "we will all have seen so much, we will return enriched.
"\o7 If\f7 , that is, we all come back to Leningrad," she added candidly, before noting rather definitely and proudly, "I certainly will do."