The English Girl In Leningrad was published at the end of April this year. The author Anna Wooster agreed to answer some questions for this blog. I think you’ll find her answers fascinating. Anna’s story is the kind of story people want to read. It’s interesting from the point of view of Russian history, and Anna’s personal account of life as a ballet student in the Eastern Block during the cold war. Read on to find out more. . .
Tell me a little about yourself and life today.
In a way my life underwent a big change with Covid 19. Not because I caught it but because it coincided with a heart problem I had which interfered with my teaching routine. Simultaneously the ballet school had to close down because of the lockdown imposed in Italy. With ballet schools closed for practically two years, my class of senior secondary school girls dispersed; mostly gone on to university. However now I still give a weekly class and theory session to my group of four teachers who run the school, teaching children from 3 to 14, in six separate groups. I help with performances, and revive some of my choreography and rehearse my teachers when they dance themselves.
Apart from the school I seem to be as busy as before but there is far less to show for it. Writing the book was very time consuming and getting it actually printed was the most stressful part of it. We have a big house and let two flats as Airbnb accommodation which takes considerable energy and organisation and then we have an enormous garden, with flowers, lawns, vegetable patch, fruit trees and twenty olive trees which supply us with delicious oil all year.
My husband is on pension but since his retirement he divides the chores with me and takes the whole responsibility for the olives and veg patch. Our large extended family is scattered all over the world with a daughter in Australia, a son in Portugal, a grandson in Australia, another in America, and yet one more in Scotland. My eldest daughter, and her eldest son fortunately live only half an hour away from us.
Did you always want to be a ballet dancer?
Yes. Like many little girls I said I wanted to be a ballet dancer even before I really knew what that meant and even less what it entailed. I needed to do something completely different from my brothers. As I grew older and luckily found an exceptionally valid ballet teacher in Mrs Nina Hubbard my wish to do specifically ballet grew and with it a particular delight in doing ‘improvisation’. This was a field where I didn’t have competition from my brothers and where academic abilities didn’t come into play. At primary school I was what they called ‘a late developer’. I was slow to read, hopeless at arithmetic, and a lousy speller. However by the time I finished secondary school I had seven GCEs including English language, literature, maths, and French. The more ballet classes I did the better my academic work became. When I went to Warsaw for the Youth Festival aged 14+ in 1955, I knew I wanted to be a ballet dancer and no-one could discourage me. This one-mindedness has been a deciding factor in my life.
Tell me briefly, for my blog readers who don’t know you or the book, how you came to be a student in Russia please. I believe your father had a great deal to do with it. By the way he sounds like a wonderful man, I should like to have met him.
Yes, my dad was a wonderful person, and without him I would never have made to Leningrad. Mrs Hubbard was Russian and taught ballet pre-Vaganova Russian style. She was the one who encouraged me to aim at studying in Leningrad. My father read an article in the Times, written by a Russian diplomat saying that peace and understanding between nations would be increased with the exchange of students of science and the arts. Answering this appeal my father asked if the desire of his daughter to study ballet in Russia certify for this possible exchange. To cut a long story short, this beginning led to me being given an audition to the Bolshoi school during the Moscow Youth Festival of 1957, which finally enabled me to go to the Vaganova Academy in November 1957.
The training you received in Russia was very different from anything in the west and when you returned to England you found you could not fit in. Tell me about this.
The attitude to ballet in the Soviet Union was totally different to the attitude in the west. In Russia ballet was a main stream art, in England then, it was considered elite entertainment. I came home full of hope, anxious to put to use the accomplishments I had achieved, only to realise bit by bit that they were not what was requested. All my friends, teachers, acquaintances, contacts , were left behind the Iron Curtain. There was no-one to guide me, advise me, encourage me. Coming straight from the Vaganova Academy, from being pampered and looked after by dedicated teachers, from working in the best possible studies and theatres, I found myself rehearsing in church halls with terrible floors, rickety barres, no mirrors with ballet masters that seemed to me to give classes that tied me up in knots. The impact of cultural shock that hit me was gradual in its undermining power to destroy self-confidence, however, slowly but surely it eroded my very will to live: I was on tour in Chester, poised on a landing leading down to the river Dee ready to get finished with it all, when a casual call from a colleague “Coming for a drink Woos?” changed the course of things.
You say in your book that you had to choose between being a ballet dancer or marrying the love of your life. Because you felt dance was a vocation and demanded your whole self. How did you find combining being a ballet teacher with being a wife and mother?
On marrying I decided that ballet would not be my one and only object in life. However three months after settling in Riva del Garda in collaboration with the local music school I opened my first ballet classes for girls.
I decided right from the beginning that the ballet school would not be another all-absorbing career. I never programmed lessons at the weekends, nor taught after 7pm in the evenings. School summer holidays, Christmas, New Year, Easter, were all dedicated to the family, and I kept one weekday free from teaching so I could do things with my kids. That said, life was a bit like a merry go round; school, kids, husband, house, garden. Sometimes one would have priority over the others, for example when the annual school performance came up at the end of May beginning of June, everything else took second place. But preparations for Christmas, making of cakes, mincemeat, puddings etc the precedence changed. My two girls and my son all did ballet with me, the eldest up to a teaching diploma, and the second daughter up to advanced standard. My son danced until he was 12, then he oped for other activities, ski-ing, sailing, tennis and football that he started when he was 8. My husband collaborated with the school in a practical manner, helping with the maintenance of the studio, lending his secretary to keep the books, driving the van with costumes to the theatre, making scenery, you name it.
Have you now completely retired from teaching?
As I said earlier I still teach my group of teachers, and conduct the odd rehearsal. The lessons offer a good opportunity for them to ask any queries they have about their pupils, or doubts on how some step should be performed. They ask me my opinion concerning their choreography, and particularly advice on making costumes. Life has changed, pupils have changed, attitudes have changed, parents have changed. I have great admiration for my teachers who face many difficulties and obstacles that didn’t exist in my day and accept they must adjust to the times in order to survive, nonetheless they do so still upholding my principles.
Have you always thought about writing this book or did it only come to you recently?
No, I had never thought of writing a book. I had a very low opinion of my literary abilities, although I enjoyed essay writing at secondary school. I felt my literacy in English stopped when I was 17 and went to Russia. There I learnt Russian and I must say quite a bit of English too while trying to understand Russian grammar, but I read very little English. Then when I married I learnt Italian, there again English took second place and it wasn’t as it is now with TV in any language you want. In Italy they have the habit of dubbing all films in Italian too. It was doing the RAD BADE degree on Dance in Education by correspondence that really revived my English. We had to read copiously and write many essays. Because many students were not mother tongue English speakers, and I was living in Italy maybe they took me for a foreigner, but all the professors I had contact with complimented me on my English! My morale was very boosted by this. The idea of the book was connected with my degree insomuch as it was Jonathan Still, professor of the Music for Ballet course who encouraged me to write down my recollections. I sent him a photo of me in my Russian costume, the one on the cover of the book, and a description of the costume and how I made it and the adventure of getting the materials sent from England. He was most enthusiastic so I took another photo of me in the Arabian dance from Nutcracker and wrote about how I was chosen to dance this, and the rehearsals, the costume, and finally the encouragement from Nureyev who was the Nutcracker Prince at my first performance. I showed these efforts to my granddaughter too and she was fascinated and said straight away, “ Grandma, you must write a book about it all!”
You must have mountains of notes written over the years or did you just rely on your memory?
I haven’t written notes but I did write letters home to my parents when I was there and my father kept them all and put them is order by date and scholastic year. Those are the backbone of the book. Then I am afflicted by the squirrel syndrome, I never throw away programmes, photos, letters, press cuttings nor even postcards. However there is much in the book that comes from my memory, many of the sensations, anguish, joy, trepidation, wonder are there in my mind’s eye and add flesh to the facts from the letters.
How long did it take you to write the book?
The first write up, the one about the costume I did in 2016. The others followed at irregular intervals. During Covid lockdown I put it all on the app. Scrivener with the assistance of Jonathan Still. Then it really began to take shape. It was more or less finished by the middle of 2021.
How did you find self-publishing?
That was the worst part of all. I am not computer-minded. I am more or less self-taught or maybe it would be better to say, grandchildren- reliant ! Following advice from friends, I had the book professionally edited, and then sent it to a typesetter who prepared the files for KDP as that was the only way of publishing I could afford. There were hitches, and I am not 100% satisfied with the result, but it’s out, there to be read.
That’s the important thing. So much better than leaving it on your computer. What a waste that would be.
I remember you had originally wanted to print over 100 photographs but found that wasn’t viable. It looks like you ended up with around 30. How did you choose which ones to remove? How did you choose those?
Actually there are twenty-one photos with the frontispiece. First of all I was strongly advised by my editor to remove any photos which I didn’t have copyright for, which unfortunately were photos taken by professionals and were some of the best. I took out photos of buildings, and inanimate objects. Then I allowed myself only one photo of each role I danced, and one photo of the most important people in the story. I choose the photos where I think I look okay!
Ha… I don’t blame you! Do you ever go back to Russia now? To Leningrad or St Petersburg as it is now? Do you still have friends there?
Yes, I went back to St Petersburg last time in 2005, and went back to school and looked up those friends who were still alive and still there. Many, many people, teachers, classmates, friends, have died and many others have gone abroad. I saw my character dance teacher and the French language mistress. The group photo of our graduation year 1961 is hanging on the wall on the staircase. I saw a couple of friends and visited them at home. They now work either as teachers at school or in the theatre but life has altered tremendously.
I have been to Moscow much more recently in 2019/20 to visit my son and his Russian wife and son who live there.
Have all your family read the book and what did they think of it? You must have grandchildren old enough to read it now?
Yes, indeed. My granddaughter was my first reader, she has followed all the stages and has been a continuous stimulus to write the book. She was also an excellent critic, pointing out where I should delve deeper, explain more fully, or had been ambiguous. My second daughter too read it while it was in the making and contributed with many useful suggestions but above all designed the cover. She herself is a very eclectic artist, making use of an infinite variety of materials. It was her idea to use the Union Jack and the Hammer and Sickle as a background. My eldest daughter made a significant comment, she said “I was astounded how four years in Leningrad, formed your character, made you what you are, influenced your whole life!”
That’s very interesting. Often children don’t get the opportunity to read about their parents’ past.
My eldest brother and his wife who is Russian but comes from Moldava read the book in the making. My brother corrected my English and some family details and said chapter 4 was only for people interested in ballet! His wife on the other hand was enthusiastic about it and said it painted a vivid picture of a historic period. My husband read various parts along the way but feels he knows the story anyway. He too, finds there are too many ballet technicalities for a lay person.
I have had delightful messages from other members of the family, a cousin, father of three girls aged 12, 10, 7, read the book to them and they were fascinated and asked me all sorts of questions.
The cover shows such a lovely photograph of you, in a fantastic headdress. I believe your father had something to do with it?
Yes, my dad made the ‘skeleton’ of the kokoshnik, the traditional Russian headdress, from stiff wire recuperated from the stems of a bunch of artificial roses It was very difficult to find any materials like wire; there were no hardware shops or DIY stores. The roses were given to us by the theatre, they came from the opera Carmen! He made it in such a way that it was very sturdy and didn’t wobble at all. Then I covered it with lining and then lamé and we sewed on the ‘jewels’ and made the net of seed pearls which cover the forehead.
Did any of your children want to become ballet dancers?
Fortunately, no! None of them had all the qualities/gifts necessary for a career in ballet, and although they all had good points and gained joy and satisfaction studying ballet they developed other passions. My parents were very good about letting me do what I wanted to do, going against advice from school teachers and the like, and I was adamant that my children would make their own decisions too. They did, and all chose arts rather than sciences.
I love the story about selling all your clothing before you left and everyone wanting to buy items even if they were worn out. You bought a liqueur set as a memento. Do you still have it?
Yes, indeed! I treasure it together with the gifts that Olga Genrikhovna gave me.
I understand you are at the moment translating the book into Italian, how is that going?
It is going reasonably well. I did a rough translation with the Deep L. App. And am now reading through it to correct the most blatant mistakes, (like translating ‘the rake of the stage’, as though it was a gardening rake!) But when I have done that it will need to be edited by an Italian, then typeset for KDP, which I am wondering if I can manage myself this time…. Ah! Still a lot of work to do on that, but very necessary because all my pupils are Italians and although the younger generation is much more proficient in English than former ones, none of my teachers for instance have read the book and I do want them to read it!
Can we also expect it to be translated into Russian?
Maybe. My Russian sister in law has offered to help me if I decide to translate it into Russian. It would be a very good exercise for my Russian which has become very rusty, particularly the reading and writing of it. I don’t know who would be interested in reading it in Russia now, everything has changed so much….
Do you think this is the only book you have in you? Or can we expect another perhaps more about life as a dance teacher in Italy?
Good question! There has been considerable pressure put on me by my ex pupils here in Riva, to write up the fifty year’s story of the ballet school. I have stored and kept much information about the school and its transformations over the years and have loads of photos and videos. (From the 80s on) and my memory is not too bad so it’s not impossible that I’ll write it all up sometime…
I’ll be watching out for that one!
Thank you Anna for answering my questions and congratulations on producing such a wonderful book.
Once I began reading it I could not stop and I recommend that all my followers download the e-book or order a copy of the paperback so that they can judge for themselves. Anna’s website can be found HERE Link to buy the book HERE