Vaganova was born in Saint Petersburg to Akop Vaganov, an Armenian from Astrakhan, who worked as an usher at the Mariinsky Theatre, and a Russian mother.
Vaganova’s whole life was connected with the Imperial Ballet (later the Kirov Ballet) of the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg. She was accepted into the Imperial Ballet School in 1888, the great institution of classical dance founded by Anna of Russia and funded by the Tsars. She graduated from the Classe de Perfection of the former Prima Ballerina Eugeniia Sokolova (she was also trained by Ekaterina Vazem, Christian Johansson, Lev Ivanov, Nikolai Legat and Pavel Gerdt).
Ballet did not come easily to Vaganova in her first years as a student, but slowly, through the efforts of her own will power, she was able to join the illustrious Imperial Ballet upon her graduation. By the time she attained the rank of soloist, Saint Petersburg balletomanes dubbed her queen of variations, for her unlimited virtuosity and level of technique.
The old Maestro Petipa cared little for Vaganova as a dancer – any mention of her performances in his diaries were usually followed by such comments as “awful” or “dreadful”. In 1915 the Ballet Master Nikolai Legat cast Vaganova as the Goddess Niriti in his revival of Petipa’s 1889 grand ballet The Talisman. Vaganova’s portrayal was a great success, and won her promotion to the rank of Prima. Nevertheless, she chose to retire one year later to concentrate on teaching.
She started to teach ballet in 1918 at the School of the Baltic Fleet which was founded and led by Akim Volynsky. In 1921 Vaganova began teaching at the Choreographic College, so at that time was called the former Imperial Theater School situated on Rossi street (after the revolution ballet department was separated from the Drama and Music). Though she did have a respectable career as a dancer, her leadership in teaching classical dance was what gave her one of the most respected places in the history of ballet. Her own early struggle with deciphering ballet technique had taught her much. She taught students who would go on to become legends of the dance.
After the Revolution of 1917 the future of ballet in Russia looked grim because of its tradition as court entertainment. Vaganova “fought tooth and nail”, as she put it, for the preservation of the legacy of Marius Petipa and the Imperial Ballet. From 1931 to 1937 she was an artistic director of the ballet of the Leningrad Opera and Ballet Theater (Kirov Ballet). In 1933, she staged the classical version of Swan Lake by Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa with Galina Ulanova as Odette, Olga Jordan as Odile and Konstantin Sergeyev as Prince Siegfried. In 1935 she revived La Esmeralda partly with her own choreography.
In 1934 she published her famous book Fundamentals of Classical Dance: it has withstood at least six editions in Russia and was translated into many languages. The same year Vaganova (along with Boris Shavrov) initiated the establishing at the Leningrad Conservatory of pedagogic department for training of future ballet teachers which she began to manage. There, some of her dance school alumnus became her students. Most important names for the dance teaching are Vera Kostrovitskaya (author of 100 lessons of classical dance), Nadezhda Bazarova and Varvara P. Mey (authors of the Alphabet of Classical Dance).
Among Vaganova’s dance alumnus were the distinguished Soviet ballerinas Marina Semenova, Olga Jordan, Galina Ulanova, Tatiana Vecheslova, Feya Balabina, Natalia Dudinskaya, Galina Kirillova, Alla Shelest, Ninel Petrova, Nonna Yastrebova, Olga Moiseeva, Ludmilla Safronova, Ninel Kurgapkina, Alla Ossipenko and Irina Kolpakova among many others.
Her teaching combined the elegant, refined style of the old French School which Vaganova had been taught by Christian Johansson, the beauty and smoothness of the arms movements of old Russian School, strong and masterly feet technique of Italian School with more vigorous dancing developed in the Soviet Union. Her last school graduation was in 1951 — not long before her death.
She also taught the class of perfection for the female dancers of the Kirov Ballet for many years till 1951, when Natalia Dudinskaya succeeded her as a teacher.
Shortly after her death, on November 1st 1957, the Choreographic College on Rossi Street was renamed in her honor; in 1961, it received the title of “academic” and in 1991 it began to use the name Agrippina Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet.