The world-renowned St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre is performing Swan Lake in Christchurch late December. Christine de Felice speaks to principal dancer Irina Kolesnikova, about her life as a professional ballerina.
The St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre (SPBT) was founded by Russian entrepreneur Konstantin Tachkin in 1994 and is recognised as one of the world’s leading classical ballet companies.
The company specialises in performing the masterpieces of classical ballet loved by audiences across the globe. Giselle by Adolphe Adam; Don Quixote, La Bayadère and Paquita by Ludwig Minkus; Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, The St. Petersburg Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty by Peter Tchaikovsky; and Les Sylphides (Chopiniana) and Romeo and Juliet by Sergei Prokofiev – all these and more are included in their extensive repertoire.
Since the company was founded it has toured extensively, visiting numerous cities across Europe, the United States, South Africa, Asia and Australia. These hard-working dancers present some 200-250 performances every year, and SPBT is the only classical ballet company in the world that is completely independent of government financial aid or sponsor funding.
The company performs in many of the world’s most famous theatres, such as the London Coliseum and Royal Albert Hall, the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris, the Bunkamura Hall in Tokyo, the National Theatre in Taipei, and the National Theatre in Beijing.
The 60 professional dancers in the company are all graduates of either the world-famous Vaganova Russian Ballet Academy or other significant ballet schools, while well-known former dancers are their ballet masters and mistresses.
The jewel in the company’s crown is Irina Kolesnikova – her name alone means sold-out performances throughout the world, with ballet lovers and demanding dance critics alike enthralled by her talent.
To become a prima ballerina requires many years of tuition and practice. What age were you when you started ballet, and where did you start learning?
I entered ballet school at the Vaganova Institute when I was eight years old and graduated at 18, so 10 years of study – and not just ballet, we also had regular schoolwork to do: maths, history, etc. To become a leading dancer takes even longer. I danced for five years before reaching principal status, dancing every day, practising every day.
Was the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre the first company you joined?
Yes, I joined SPBT [in 1998] as I liked the idea of a company that specialised in full-length classical works.
Have you been a member of any other ballet companies, or been a guest dancer at any other companies?
I have danced in gala programmes in St. Petersburg, Moscow and London, but mainly I stay with my own company.
What would a typical day be like for you?
A typical day is: Sleep in for as long as I can. Then a class at the ballet studio for an hour and a half. Rehearsals to follow, then my big meal of the day – fish, salad, soup. I also nibble on nuts and seeds for energy. I don’t eat meat, don’t have desserts and I don’t drink.
Is there anything you have to sacrifice for your ballet career?
See the previous answer!
What is your favourite ballet and role, and why?
Swan Lake has to be it. It’s a challenging dual role: Odette – the soft, vulnerable Swan Queen, and then Odile – the cunning, flamboyant seductress. Two very different roles. They are both physically and emotionally demanding.
Do you get nervous before a performance and if so, what do you do to calm your nerves?
Yes, but in a good, positive way. Maybe I’d say more excited than nervous. I’m confident in my physical abilities; it’s the emotional side that brings the challenge as I stand in the wings waiting for my first entrance.
It’s understood ballet shoes get worn out very quickly, so how many pairs do you go through in a month and how many pairs do you take on tour?
It depends on the floor surface. A good stage lino prolongs the life of a pair of pointe shoes. I use several pairs during a performance. Sometimes I prefer a pair that has been worn in; they can be softer on the toes! Sometimes I use a brand-new pair as they can give me a special feeling. Over the tour of six weeks, I’ll go through maybe 30 pairs.
You tour extensively with the St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre. Do you enjoy visiting and performing in different countries?
Oh yes, it’s wonderful to dance to new audiences. Every country has a new way of reacting. Sometimes you hear no applause but can feel the emotion across the footlights. Other times it’s wild cheering and lots of curtain calls.
Is this your first visit to New Zealand?
No, I was here as a soloist about 15 years ago.
Do you get the chance to go sightseeing in other countries, and if so what are some of your favourite places?
I love London – who wouldn’t? We were there last year and had a wonderful season at the Coliseum Theatre. I danced nine performances in 12 days, so there was not much time for sightseeing. But I do love the history of the city, and Harrods! While in New Zealand, I hope I can visit the countryside on my days off – breathe the fresh air and enjoy the famous fresh food.