Irina Wunder received her classical training in Turkmenistan, then a republic of the former Soviet Union. She performed with the Republic’s Theater of Opera and Ballet and toured with the company in the former Soviet republics. She was also a guest artist with the Ballet Nacional del Peru. While in Lima, Peru, Ms. Wunder also taught dance and served as a liaison between the US diplomatic and local dance communities. Ms. Wunder holds a Master’s degree from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance (London, UK), specializing in methodology and optimal practices of performing artists. Ms. Wunder is on the faculty of the Department of Performing Arts at American University in Washington, DC and Ballet NoVa Center for Dance in Arlington, VA. She taught at the Dance Institute of Washington and the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC.
Q: Who were your main dance mentors and what did you learn from them?
A: I probably did not fully appreciate or understand my wonderful teacher when I was a young pupil in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, then a Soviet Republic. The teacher, who I believe is now in her 80s and living in the United States, Edisa Gazarovna Sarvazyan, is of Turkmen Armenian descent and a graduate of the famed Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg. In all likelihood, she would not remember me – after all, she taught so many of us – but I think of her as my lucky fortune, the “Pedagogue” with a capital letter. She had a great sense of classical style and a flare for dramatic intensity and expression. For her, the former was her preference but the latter was mandatory: a “dancer” must be a presence. She was always impeccable in her demeanor and she demanded the same standard from everyone and everything around her.
At the time in the 1980s we had no immediate access to audio or video recordings.. The word technology was not in our vocabulary. The teachers, the classroom, the theater and ballet photographs cut out from various periodicals and postcards were our only sources of examples and mentors. The wall above my bed was covered with clippings of articles, photographs and images of art and dance. It was a world all its own. I think of those young years as a time of great happiness, kindness and gratitude for an excellent classical dance education.
Q: How and when did you decide that you wanted to teach dance?
A: In the summer of 2006, my husband was assigned by the State Department as the Counselor for Public Affairs at the US Embassy in Lima, Peru and I accompanied him on the assignment. There I got to know everyone in the ballet community in Peru. I also met Dana Tai Soon Burgess, a Washington-DC based dance artist who came to Lima as a Fulbright specialist to work with the University of San Marcos dance company and the National Ballet of Peru. I watched Dana teaching classes and found it fascinating. If Dana did not get what he needed from a dancer, he would give a very clear image-based correction. Each image was not just associated with the movement, but offered a glimpse into his creative process as an artist, a person and a teacher. It was probably the first time that I thought that I, too, would love teaching. There is no fear of creative or human stagnation in the teaching profession.
Q: How would you describe your teaching style?
A: Each individual in class is different. In my view, adherence to any one particular style, methodology or rule of teaching cannot be effective. A teacher’s success lies in pedagogical talent, not solely in the mastery of style. For methodology (the technical aspect of teaching ballet), I read and re-read Russian texts and publications on dance pedagogy. Luckily, in Russia, such literature is still plentiful and can be accessed through any specialized book store. When in doubt, I consult my professional colleagues. This material and knowledge, however, must still be used with respect for individual differences in physicality, natural ability, and educational and and cultural backgrounds of today’s students. This is the pedagogue’s task.
One of my critical concerns is about educating young students in artistic and intellectual areas outside of the ballet studio. A lack of familiarity with art, dance and music history is detrimental to the development of a future dancer. In class, I use imagery that relates to poetry, fine paintings, sculpture and famous objects of art. I encourage students to go to museums, theaters, concerts and exhibits. A ballet dancer must have more than technical skill. He or she must also understand the cultural and artistic heritage that has shaped our art form, and the influences that are shaping it today.
Q: What is your favorite thing about teaching at The Washington School of Ballet?
A: I love teaching at the Washington School of Ballet and value the fact that it is the only school in the area that is attached to a professional company. Every time students come to class, they are able to experience what it takes to be a professional ballet dancer. It is an atmosphere of creativity, inspiration and work that promotes a desire to belong to this beautiful art form.
Q: Advice for people who want to start dancing (or are thinking of enrolling their kids)?
A: Anyone can try to start dancing at any age. For beginners, the initial experience with dance can be challenging and even tedious because ballet demands using and strengthening muscles we rarely use in daily life. My advice is to stay positive and be patient. It is important to establish a trust-based relationship with the teacher. And, do not limit your study to just the time spent in the studio. Did the teacher mention the name of Marius Petipa in class, for example? Spend some time at home finding out more information about him. Another new term, word, name, image in class? Look it up on line or at the library. You will be surprised at how increasingly exciting and relevant dance becomes in your life if you follow your artistic curiosity and imagination.
Q: Can you tell us one random fun fact about yourself?
A: At age 12, I desperately wanted to be shorter in height. I was taller than other students in the school. The ballet mistress would always put me in the back in the school performances. One of my classmates told me to always sleep as curled up as possible at night. It did not work!