Prima Ballerina Irina Kolesnikova: “I didn’t know if I would be able to return to the stage after the birth of my daughter”

Irina Kolesnikova in Swan Lake, St Petersburg Ballet Theatre

The internationally acclaimed St Petersburg Ballet Theatre is heading to London to perform their lavish production of Swan Lake at London Coliseum from 22-26 August.

The stunning Prima Ballerina Irina Kolesnikova is dancing the famous role of Odette/Odile, performing alongside principal dancer Denis Rodkin from the Bolshoi Ballet.

We asked Irina about the famous Swan Queen role, balancing her dance career and motherhood, and her advice for aspiring dancers:

Why the role of Swan Queen is so special to you?

Odette is soft, lyrical, sad. I enjoy the special moments preparing for the role. I sit in my dressing room thinking of her tragedy – I sometimes even shed a tear.  I know that I’m very suited physically to the role; the special aspect is the emotion.

What is your personal interpretation of Odette and Odile, how have you made this role your own?

Odette-Odile is a very famous role and is coveted by most ballerinas. My way of interpreting the role and making it my own, is to try to dance it anew every time I perform in Swan Lake. I try hard to forget the last performance and make this next one new and fresh.  

Of course, I wouldn’t change the famous choreography but I do try to introduce new thought and emotional interpretation. I have done this role hundreds and hundreds of time – my challenge is to keep it fresh….To own it at every performance.

Which role do you prefer to perform, Odette or Odile?

I can honestly say I like both equally. My enjoyment is the very fact that it’s a dual role. Odette-Odile presents me with the physical and emotional challenge of two characters who are completely different. So I enjoy them equally.

Irina Kolesnikova in Swan Lake, St Petersburg Ballet Theatre
Irina Kolesnikova in Swan Lake, St Petersburg Ballet Theatre

You’re dancing with stars from the Mariinsky and Bolshoi, including Denis Rodkin; have you been preparing together for the roles?

Denis and I have danced Swan Lake together on a number of occasions. We rehearse together of course, but we don’t spend hours discussing interpretation. We are a good physical partnership – height, manner – that sort of thing, and for me Denis is a strong, confident partner for a me as a ballerina. Our physical confidence in each other allows us to let the emotion come through spontaneously.

How do you make the 123 year old Swan Lake modern for today’s audiences?

I don’t! I respect the original choreography from the 1895 Petipa/Ivanov production and its 1950 adjustments by Konstantin Sergeyev. Audiences love this ballet as it is. I don’t presume to change or alter it.

Irina Kolesnikova - Odette. Photo Nina Alovert
Irina Kolesnikova – Odette. Photo Nina Alovert

You’ve been a prima ballerina since you were 21 years old; can you share one special career highlight?

I always get a thrill when I perform in London and Paris. Those seasons are always special. When I returned to the stage after the birth of my daughter, Vasilisa (Vassya), that was very special for me. I really didn’t know that I would be able (or willing) to return. It took 6 months of intensive hard work – but I did it. A wonderful inner triumph and very personal.

What was the experience physically and emotionally returning to ballet after having Vassya?

As I mentioned earlier, my return was a highlight of my career as a dancer. Returning was a huge challenge and mostly physically so. I really had no idea how difficult it was going to be.

I didn’t have the luxury of time. I was scheduled to perform in Istanbul just 7 months after Vassya’s birth. All tickets were sold out. I had no escape. It was enormously difficult. Much harder than I had expected.

I had to re-train my whole body and, at the same time, I was still feeding Vassya! Emotionally it was difficult too. But I got there and I immediately felt an inner peace. It was like I was totally fulfilled.

How have you balanced being a ballerina and a mother?

With difficulty, but with 100% joy and enthusiasm.

What do you find the most challenging about being a professional dancer?

The unending routine of class. The need to be careful with diet – although I don’t mind either. The biggest challenge though is to make every performance as fresh and new as though it was the first.

You’ve had an incredible career with St Petersburg Ballet Theatre; what makes the company so special?

Our company is special because we are like family. My fellow dancers and I spend so much time on the road and experience so much together, we sometimes look at each other and say “how lucky are we”.  

In the last 12 months alone we have visited South Africa, Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia. It’s a fantastic life.

Additionally, our company gets to perform full length ballets and that gives a dancer such satisfaction.

Describe your typical day with St Petersburg Ballet Theatre?

At home in St Petersburg – up at 7 a.m. Take Vassya to kindergarten, then class, rehearsals – a mid-afternoon meal – dash to pick up Vassya, off to the theatre for performances or a class. When on tour, no day is ever the same. Travel, new theatre, publicity calls.

What do you love most about dancing?

Dancing!  The magic of old and historic theatres, applause, satisfaction after a good performance.

Kolesnikova Irina Lac des Cygnes © KT
Kolesnikova Irina Lac des Cygnes © KT

You have recently highlighted the refugee crisis in ‘Her Name Was Carmen”.  Why is this story important to you to tell as a dancer?

I was personally just so struck by the awful, awful poverty that I saw in the world. I couldn’t bear talking about it anymore – I had to do something. We partnered with Oxfam to try to bring some contribution to the relief effort.

Have you given thought to your future after leaving the stage?

Inevitably I will leave the stage, but not for a while yet. I am, however, studying at The Vaganova Choreographic Institute in St Petersburg and will graduate formally as a teacher in the not too distant future. That will allow me to both continue my dancing career and to pass on what I have experienced to teaching and coaching.

What advice would you give to other aspiring ballerinas?

Don’t treat a dancing career as something that can be done part time. This is a serious, time consuming – all consuming – profession. Be ready for hard, unending work, at times physical exhaustion.  

Be ready to sacrifice many of the pleasures that your contemporaries may experience. But also believe and know that you have chosen a life of exhilaration that is incomparable to any other.

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