In the last several years I have grown curious about my first ballet teacher’s life and the line of dancers and teachers that made her who she is. Miss Taunia Wheeler was my first dance teacher in Vernal, Utah. I learned a little clogging (similar to tap but with double taps) and some tumbling before being placed in a ballet class around age seven.
I recently went back to Vernal and had a short visit with Miss Taunia about her mother and first teacher, Poni Van Orden, and from there she walked me back to the Russian Ballerina Olga Preobrajenska.
This is the first part of a series I’ll do exploring each of the teachers that influenced my foundation as a dancer.
Olga Preobrazhenskaya ( her name has been westernized several ways and the last syllable was eventually dropped) was born in St. Petersburg in 1871, 33 years after the establishment of the Imperial Ballet School. She had a crooked spine and weak legs and was rejected for admission to the famous school three times before being accepted as a student at age eight.
Among her principal teachers was Marius Petipa, the French dancer and ballet master who’s career at the Imperial Ballet School made his name synonymous with classical ballet. Olga was taught Italian port de bras, and head and body positions.
She continued to have trouble with crooked vertebrea in her upper back. It is not always visible in photographs and film, but it surely effected how she learned to balance, turn and present herself on stage.
She developed excellent turn out and she had very good feet, which she used to advantage in her clear, clean pointe work.
Her dancing was praised for being naturally expressive. Even in this early age of the Imperial Ballet School and in the young Russian Ballet tradition, some choreography was already being called hackneyed and worn out. Preobrajenska brought genuine and honest expression to these steps, reviving them for the better in the eyes of both Russian and foreign audiences.
She danced many Petipa pieces while a professional in Russia, and it makes sense that she would begin her international career with performances in France and England, places where her teacher and the choreographer of much of her repertoire danced and taught. Five years after her first performance abroad in 1895, she was given the title of Prima Ballerina. Over the next decade, she began to be more interested in teaching.
A question that emerged while I spoke to my dear Miss Taunia was this: Why, if our great great great ballerina grandmother was trained at the Imperial School, did we learn French and Italian port de bras in Vernal Utah? A quick Wikipedia search showed me why.
Agrippina Yakovlevna Vaganova entered the Imperial ballet school in 1888, seventeen years after Preobrajenska. Vaganova didn’t begin working on her systematic way of teaching classical ballet, along with modifying how port de bras was labeled, until well after Preobrajenska had left Russia and was an internationally known dancer and teacher. Vaganova kept many elements of the Italian and French foot work and exercises. This is why, when I took a ballet class from Miss Taunia this year, the work at the barre felt very familiar to me, despite having had almost 8 years of Vaganova trained teachers while I have lived in Salt Lake.
I am currently researching Preobrajenska’s work outside of Russia, including with the Ballet Russes under Diaghilev in the early 1900s to flesh out the next link. I might need to make another trip to Vernal and take Miss Taunia to lunch!
I’m sure I have made some mistakes in my history, I have started recently trying to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, so please comment if yo see something amiss in my time line or understanding.
Miss Taunia Wheeler, informal interview 2019