On Swan Lake and being a mother: a conversation with Irina Kolesnikova

This August, St Petersburg Ballet Theatre are bringing their classic production of Swan Lake to the London Coliseum. David Mead spoke recently to the company’s prima ballerina, Irina Kolesnikova.

“Performing in London or in Paris is always a thrill,” she says. “London is without doubt my very favourite city and the Coliseum is such a beautiful theatre. It has a great sense of history and a unique atmosphere. I can’t wait to get back on that very special stage.”

Swan Lake is arguably the world’s most loved ballet. The St Petersburg Ballet Theatre production is certainly lavish. With its gorgeous Tchaikovsky music, magnificent sets and costumes, it’s Russian classical ballet on a grand scale. It’s also special for the simple reason that it remains true to the original, explains Irina.

“We haven’t tried to rework the scenes of the choreography or the story. We respect our St Petersburg traditions, the 1895 Petipa/Ivanov production and the 1950 adjustments by Konstantin Sergeyev. Swan Lake in its traditional form is a very special ballet. It has everything a ballet lover could wish for and is also a wonderful introduction to those people who might be seeing their first ballet. There are no surprises in our traditional version; just wonderful dancing and gorgeous sets and costumes.”

Irina Kolesnikova as OdettePhoto Nina Alovert
Irina Kolesnikova as Odette
Photo KT

Irina says that what she loves about dancing the dual role of Odette and Odile is the challenge of portraying two very different characters. “Odette: soft, lyrical, sad. Odile: fiery, aggressive, cunning. I take great care to portray two very different styles.” Whether she prefers White Swan or Black Swan is an impossible question to answer, though. “It’s the dual role that make me love the entire ballet. Sometimes my own personal mood on the day of a performance can influence which character I feel most comfortable with. But generally, it’s both in equal measure.”

When it comes to personal interpretation of the characters, she says, “I guess that every ballerina has her own take on the two characters and how they influence the dancer’s entire performance. I do know that I spend a great deal of my preparation time before a performance thinking of the characters and their back stories. While I’m stretching, while I’m limbering up at the barre, I’m thinking of the characters, making them mine, making them me. How it come out in a performance is up to the audience to judge I suppose.”

Irina Kolesnikova as OdilePhoto KT
Irina Kolesnikova as Odile
Photo KT

For the London performances of Swan Lake, Irina will be partnered by Bolshoi Ballet principal dancer Denis Rodkin. “A gorgeous man and a strong confident partner. And such a wonderful dancer.” She says. “We have done Swan Lake together before, here in London, and in Tokyo and St Petersburg, so I’m really looking forward to having the opportunity to continue exploring our partnership.” Irina will also be doing some London performances with Kimin Kim from the Mariinsky Ballet, while Bolshoi Ballet principal Yulia Stepanova will also dance Odette/Odile. “Kimin is something really special. Both Denis and Kimin are good friends of mine so it makes the season a double pleasure for me.”

Besides being a prima ballerina, Irina is proud mother to her 4-year old daughter, Vasya, “the most important thing in my life.” Balancing things can be difficult she admits, “but my husband and I made a pact that we’d make it work for us as a family.” Irina’s husband is Konstantin Tachkin, founding director of the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre. “Konstantin is the model husband, when I’m busy rehearsing he devotes his time to Vasya. I have to say, she is very well behaved and loves being in the theatre with me yet never gets in the way. We tried the nanny thing but it wasn’t for us. We enjoy Vasya being with us and treasure her more than anything in the world.”

St Petersburg Ballet Theatre in Swan LakePhoto KT
St Petersburg Ballet Theatre in Swan Lake
Photo KT

Irina says that it was very difficult to return to the stage after Vasya’s birth, though. “Much more difficult than I’d expected. I was on a deadline. I had sold out performances scheduled in Istanbul just five months after she was born, so I had to get back in shape quite quickly. I found I was mentally ready but physically my body had forgotten! The climb back to dancing fitness was arduous to say the least.”

Vasya already shows enthusiasm for ballet. “I’m sure she already knows Swan Lake from beginning to end. She watches all my performances either from a seat in the stalls of from the sound booth. She stretches with me each evening and copies my warm up routines. And yes, I see that she has great musicality; she feels music, something I consider essential for a good dancer. So, I’d be happy for her to take up dancing if that’s what she wants to do. But seriously, it’s too early to make or force those decisions.”

Going back to Irina’s own childhood, she admits ballet was not the first thought she had. “First, I wanted to be an ice skater, then a doctor, then a gymnast. Rhythmic gymnastics introduced me to music and movement and it was from that point that I knew my destiny was dancing.”

There are aspects of being a top dancer Irina isn’t especially fond of, including daily class. “Sometimes I also wish that I could give up my strict diet but it’s such a way of life now that I don’t let it bother me,” she says. She does admit to liking to eat chocolate before going on stage. “But don’t tell anyone!” she says laughing. “Oh, and another thing that I don’t like is draughty theatres!”

Looking into the future, good news for her fans is that Irina has no retirement plans as yet. “But one day it will happen. I’m currently studying at the Vaganova to get my teaching degree. I think my post-dancing career will have a lot to do with coaching and mentoring.”

The St Petersburg Ballet Theatre perform Swan Lake at the London Coliseum from Wednesday August 22 to Sunday September 2. Visit https://londoncoliseum.org/swan-lake-st-petersburg-ballet-theatre for details and tickets.