Sofia Golovkina

Bolshoi ballerina and iron-willed director of the Moscow State Academy of Choreography

Sofia Golovkina, ballerina and teacher: born Moscow 13 October 1915; died Moscow 17 February 2004.

Sofia Golovkina was a ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet for 26 years. On retiring from the stage, she was appointed director of the company's school, the Moscow State Academy of Choreography.

There, she ruled with an iron control that did not win her friends and the Russian newspaper Vremya Novostei wrote that her tenure "wasn't just a directorship, it was a dictatorship". She stayed on far too long - 41 years - leaving in 2001 after a bitter struggle, when she was succeeded by Boris Akimov, an internationally respected teacher who comes regularly to teach at the Royal Ballet and was also briefly the Bolshoi Ballet's artistic director.

As a dancer, Golovkina's flamboyant, assured virtuosity made her an audience favourite and the epitome of the Soviet ballerina. She joined the Bolshoi Ballet in 1933, on graduating at 17 from the Bolshoi school. She danced the lead roles of the classical repertoire - Swan Lake, Raymonda, The Sleeping Beauty, Don Quixote - as well as dancing some of the great roles of Soviet ballet. She was the Tsar-Maiden in Gorsky's version of The Little Hump-Backed Horse, Zarema in Zahkarov's The Fountain of Bakhshiserai, Tao-Hor in The Red Poppy, the titular heroine of Svetlana.

She also created Nikiya in the 1943 Gorsky version of La Bayadère and Mireille de Poitiers in Vainonen's seminal 1947 Flames of Paris, a part which won her the Soviet State Prize. Her plumpness and grandly heroic manner lead one to question her suitability for a pure classical role such as Nikiya; but she was apparently also admired for a wonderful purity of line.

During the Second World War, she distinguished herself in her tireless volunteer work. She stayed in Moscow, where she continued performing and gave fund-raising concerts, she donated blood, she helped in military hospitals and in the defence of the city's boundaries.

Despite her unpopularity at the Bolshoi Ballet school, there is no doubt that she oversaw many important developments at this important, exacting institution. Appointed director in 1960 (then Professor in 1987 and Rector in 1988), she staged many productions for her pupils, including Coppélia in 1977 and La Fille mal gardée in 1979.

As a teacher she followed the theatrical approach of Alexander Gorsky, the choreographer whose naturalistic, Stanislavsky-inspired precepts exercised a defining influence on the Bolshoi Ballet's repertoire. She also adhered to the method evolved by Agrippina Vaganova, which by then had become the standard technical base in Soviet ballet. Her pupils included Natalia Bessmertnova, muse and wife of the former Bolshoi director Yuri Grigorovich, whose ballets - Spartacus, Ivan the Terrible - have come to represent the Bolshoi style with Western audiences.

She wrote books on ballet technique. She took groups of her pupils to perform abroad (including twice to the UK). She made a film about the precepts of classical technique and stagecraft in 1967 and was the subject of a short documentary, Sofia Golovkina, in 1982. In 1967, she succeeding in gaining a specially built home for the school, even if the new premises were no longer near the Bolshoi Theatre.

She had to cope with many difficulties in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet regime in 1991. Finances were a particular headache and she worked hard to lure students. It was unfortunate that the criterion became the ability to pay cash rather than talent. She had to contend with the opening of new, rival schools - so that now the Bolshoi school faces the problem of too few pupils.

In 1985, as part of the new era of perestroika, she set up a branch of the Bolshoi school in Tokyo, capitalising on the Japanese obsession with classical dance, and she ran a summer course in the US resort town of Vail.

Nadine Meisner

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