GRACE, BEAUTY, PASSION – Vera Altunina radiates them all. A professional ballerina, teacher and choreographer from St. Petersburg, Russia, Vera is the founder and Artistic Director of Kirkland’s International School of Classical Ballet and (IBT).
Miss Vera, as she is known by her students, is the heart and soul of a school that draws pupils from as far away as Arlington and Enumclaw. Her summer programs attract attendees from all over the world. “I offer a very fundamental classical training, which is the foundation of any style of dance,” she says.
Vera graduated in 1981 from Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet in St. Petersburg. Graduates of this illustrious school, established in 1738 for the Imperial Ballet, include George Balanchine, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Anna Pavlova.
While pursuing her career as a professional dancer, Vera also earned bachelor’s degrees in performing arts direction and teaching, as well as master’s degrees in Choreography and Ballet Direction.
After coming to the United States in 1993, she held numerous teaching positions, including lead ballet instructor and choreographer for the former Washington Academy of Performing Arts in Redmond.
After she’d been teaching for a while, Vera noticed that a large group of students were following her from school to school. “I found that there was so much interest in the style I was teaching.”
So Vera decided to open her own school in a remodeled former warehouse just south of the Google campus in Kirkland. Opening day was Sept. 12, 2001, the day after 9-11. She wondered if anyone would come. They did come, and she realized that dancing was a way to help people deal with what had happened.
Vera chose Kirkland because it was a convenient location, centrally-located for her students, and because there were no ballet studios in Kirkland at that time. But she also chose it from her heart. “I was impressed by the beauty of this city. It’s like a miniature European town. I felt like I was at home in St. Petersburg. It gave me a welcoming feeling.”
In addition to ballet, the school offers jazz, tap, character dance, ballroom and even flamenco. Vera says her goal is “to give the opportunity for everyone to be exposed to dance. I really believe it’s important for the soul.” She welcomes all students, and believes, as her professor once said, that “There are no bad dancers, only bad teachers.”
THE SCHOOL presents three to four shows each year at the Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue – a traditional Nutcracker in December, a more contemporary Dracula in October, a spring show that rotates each year, and, if resources permit, a May show as well. The repertoire includes eight full-length productions with sets, costumes, lighting and choreography.
Vera says her Nutcracker is very different from the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s. “It’s traditional, like how it was performed for the first time in St. Petersburg” by the Imperial Ballet in 1892. The show is based on the original choreography, and the set was shipped from Russia. Audience members have told her “It’s like you’re sitting in a German house in front of a fire reading the story to your children.”
It takes three days to set up for a performance. The sprung floor alone takes four people six hours to assemble. Then there are the special projector, lights and screen – $100,000 worth of equipment all owned by IBT to ensure that the performance setting is world-class.
The school offers a Professional program for dancers who hope to continue on to a dance company or university dance program, as well as Preparatory, Open, and Summer programs. There is something for dancers at all levels of ability and commitment.
The staff of 13 includes instructors from all over the world. They have danced in leading ballet companies, as well as on stage and screen. There are 200 students ranging in age from three to seventy eight.
Many students have been studying with Vera for years. Maddy Tucker, 17, started lessons at age 6 because "My parent's friends recommended this school." Audrey Robinson, 15, has been at the school for nine years, and says she likes it that Miss Vera "is strict, but not in a mean way."
Fifteen-year-old Clarissa Lambert participated in a summer intensive program three years ago. After that, her entire family moved to Kirkland from Wenatchee so that Clarissa could study with Vera. "It's pretty, safe and clean here. We really like the area." Clarissa has been accepted to a summer program at the New York City Bolshoi, and hopes to eventually dance with a national ballet company.
All three girls are in the Professional program. They’ve made special arrangements to do some of their high school studies online, so they can spend half of each school day studying dance.
Vera’s dream is to start a conservatory – a boarding school for dancers that would include academic instruction, with majors in dance, choreography and teaching. A dormitory would allow her to teach the many students who want to come from abroad.
Although Vera can’t guarantee that a student will become a professional dancer, she says, “I can guarantee they will become strong people” with “a beautiful soul.”
And that, says Vera, “is the mission of my life. I want to produce beautiful human beings. One of the very famous Russian writers, Dostoyevsky, said ‘Beauty will save the world.’ When people become more beautiful in their hearts and minds, they start to live and act differently.”
“When I teach people, I touch their lives. When I do the productions, I touch people’s hearts. We have a very special world here. I just love it.”