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Vaganova Ballet Academy professor Tatiana Udalenkova grew up in Leningrad (St Petersburg) during the Second World War and trained at Vaganova Ballet Academy during the siege. She shared her memories of those difficult years in an interview with one of her students, Renata Shakirova, for a Russian magazine Sobaka.
(Left) Professor Tatiana Udalenkova with her student, Mariinsky soloist Renata Shakirova. Photo by Alexei Kostromin. (Right) Official Vaganova Ballet Academy portrait.
Tatiana Alexandrovna, why did you decide to become a ballerina?
I grew up in an artistic environment. My mother was a singer. She had graduated from a conservatory, though things worked out in a way that she never really got to perform professionally. My father, Alexander Petrovich Udalenkov, was a famous architect. Since the mid-1920s he had headed the Leningrad branch of the Central Scientific Restoration Workshops. He collected Russian and West-European art. Sometime before the war, my parents took me to a children’s ballet called “Little Stork” at the Gorky Palace of Culture. I loved that performance so much.
And then, the 22nd of July 1941 struck. I remember my life very clearly from that moment on. We were supposed to go to the zoo but just as we were walking out of the door we heard Molotov announcing the beginning of the war on the radio. My father immediately cancelled our outing and rushed to the store to stock up on grain – we finished the last of it in February 1942 – that way, during the most difficult period, we could rely on something other than the bread rations.
The siege is difficult period to recall: the hunger, the cold, the bombings.
Tatiana Udalenkova (far left) during a performance of “Sleeping Beauty”. Mariinsky’s tour in Paris. 1961. Photo by Roger Pic.
Were you very afraid?
Of course! At first, we hid in the bomb shelter every time the sirens sounded, but eventually we got used to it and would stay at home. We lived primarily in the kitchen, stoking our potbelly stove with books and furniture. When my parents grew too weak to go out, they trusted the ration cards to our neighbour, who went to collect the food for us. My sister and I were forbidden from going outside because during that horrible winter children were getting kidnapped and eaten.
In the summer of 1943, I heard a radio announcement about the choreographic academy auditions. The academy proper had been evacuated to Perm, but some teachers remained in St Petersburg. In September, my parents enrolled me in elementary school, but I insisted that I wouldn’t study unless they took me to Rossi street. In the end, I won: on October 11 I was accepted into Vaganova Ballet Academy.
At the time, we lived very far from the city centre, on the Lesnoy avenue, and the commute took an hour on a crowded tram. But that didn’t stop me. The academy gave the children working cards, and we could get more bread using those, though, of course, that wasn’t the reason for my zeal.
I honestly cannot say how a dystrophic child in a city under siege mustered such mad passion for dancing.
Young Tatiana Udalenkova.
[Ballet] is such hard physical work. Where did you find the strength?
I honestly don’t know. After the classes we would run down the streets and fool around by knocking on people’s doors. During the shootings, we would hide in buildings’ vestibules. I remember trying to outrun a tram! In my senior year, I studied under Maria Romanova, and her daughter, Galina Ulanova – whom we naturally perceived as a Goddess – would sometimes visit from Moscow.
Was your family affected by the Great Purge?
My maternal grandfather, a priest, was executed by a firing squad in 1938. My father was arrested on the 1st of December, 1949, at 10pm. They took him away and spent the whole night searching our apartment. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison under Article 58, but my mother managed to appeal the sentence and get it reduced to 10 years. We were allowed to keep just one of the three rooms in our apartment, and the other two were occupied by the family of one of the men who arrested my father. We had to see that man every day for seven years.
My father was released and pardoned in 1956. After coming home he spent some time sharing the apartment with that horrible man. Later, the government returned the house my father had bought on the Crimean peninsula back in 1930, and he moved to Alupka. We still spend our summers there.
Tatiana Udalenkova in the 1960s.
Did the status of the “enemy of the people’s” daughter hinder you?
I graduated in 1952 and, until the very last moment, was unsure whether I would be hired by the Mariinsky. My elder sister was refused entry into a postgraduate course, despite completing her undergraduate degree with flying colours. They told her straight up that it was because of our father. But I was constantly going up the Komsomol rungs. I was completely brain-washed and believed in the greatness of Stalin with all my heart. I though that my father’s arrest was made by mistake.
Did the company begin to actively tour abroad during the Khrushchev Thaw?
We traveled halfway around the world: Europe, America and Japan. We were paid a scanty daily allowance. My husband [Sergei Vikulov], who was a principal dancer at the time, was once asked by a journalist in New York how much he earned. [Sergei] decided to embellish a little and proudly announced that he made $30 per performance. The Americans’ eyes went wide with shock. But even this meagre salary allowed us to purchase a car and a fur coat when we returned home after three months in the USA.
Tatiana Udalenkova with her husband, Sergei Vikulov.
Were you allowed to mix with the locals?
After Rudolf Nureyev’s defection in 1961, the KGB agents who accompanied us practically forced us to accept the Americans’ invitations. They wanted to pull wool over their eyes and make it seem like we were free. In any case, we didn’t speak any English.
Did you ever regret not staying in the West like Nureyev, Baryshnikov and Makarova?
God forbid! My husband and I have always been patriots.
Professor Tatiana Udalenkova and her class after the 2017 classical dance exam. Photo by Viktor Vasiliev.
Did you start working as a ballet pedagogue while you were still a soloist?
It all began by accident: our pedagogue went away and I was asked to teach my colleagues’ class in her place. In 1972, [the theatre’s] artistic director, Igor Belsky, trusted me with a class of young dancers. After retiring in 1978, I started teaching a senior girls’ class at Vaganova Ballet Academy. And it so happened that I traditionally rehears the corps de ballet for the Waltz of the Snowflakes in “The Nutcracker”, “Chopeniana”, “Paquita” and the Shades in “La Bayadere” – all the most beautiful parts.