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Upon graduating from Vaganova Ballet Academy in July, Oscar Frame found himself in a difficult, albeit enviable, position. The young Brit received job offers from both the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi – a happy predicament very few Vaganova graduates, let alone foreign trainees, ever find themselves facing. After some deliberation, Frame settled on the Bolshoi, becoming one of the few foreigners to ever join the company. His position is singular for one other reason: Frame was part of the first Vaganova class to train and graduate under Nikolai Tsiskaridze.
Oscar Frame. “Classical Symphony”, Vaganova Ballet Academy graduation performance at the Mariinsky Theatre. Photos by Alexander Ku.
What is your favourite ballet?
I don’t really have a favourite ballet, but I’d have to go with Spartacus (Yuri Grigorovich) as one of the best. A close second would have to be Onegin (John Cranko), I suppose because they both require rather complex acting and expressive capabilities, but Spartacus traditionally needs most of the company to be involved just to get it staged, and I slightly prefer ballets that have lots of dancers on stage at the same time. The famous pas de deux between Spartacus and Phrygia is still my favourite ballet music of all time. Also, Romeo and Juliet because it has everything – fantastic music and such a brilliant story for ballet – the drama is so intense.
“Spartacus”. Ekaterina Maximova and Vladimir Vasiliev.
What is your dream role?
My dream role at the moment is Romeo because I’d really like to try and conquer it, and it feels as if it fits my abilities on stage both emotionally and in partnering (which I think is a strength). Also, the music is beautiful – Prokofiev is one of my favourite composers.
Do you have a favourite dancer?
My favourite dancer is a really difficult decision – it has always changed over time, partly because I was late to ballet and it’s taken me a long time to catch up with knowledge about the ballet greats. One of my favourites is Vladimir Vasiliev. He was the first Spartacus and, in my opinion, he has never been bettered. I also admire Yuri Soloviev. He was the first dancer I watched in a video on YouTube, so he has a special place in my heart. I feel he was ahead of his time technically and I have found the way he jumps inspiring. My favourite woman is Ekaterina Maximova. It seems to me that she drew out the best from Vasiliev, and her physique and beauty on stage was extraordinary. In terms of current dancers, Roberto Bolle has to be one of my favourites because he has all the qualities needed to be a danseur noble and he is so impressive on stage.
Ekaterina Maximova and Vladimir Vasiliev.
What advice would you give to a child who is aspiring to be a ballet dancer?
It’s not an easy path to take. It doesn’t always go in one direction or the way you thought it would, so although in some ways you have to be really consistent in your training you also have to always be flexible mentally and open to new possibilities. I admire Xander Parish for taking the leap to Russia because I know what amount of strength of will and character that requires.
I would also say that you have to be mentally strong in whatever you do. This means that by the time you reach professional level your perception of what it means to be a ballet dancer will probably have changed completely. But no matter how hard and how long you train and how tough it can be it is one-hundred percent worth it once you get on stage in front of an audience. It’s very important to be thinking two or three years ahead in your training and working out where you want and need to be.
Also, you have to be able to cope with constant criticism and be ready for failure in small and big ways. Whether it’s not being able to get a step right or failing at an audition – you have to just keep going and work with intelligence until you get it right. So I suppose the key attributes are intelligence and resilience (as well, of course, as the desire to dance!).
I remember reading somewhere that sport was your main passion when you were younger. How did you become interested in ballet?
I have never really been sure why I chose ballet over anything else. Yes, I have always, and am still quite an active person when I have the chance to be. I was swimming from about three or two years old, and I started surfing, sailing, and diving later on, as well as cycling everywhere with my family. When I was about ten, I started failing academically because of my dyslexia, and that led to me becoming seriously disinterested in my after-school sports (for which I was vigorously training at the time), and generally had a big impact on my self-confidence. During this time, ballet was the only thing that I didn’t give up. No matter how awful I felt walking out of school, I was always happy to go to ballet classes.
Oscar Frame at Hampton Ballet Academy.
I believe you started your ballet training at Hampton Ballet Academy (UK) when you were eleven. What were those early years like? Do you remember your introduction to ballet training, your first experiences in class?
By the time I started at Hampton, I had already been doing ballet classes in London as a pastime for about a year. I joined because I wanted to continue dancing when my family moved down to the south of England, and we found Judy Breen at Hampton Ballet Academy. I don’t remember much about my first time in a dance class, but I certainly remember the first time in one of Judy Breen’s classes. For the first time there was a structure, a set of rules, and a precise way to do things. This was my first taste of the Vaganova method, and I remember just how well Judy taught me how to discipline myself and gave me the foundations that I needed to start training professionally. I owe a lot to her.
In 2011 you were awarded a scholarship to the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington and spent several years in the US. Could you talk a little about your time at the academy?
Yes, the Kirov was the first big leap for me. Going there was strange for me, because I felt very out of my league. I remember one of the first classes with my would-be pedagogue, Nikolai Kabaniaev, and he went around the room asking us who our favourite dancers were as we were holding poses. I was the only one without an answer, because I was just so new to ballet. My time at Kirov was completely different every year. The school made a few administrative changes in my time there, and I ended up having three different teachers over four years, when really I should have only had one. But nonetheless, I learnt from each of them. My first two years were the most intense. Kabaniaev was my first inspiration and, until Tsiskaridze, nobody had really pushed me like he did. He taught me how to work, and from that work, came my love for ballet.
Oscar Frame and Mara Nascimento, Kirov Academy of Ballet.
In 2015 you competed in Prix de Lausanne. What was that experience like? Do you have any advice for the young dancers who are thinking about competing in the Prix?
My advice would be to just be ready. I went to the Prix with very little preparation, and when I got there it seemed to me that most of the people had been rehearsing their variations for about a year, whereas I had only rehearsed for about two months. It was very tough work, and it reminded me how much competition was in the world, and I went back to the Kirov Academy with very low self-esteem and an overwhelming sense to try to improve myself.
However, I do think that the Prix is one of the only competitions where the offers given to non-finalists sometimes are almost better in comparison. I didn’t get into the finals because I wasn’t prepared enough, but then there was an audition class at the end of the week where all of the schools, and some companies, would watch all the non-finalists. I remember getting something like fourteen offers from that class. It was really encouraging to know that other places around the world were interested in me, and that essentially was what inspired me to go back determined to work harder and improve so I could achieve the level of the boys I have competed against.
You got to work with several different schools and travelled all over the world, but did you ever wish you could have trained in the UK?
Well, around the time that I was doing the after-school classes in London, which were more or less Royal Academy Of Dance (RAD) style, I was still wondering whether I wanted to continue doing ballet. I auditioned for the Royal Ballet Junior Associates twice, but they didn’t accept me. My interest in ballet only really sparked when I started the Russian training with Judy Breen. After that, nothing really got to me except the Vaganova classes. It was addictive.
Why did you decide to join Vaganova Ballet Academy? What was the audition process like?
I joined on a bit of a whim. I had nowhere to go after I left the academy in Amsterdam, and all I had was a few friends and connections. I happened to be talking, by chance, to one of my old friends from Kirov, Debora Davis, and just talked through what was going on and if she had any advice. Debora talked to her mother, Elena Tenchikova, whom I also knew as a teacher at Kirov, and she called Vaganova Ballet Academy and asked if they could give me an audition. Debora really convinced me that the environment at Vaganova would be ideal for me, and before I knew it my parents had already booked the flight.
The audition process was quite funny. I arrived and went to the academy to meet the woman who would take me to my class, but somehow the times for the class got mixed up, and I ended up having to join in a class that had finished their barre work and were already on big jumps like ferme and sissonne. I had not done a single class for three months prior, and I thought I was done for. Zhanna Ayupova watched me and at the end of the class asked me when I wanted to start. I was at Vaganova a month later not quite realising what I had let myself in for!
Oscar Frame in various Vaganova Ballet Academy productions. Photos from Oscar’s instagram.
You joined VBA in 2016. Many foreign trainees experience culture shock during the first few months at the academy, due to both the language barrier and the pace and nature of the training. What was your experience like?
Yes, well it certainly was different. Not only that, but I joined halfway through the semester, so the school was preparing for the exams and had already started rehearsing for the graduation performance. Learning the language wasn’t too bad in the end, although I spoke no Russian before I left England. It was easy to pick up because I ended up being the only international student in my class, and therefore the teacher (Alexey Ilin) had no real reason to try to demonstrate in English, as some teachers at Vaganova do. My technique was to just nod and say yes, and then figure out what they meant after, which is essentially how I’ve learned up until now. Trying to read the Cyrillic handwriting on the rehearsal and daily class boards was a nightmare.
I followed my new classmates everywhere, and they seemed patient and welcoming enough to let me do that. I never really felt homesick because I was so focused on working hard and getting up to the level of all of my peers. Every hour, I was trying to immerse myself in the culture, trying new foods, and going out shopping, even when I didn’t know how to speak to a cashier at all. I felt really in my zone, and the teachers of the academy were just like my first teachers at Kirov; the ones who really made a difference to my training. I was truly lucky that the boys in my class were so kind to me and treated me like one of them.
Oscar Frame, Vlada Borodulina and Alexandra Korshunova. “Le Conservatoire”, Vaganova Ballet Academy graduation performance at the Mariinsky Theatre. Photos by Alexander Ku.
Did you have a favourite teacher at VBA? Could you say a few words about them?
There were some truly great pedagogues at Vaganova, but I think my favourite two would be Nikolai Tsiskaridze and Irina Sitnikova. Both of them shared quite a similar ethos, and sometimes Tsiskaridze would hand us over to her when he was absent. She would treat us like we were her own students. Her signature was to make us do grand battements with every combination at the barre. The thing that makes such a difference with them is the work ethic they inspire – when they can just keep on going no matter how late it is or how tired they must be. You simply have to do the same.
Eleonora Sevenard, Oscar Frame and Pavel Mikheev. “The Fairy Doll” at the Mariinsky Theatre.
During your time at VBA you amassed a stellar repertoire. Is there any role or performance that you are particularly proud of?
Well, the repertoire was tough, and the academy was performing a lot of character pieces for the graduating performances. I think I ended up dancing some less important roles a lot better than the important ones, so I can say that although I’m proud of having danced the Nutcracker Prince, I reckon I probably danced either Pierrot (The Fairy Doll) or Le Conservatoire better.
One of the roles that was the most fun was the soloist with the red cape in the academy’s production of Nijinska’s Bolero. What I really liked about Vaganova Ballet Academy, which is different to other schools, is simply how much performing you do. After January, we were performing The Fairy Doll once or twice a month until the end of the year. Once, I had to step in for a fellow student who was sick, and I had to dance the part of Pierrot, so myself and Pasha (Pavel Mikheev) had a month of performing every weekend with no days off at all. This was alongside exam prep and all the usual classes. Although it was hard, I feel that it was amazing preparation for company life.
Oscar Frame behind the scenes of Vaganova Ballet Academy graduation performance at the Kremlin Theatre.
In a way, you have already made ballet history, as you were part of the first ever class to train and graduate under Nikolai Tsiskaridze. What was it like to work with him?
It was explosive. In every way. There are so many different aspects to his pedagogy. I read an interview where he described how it was with his teacher, Pestov, and I immediately understood what it was Tsiskaridze was trying to teach us, and why he used some of the same methods as Pestov.
His first key lesson was discipline, not only to your teacher, but to yourself also. He would make us do ridiculous combinations just for fun sometimes, and I distinctly remember a period of time when I was rehearsing the Nutcracker Prince the week before I was due to perform it; I had a couple of days where after the day’s classes and before general rehearsals, I rehearsed my variation about twenty or twenty-five times. He pushed me to the point of total exhaustion and beyond. But this taught me that I had reserves of energy I would never have believed. Sometimes he did this simply by being so terrifying that I didn’t dare to say I couldn’t do it. Other times I just wanted to impress him and my classmates. Either way, I improved faster at Vaganova under Nikolai than at any time since my first years with Kabaniaev. He also made me discover the most important things about the arts, taking us to museums and art exhibitions to explain the history behind the stories, costumes, and even poses involved in ballet. All this whilst rigorously training us in the studio day in and day out. It was explosive.
Nikolai Tsiskaridze’s class after the graduation exam at Vaganova Ballet Academy. Photo by Viktor Vasiliev.
Your class was very mixed, with almost every young man coming from a different school, city and – in some cases – country. Very few students were Vaganova “natives”. What was it like to train with such a diverse group?
My class with Tsiskaridze certainly was mixed at the beginning of the year. There were three more students than the four that I studied with the semester before with Ilin, and two of them were international students from America and France, both really friendly guys. At the beginning of the year, the tensions were a little high because we were all trying to get used to the new regime of Tsiskaridze, but come December I had the sense that a sort of brotherhood had formed between all of us. There was an independence as the graduating class that we shared, and at the end of the year even more so. We had a wonderful camaraderie that held us together and gave us the strength to do the (frankly terrifying) exam.
The exam on YouTube looks so slick, but when we went out of the doors into the back room we were all lying on the floor gasping and trying to summon up the willpower to stand up and go out again. We had to cheer each other on. I think you can see this towards the end when the worst was over and we started to relax and almost enjoy ourselves (perhaps just from relief, or at least manage to find the energy to raise a bit of a smile). I am really lucky to be going to the Bolshoi with Egor (Gerashchenko), although it’s sad to be leaving the rest of the boys (though I’m very happy for them that they are at the Mariinsky).
Oscar Frame in Nikolai Tsiskaridze’s class and during the graduation exam at Vaganova Ballet Academy. Photos by Viktor Vasiliev.
Your graduation exam looked, to put it lightly, intense. What was it like preparing for it? Especially that insane frappe combination to Tsfasman’s “Snowflakes”?
The frappe combination, I think, for us really wasn’t one of the worst, but I feel that it represented Tsiskaridze’s way of teaching very well. The day he told us that we had to do the barre without stopping was probably the worst day at the academy. I still remember feeling sick just thinking about it. We had been preparing for the exam since October, give or take, and it really is what our whole class was building up to for the year. It felt a bit like the Odyssey, only the same story every day, and almost every combination had a different correction every time. But then Tsiskaridze would punish us for making the same mistakes in every combination, even if not everybody made the mistakes. We worked as hard as I think we’d worked in our lives, it’s fair to say. Despite having this hard class to rehearse for, we had performance roles to perfect, and other exams to rehearse for. Even sleep was hard to find at times. It was intense, but it was brilliant.
The graduation performance this year was truly outstanding. Could you say a few words about the rehearsal process and your own experience performing on the Mariinsky stage?
Thank you! Yes, I remember my first performance on the Mariinsky stage. It was overwhelming for me to think that I was on the home stage of almost all the dancers I had admired growing up at the Kirov academy. The more performances I did, the more comfortable I was with the stage, and therefore more comfortable with my ability. The stage gave me something to look forward to at the end of the month when times were tough at the academy. I remember after my first curtain call (when the academy did the production of Nijinska’s Bolero), I called my mum straight after in the wings because I was so overwhelmed emotionally. Then, when I did The Nutcracker, my family were there to see me for the first time on a professional stage. Afterwards, my parents and sisters came backstage, which was incredible (my Mum said she hardly managed to watch it because she was so nervous). I was just happy I hadn’t crashed into one of the snowflakes! I only had a week of rehearsals and not even one full stage rehearsal.
“Le Conservatoire”. Vaganova Ballet Academy graduation performance at the Mariinsky Theatre.
I read that you were surprised to receive the job offer from the Bolshoi and were initially hesitant to accept it. What were your plans before you received the offer and what was the reason for your indecision?
The invitation form the Bolshoi was quite overwhelming. Graduating and getting job offers had been something I had thought about and imagined for so long that I couldn’t quite believe it was real. Then, when I had offers from other companies as well, I just had a sudden sense of vertigo. I talked to my parents who just told me to trust Nikolai. They said that he was responsible for the biggest improvement in my dancing in five years and he is my pedagogue, so I should listen to him. It was difficult because I have a huge respect and love for the Mariinsky, most of my dearest teachers are former Mariinsky dancers and most of my best friends were accepting offers there. So this is why the decision wasn’t a speedy one.
Oscar Frame and Eleonora Sevenard in the Vaganova Ballet Academy production of “The Nutcracker”. Mariinsky Theatre. Photos by Alexander Ku.
Bolshoi has an enormous and varied repertoire. Are there any ballets or roles you are especially excited about?
I honestly don’t know what I might have a chance to perform, but I am very excited to be in pretty much any of Grigorovich’s works. His ballets somehow have the amazing feature of being able to inspire dancers to develop into great artists.
Are there any other companies you’d like to work with?
In the future, I would like to have the chance to work with the Vienna State Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet. These companies have a respect for the classical works and preserving a particular repertoire that has carried the history and traditions of ballet from the past through to the present day. It would be an incredible honour to perform with companies of such grandeur.
Oscar Frame and Nikolai Tsiskaridze behind the scenes of Vaganova Ballet Academy graduation performance at the Mariinsky Theatre. Photos by Alexander Ku.
Photos by Alexander Ku, Elena Pushkina, Vladimir Vasiliev, Viacheslav Khomyakov and Oscar Frame’s instagram.