Branching Out: Fethon Miozzi, the Greek-Italian Pedagogue at the Vaganova Academy

More than 30 years ago, few foreign dancers, especially those from Europe, joined Russian (then “Soviet”) ballet companies. Yes, there was the rare Baryshnikov, who hailed from Riga, Latvia, but for the most part, Russian companies retained native Russian dancers or those from its provinces. Through a strange series of circumstances, Fethon Miozzi, who hails from Italy, completed his studies at the Vaganova Academy at a time when few foreigners did so. He then performed in Petersburg, and finally became a pedagogue at the Vaganova Academy where he has taught boy’s classes for the past 16 years. VaganovaToday sat down with him to trace his life story and hear about the transition from stage to teaching. To view the Russian version of this interview, please kick here.

I was born in Rome, Italy. My mother is Greek, my father is Italian. I never thought of becoming a ballet dancer. I didn’t even know what ballet was. My mother took ballet in her youth and my father has a completely different profession, he’s an economist from a completely different line of work.

My mother took me to the theatre often, we had a subscription to opera and ballet. But I still didn’t think about ballet until one day we were at the doctor, and he said “What a figure your son has, look at his long, slender legs, have you ever considered putting him in ballet classes?” My mother said no, but he said “try it, it’s helpful, good gymnastics for physical development.”

And since my mother worked full-time, the Ballet Academy was a convenient option, as it is here. We went there in the mornings and they could pick me up in the evening, and not worry about where to leave their child. So my mother said, “I’ll take you to the Ballet Academy in Rome” and I said “What’s that?” She said, “take the classes for a year, and if you don’t like them, you can leave.”

I was 10 years old at the time and I’d really wanted to become a obstetric gynecologist, I wanted to help women have children. But my mother took me to this place with barres on the walls and mirrors and I thought to myself “What’s the relationship between what I want to do and these barres and mirrors?” (laughs)

Some lady comes in and the commission looks at me and they lift my leg up and ask me to jump. And I think, “what is going on?” They accepted me immediately, since my traits were truly quite developed as I had been taking gymnastics, I had good flexibility.  But I showed up to the studio on the first day in tennis shoes. And some sort of uniform was required, the teacher said that I needed ballet shoes.

The first year I didn’t understand where I was. It was like a game. Then they started to say, “What a capable, talented artistic boy”. And naturally this intrigued me. Any child becomes interested in the activity when adults flatter them.

When I was in the 3rd year of ballet classes, they told me I needed to repeat that year, “No, he’s not trying,” they said. At the time I was also an actor in a movie being filmed in Italy and I was tired and had fallen behind in the ballet programme. They told me, “you know, you have this acting talent, why don’t you just become an actor?”

When they told me to repeat the year, my mother said, “Let’s repeat it and then see. If it doesn’t work, you’ll go to another school.” But after repeating that year, everything turned around for me, I acquired strength, became best in the class. And this gave me a particular stimulus.

I trained until the 8th year, graduation, and then I had to decide what to do further since there is no ballet system in Italy as there is here in Russia. They have wonderful theatres there, but not like in Russia. There’s no director coming to the school, no large companies and so forth. If there’s an audition, there are maybe 2 open spots. And I felt I wasn’t yet ready to work. I needed to get stronger. So I went to a National Competition for ballet dancers in Italy and I won third place. The prize was a choice of where to study for 1 year on scholarship. I was offered London, Grand Opera in Paris, Cuba, Moscow, Petersburg, or New York (School of American Ballet). I wanted to go somewhere in Europe but my mom was a huge fan of Russian training and said, “If you truly want to get stronger, you need to go to Russia, because they have genuine ballet there.” I thought for a long time. She said, “You need to decide: Moscow or Petersburg”. Our Academy in Rome was more oriented toward Moscow because our main methodologist, Jarko Prehbil from Yugoslavia had studied at GITIS in Moscow under Tarasov. And he had some sort of connections. He said, “You need to go to Moscow, and we will see. There are 2 good teachers there – Prokofiev and Pestov.” And it turned out that they put me in Pestov’s class. You can’t get any better than that. But at the time I didn’t know who Prokofiev or Pestov were. I didn’t know those names. But they told me, “You’re so lucky because it’s very hard to get into his class, so be happy.”

And suddenly when I had already decided where to go, Irina Trofimova, the main methodologist from the Vaganova Academy, arrived in Italy to give classes. She looked at me and said, “Why don’t you come to us?” I said that it had already been decided that I’d go to Moscow. The famous teacher Inna Zubkovskaya also came. She started to persuade me not to go to Moscow because the school there was falling apart and the director didn’t  like foreigners, and it was better to go to Petersburg. “We will write you a letter of recommendation,” she said. Trofimova in fact wrote that letter for me.

Since I was a huge fan of Nureyev, and Baryshnikov, and Ruzimatov had just then become a star, I thought I needed to go to Petersburg. So I moved and was placed first into the class of Nikolai Kofmir, and stayed with him for about 2 months, and then moved to the class of Yuri Umrikhin where I studied until I graduated. And at graduation, Oleg Vinogradov came to the exam and said, “I want this boy.”

At the time foreigners were not accepted into the company and there were no laws that allowed me to be hired into the troupe. So he consulted a lawyer. At that time, there was a second company called the Maly Kirov Ballet. And he said he would give me a contract with the Maly Ballet since it was the second company of the Kirov Theatre, and in that way they were able to formulate my employment legally.  And it was so great because I immediately danced solo parts, I practically was never in the corps de ballet aside from maybe 3 or 4 performances. And since the Maly Ballet revived Jakobson’s repertoire, I danced a lot of his numbers. For example:  Shining Divertissements, Mazurka, Vestris, Wedding Party, many ballets. This gave me a lot of experience.

In parallel, I danced solo roles at the Mariinsky (Kirov) Theatre, such as the Peasant Pas in “Giselle”, the pas de trois in “Swan Lake”, the duet in “Sylphide” and in “Fountain of Bachchisarei”. And in my third year with the company Vinogradov started to give me principal roles such as in “The Nutcracker”. And I began to receive invitations to perform everywhere, since at that time there were many  troupes.

I danced in “Swan Lake” and “Giselle” and “Sleeping Beauty” and “Don Quixote” — the entire repertoire. The theatre often held concerts to develop the youths. And I danced everything in them – the Markitanka and Grand Pas Classique and Venice Carnavale. And naturally I started to grow and trow. I worked all my years in the theatre. Of course when the directorship in the theatre changed and Makhar Vasiev came, then it was more difficult, but I was patient. Since everyone already knew me, I was still receiving invitations everywhere. So at one point I decided to become a freelancer.

What about retirement? How did you decide to begin teaching?

And when it came time to retire from the stage, my friends who already worked in the Academy including my wife, who was already studying to become a teacher there, all told me that I should go to the Academy because I had experience.

I began the pedagogical courses, at the time they lasted 3.5 years. When I was in the last year, Altynai Asylmuratova was the rector and she came to our exams, called me and said, “You know, I think you have an unusual talent for teaching, you’re going to replace some of the pedagogues if they’re absent.” So I would replace them and she watched how I gave classes, what corrections I gave and after a time she said she was giving me a class, she gave me the 4th year class. From there my career in the Academy began. I’ve been teaching here for 16 years now, both the middle and older classes.

Tell us a bit about your students.

At first I taught the middle classes, and this year I will have my 5th graduating class (the last year of training, the oldest class). It’s wonderful that over the course of 16 years I have had a lot of students who have won competitions and joined leading troupes. For example Ynnokenty Yuldashev, he is now a principal with the Stanislavsky Ballet. Davide Loricchio is now a soloist at the Mikhailovsky Ballet. Erwin Zagidulin is a principal in Turkey. From the 2021 graduation class, Kian Magnis is now almost a soloist in the Mariinsky Theatre. And a beautiful boy, Anton Osetrov who I believe is the future of the Mariinsky, he is my favorite student. [Editor’s note: Please look for our interview with Mr. Osetrov in April!] Because for me the students are like my own children. For me it is a great trauma when we part ways after the 8th year of study. Some people handle this well, and feel it is a natural process, but for me…

But there is a special love for Aтton because I feel he is truly the sort of person who can become a principal at the Mariinsky. He has all of the traits, he’s handsome, stylish, elegant. He comes to rehearse with me when he has time. I try to give him a lot of advice. This summer I took him with me when I taught in France, and he helped with the duet classes. It was wonderful to see how he grew, even in such a short period. We were there for 2 weeks and he grew stronger. We remain in touch, and I help him when I can. I hope that the theatre will promote him. They are already doing so, but I would like it to be faster.

In this year’s graduating class (2024) there are 2 promising boys, we will see how they develop, they are Ivan Sotnikov and Jorge Nickolas, who is half Spanish.

What was the difference between the school in Rome and here Petersburg when you arrived?

It was very difficult because this was during Perestroika, the year was 1990. A very difficult time. To arrive here from Italy where they had  everything, and here the stores were empty. Hunger and cold. I remember I cried each day that I wanted to go home but the fact that I love to dance sustained me, i didn’t want to just discard it all. One other boy from Italy arrived with me but he lasted all of one month and then went back.

It was funny, in the first days here, I asked where I could buy groceries. They said “around the corner” where the Hotel Rossii is now located there’s a grocery store. I went in and it was empty. There was a pyramid of cans of tea, and that was it. I came back and said to Nadirov, who was rector at the time, “You know, the store is being renovated, where can I buy food?” And he laughed and said, “Yeah, our entire country is being renovated!”

It was very difficult at first, and then I got used to it. There was a large workload, lessons and rehearsals. But when Vinogradov offered me work in the theatre, that was such an honor that I had decided to stay, because I had possibilities to return to Italy or work somewhere in Europe, but i wanted to stay here, there was a real repertoire here that I wanted to dance. I am not really inclined to modern dance. I love Forsythe but that’s neoclassical. 

Did you consider just gaining experience here for a couple of years and then leaving?

I didn’t think about that at first. When I started to study and during my studies, we often went to the Mariinsky and watched performances. And I remember I was so in love with the Mariinsky, “How great it would be to work there but it’s probably impossible.” You know, like Cinderella, a dream. And when it happened in fact, you can imagine what that meant to me. Russia then was a far away land. And my mother said “No you need to stay because this opportunity will not come again for you.” Naturally I thought I would stay, but I didn’t think forever! I thought, as you mention, I will learn the repertoire for a year or two, and we will see. But the first year passed, then the second and third and fourth, and it was better and better and then it would have been a shame to leave.

And then I met my future wife. The way we met was curious. She was already working in the theatre, she’s 8 years older than I am. At the time they were reviving Jakobson’s “Rodin” with the Maly Ballet troupe.

She was dancing in the big Kirov and was invited to dance in Rodin’s Eternal Spring. She was first cast, and I had just graduated. I was the third or fourth cast, in the back you know. And it turned out that everyone got sick. The rehearsal coach told me “stand with Irina”. We started to do some steps and the coach said “stop stop” and gave some corrections. We started again and she went in one directioand I went in the other. I said to her politely, “You know, you need to go that way,” and she said “Listen, little boy, shut your mouth, I know better.” And I thought “What a witch! what a repugnant girl,” and that’s how we met.

Then we had a tour to Rome and Vinogradov told me that he wanted me to dance Flower Festival. I said thank you, with whom?” He said “with Badaeva,” and I said, “No no!” He said, “You know, you will make a good couple” and I said, “Isn’t there anybody else” and he said, “No, do it with her, that’s it.”

We started to rehearse and became friends. I understood she wasn’t evil and I started to invite her to lunch. And then we went to my house, I prepared lunch and we would watch a video and you understand how we “studied” the video, and that’s how our romance began. And we began to dance a lot together.

 In 1993 I won the award for Rising Star of Ballet in the city of Positano, Italy. I went with her and danced the “Babochka” [Butterfly] pas de deux there. Then I received 2 other awards: the Ballet Oscar, and then the prize from the Danza i Danza magazine in Italy as best dancer, also one from Danza Si (Italy) for acting and physical traits.

What was the best part of your stage career?
It’s hard to say, because there were many moments, both happy and sad. I recall one happy one, when I danced the premiere of Oleg Vinogradov’s “La Fille Mal Gardee” in 1994, there were 2 casts, Vladimir Kim with Margarita Kulik, and Irina Badaeva with me. We danced the premiere and there was such a furor, the ballet really suited us. People came specifically to see us.

The second time was when we were on tour in Turin dancing “Nutcracker”. The casts were Yulia Makhalina with Farukh Ruzimatov, Irina and me, and Vishneva who had just graduated, along with Sergey Vikharev. All of the journalists came after the performances to interview us and everyone said unanimously that as a couple we were the brightest and reminded them of Nureyev and Fonteyn! We were on such a high, you know when you forget about everything and just think life is wonderful!

Then we returned home here after the tour, late at night, opened the refrigerator and there was nothing to eat. Nothing. We had received little money (from the tour). And we are sitting there and the only thing that we found was a packet of buckwheat. And I remember how Irina stood at the stove, boiling this buckwheat and crying, saying “Just yesterday they were telling us we were Margot Fonteyn and Nureyev and now I’m boiling buckwheat and there’s nothing to eat.” It was horribly sad.

Was it difficult to leave the stage?
It was smooth. I always thought it would be a tragedy for me to stop dancing because I had always lived it. And you cannot imagine your life without dance. Nevertheless I always tried to give a strong stage presence, for example I loved dancing Albrecht in “Giselle”, because I had strong emotions. I thought, “how will I live without this?”

I tried not to think about it. But it turned out that closer to retirement age, I already began to teach. And the first 2 years when I taught, I was still dancing, but it was horribly difficult. I remember I went on tour to Kiev, where I was invited to dance in “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty”. I had to leave the classes I taught in order to go on tour. Giving a class, then going to rehearse and then leaving on tour. I thought “Gosh this is difficult, it’s impossible, I have to make a decision.” And I thought “It’s time to finish my career, I will just teach because it’s too hard”. And so that separation, that tragedy did not occur, because it was a natural transition to teaching.

If, for example, there was nothing for me after performing, and I had to, for example, change professions, then that would truly be difficult. But thank God, it turned out OK.

What is the hardest part of your profession as a teacher?
The first year I worried a lot. I would jump out of bed at 3 in the morning when something came into my head, some combination, and write it down, and think “Geez, does this work or not?”

Because you can know the methodology according to various classes, but  all children are different and you have to start with them. But I’m very lucky because Boris Bregvadze mentored me although nobody forced him to. We just lived near each other and often walked to the Academy together. He would say “I will come today and watch how you give class.” And he’d come and give me a lot of advice, “It’s better to do this and that here”. Really valuable advice. He helped me incredibly. Can you imagine, he said to me once, “You know, that was a great class, do you mind if I take it and use it myself?” And I said to him, “Of course Boris Yakovlevich, of course!”

There were some funny incidents. He had a great sense of humor. And he helped me so much. We were great friends. So that complext that I had at the start, gradually disappeared. And when you have acquired experience you understand what is needed and what is not. What to pay great attention to . And students are different. You have to have empathy for them, although it’s hard sometimes. Because the children now, they’re not like we were. Sometimes you have to persuade them that the telephone and tablets are not the most important thing, and that’s hard to do.

Nevertheless, ballet lives and will live on. We try as best we can.

Then, when Tsiskaridze arrived, the school changed cardinally for the better. I don’t want to say that it was bad, but it became better. And he asked me to replace him when he was absent. It was difficult because I already had 2 classes of my own, plus now his class. So my first class started at 9 a. m. and I would not finish until 2:30 p.m. He asked me to attend his classes to understand what his demands were, and this was a huge lesson for me because I learned a lot from him, and still do. I began to perfect my knowledge. He is a unique pedagogue and knows how to teach. So i feel that I’m his student.

Of course at times it is not easy to work with him. Because as with all strong personalities, he has a strong character and you have to get used to that and take the best from him, that is his professionalism. And despite anything, he has an amazing sense of humor and he can be very tender and understanding. But if he gets upset, you need to disappear, because it is like 2 different people. But I love him anyway.

Does the methodology change with time?
It’s not that it changes, but it is corrected in order to perfect it. Because we all work from the fact that the aesthetic changes. But small things, for example pirouettes used to be done with the foot at the calf, and now the retiré passé is high. First position of the hands used to have the hands across from the chest and shoulders but now the third finger should be across from the belly button. The methodology remains the movements which need to be learned. When Nikolai Maksimovich Tsiskaridze came, he made recommendations. For example, girls should take barre in pointe shoes at least 3 times per week and jump with pointe shoes on (because that is what they do on stage). And at the exams, the grand adagio is done en pointe.

Why do the combinations change during the course of the year or change for the exams each year?
This is very important because if you do the same thing all year long, the students get dazed. The body needs to be prepared to do something new at all times.  We prepare the exams very long, for 2 or 3 months, because these combinations are complex, very dance-able, and they show the fantasies of the teacher. But during the year we need to learn these movements first so as to combine them later. Each year there are new movements that we have to master. So first we do simple combinations and then more complex ones. So this is an important issue.

Classes are different and children are different. I can repeat a combination from the previous years but if I see that the students can’t handle it, or it doesn’t suit them then I change it and give them something else.

If the students are trying, but they can’t do some movement, what do you do?
This happens. It depends on the student. There are students with poor traits and poor coordination and nothing works even if they try hard. Sometimes a student is talented but you have to tell them how to do the movement correctly and then they can do it. Of course, the teacher is always inclined to the talented students. Moreover we have such a school, it’s not a private school, it is a state-funded school, and we have to produce students who can dance well.

But everything happens in class. You have to focus on the more perspective students. You can spend time once or twice on a less talented student but if you see that the student cannot do the movement you can’t waste time, because we have very little time. Then the more talented students will suffer. On the one hand, it may seem harsh, but on the other hand, we need quality. And spending time on someone who isn’t going to dance, that will be stupid.

In the past they dismissed students twice during the course of the 8 years of study. What is it like now?
Generally they dismiss students after the 1st and 5th years. It’s another thing that, if previously the students left immediately, now they have the right to take the exam 2 additional times, usually within a month. So if they receive a grade of 2 out of 5, they can take the exam again and the commission comes together again to watch them.If they get a 2 again, they can try one more time. But it is difficult because sometimes the children and parents do not understand that it’s not their calling. Unfortunately that happens very often, and it surprises me that [it is the ]parents from the ballet world [who] can’t see it. I say “You can see this, you’re from the ballet world, you see the boy cannot do it,” and they say, “well we need more time” and I say, “Why, what time? You see he has no coordination, no extension, no jump”. It’s a very strange moment. If parents from outside of ballet say this, then it’s understandable but when it is parents from the ballet world, that surprises me and it happens quite often.

I always say, “Why do you want your child to be in ballet by any means that it takes whatsoever, if people tell you that ballet is not his calling? Ballet is not such a profession where you earn millions, you just have to love it!” And for example, the child does not want to study, he is being forced. Why? But sometimes you have to fight more with the parents than with the children.

What are the absolute minimum requirements for a boy to succeed?
We give lots of people a chance, especially the boys, because there are few boys and they are like gold to us. So we hold on to them as much as we can. With the girls it is easier, there are so many of them. We give the boys a chance until the very end. But if it is a completely criminal case, then we dismiss them. But we tend to coddle the boys.

Are extreme extensions important for boys now?
Everyone needs an extension now, at the age of 8. Previously it was not required. This borderline which did not exist in the old times — for men the main thing was jumps and turns and for women it was extension — that no longer exists. Now extension, jumps, and turns are important for both boys and girls.

Now the stylistics and aesthetic are different. Of course, We want all ballerinas to be like Svetlana Zakharova but she is unique and that does not always happen.

How do the boys acquire strength to lift the girls?
There is a class in athletics and the teacher 
teaches them body-building, specific exercises to build up the upper body in particular ,but also to develop the feet, extension and so forth. But the duet class is set so that at first they do not lift the girls. That’s the 6th year when they give mostly par terre combinations, and only in the 7th year do they start to lift. Sometimes they weigh the girls and if they gain 2 to 3 kilograms, they are freed from duet classes so that the boys do not hurt their backs. Boys develop very slowly, and their muscles are still weak, so if they lift a large girl, they can break their backs.

What’s the best part of your work now?
For me everything is important because any part of the lesson and rehearsal is important for the student to develop. I love both rehearsing and giving classes. For example in addition to solo parts which I need to rehearse with the students, I also rehearse the corps de ballet in the Waltz of the Flowers (done with many couples of boys and girls) from “Nutcracker’ or “Fairy Doll”. And this is also an interesting process because children come in from other classes, so it is not simple.

What’s the most challenging?
It’s difficult to always understand the student. I try to be like a father to them, but sometimes there are students who are very complicated and finding the right approach to them is difficult. Sometimes I manage to and sometimes I don’t. When the students graduate, the ones who were difficult and with whom I couldn’t find a common language, they come and thank me, and 
that’s really nice, because they have grown up and understand what I wanted from them, even if I screamed or threw chairs. The most important thing is that they understand why the pedagogue gets upset — it is because he wants a result and not because he wants to insult them. I never insult my students. Of course I scream at times, but they understand why.

What are your wishes for the future?
Concerning work, I hope we as pedagogues will always be able to achieve results, that our students value the process, because when they join the theatre it’s a completely different world. I want them to have the desire to come back to see us, just to say hello. Because there are cases when the students graduate and do not want to see the school again. But it seems to me that our task as teachers is not just to teach ballet, but to teach them the desire to dance and to return here, so that they might miss us. And understand how hard we tried for them. Often they do return during holidays, they phone us, or give flowers. This is always very touching. Anton Osetrov says to me, “Fedor Ivanovich, what would I do without you!” So God willing, may we always have the strength to work and help good students graduate from the Academy, this is our main task.