Swan Lake, Irina Kolesnikova and my Julia Roberts moment: Behind the scenes of the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre

As Swan Lake returns to Dublin's Bord Gais Energy Theatre, we go behind the scenes to talk to the prima ballerina herself


"Dancing is like breathing for her — she needs to exchange the energy with the audience like she needs air."

It sounds such a cliché, this primal need for the dancer to dance, but as I look at prima ballerina Irina Kolesnikova across the table, I believe every word.

We've just finished a half-hour conversation around her role in Swan Lake, the production by the St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre coming to Dublin's Bord Gais Energy Theatre next week. Although Irina's manner is reserved (having a translator between you and the interviewer can do that), there's no mistaking her passion for her craft.

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Having started dancing at just 10 years old, Irina's ballet career has not ceased since then - graduating in 1998 from the prestigious Vaganova Academy in St Petersburg, dance for her was a reflection of the ballet culture in Russia - it was a religion. As we chat about life as a ballerina, as glamorous as it may sound (what little girl doesn't dream of living life in tutus?), Irina's dedication and sense of responsibility and duty around the job is palpable.

As our translator explains, she has been dancing long enough to be confident in her abilities, but to her, she and the St. Petersburg Theatre are one and the same - there is no separation between her and dance.

It helps that the translator is Irina's husband, Konstantin Tachkin, who is also the founder of the St. Peterburg Ballet Theatre. He dutifully relays her answers to me as she chats, but his own respect to the art of ballet, and to Irina herself, is obvious.

The term "power couple" comes to mind, but I somehow think Irina and Konstantin would find it a bit reductive.

Life of a ballerina

Playing the role of prima ballerina means that Irina's name is front and centre of every promotional poster for Swan Lake. Her name causes a stir among dance circles and she is widely regarded as one of the best in her class in the iconic role. A lot of pressure? Perhaps, but Irina has done this many times before.

Konstantin estimates she has played the leading role(s) of Odette/Odile over 1,000 times. In fact, it was the very first main role that she ever performed, so she feels a "strong connection" to the production.

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"Swan Lake is the pinnacle of any ballet dancer's dream career. Many can dance the part, but there aren't so many that can do it well, and in the way that Irina does".

"Every single performance, I try to find something new and fresh to bring to the role — if it became like a routine, I wouldn't do it," she explains. "Even now, this interpretation of the characters is not my final one."

As Konstantin explains, "Swan Lake is the pinnacle of any ballet dancer's dream career. Many can dance the part, but there aren't so many that can do it well, and in the way that Irina does".

Irina adds: "I can't imagine the moment where I won't want to go on stage and dance this role".

That moment is clearly not on the agenda for Irina, as she continues to be at the top of her game, despite her already lengthy career. Irina is now 39. The average age of retirement for a ballerina is 35. Add the birth of a child into the mix and I can hardly believe Irina still finds the energy to tour and perform as much as she does - 200 performances a year, sometimes dancing five full-length ballets in four days. I wonder, when she eventually hangs up her shoes, what the options are for a retired dancer.

"This year I graduated as a dance coach, to be able to teach ballet, which is one of the many options available," Irina says. "It's very important to me, whatever option I choose, that it is strongly connected to the artistry of the dance."

Swan Lake - spoiler alert

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Swan Lake, which will run in Dublin for just four days, is a ballet that everyone knows, or maybe thinks they do - there are swans, and romance, and beautiful dancing and...that's about the extent of our knowledge.

The real plot, unfolding over four acts, sees Prince Siegfried downtrodden at his mother, the Queen's insistence that he leave behind his carefree lifestyle and marry a suitable woman. Wishing to marry for love, Siegfried attempts to distract himself with a hunt but is stopped in his tracks at the lake, when one of the swans transforms into a beautiful woman, Odette, whom he falls in love with. But their love is a complicated one, with Siegfried later being fooled into falling for Odile, another swan, who has transformed to look like Odette in order to steal his throne.

Odette and Odile, the white and black swans, are both played by the same prima ballerina — a challenge in playing two roles that Irina relishes. "That is exactly what makes this ballet so interesting to play," she says.

"These two completely different characters, give me the opportunity to find something new every time in Swan Lake."

My first ballet

Sitting down to watch Swan Lake, along with two other journalists, I'm a little embarrassed to admit that this is my first ever ballet. I don't know the music, am not familiar with the choreography and the technical terms may as well be Latin to me. I secretly hoped I would have some kind of Pretty Woman moment to myself, when Julia Roberts goes to the opera and immediately falls in love with it, but feared that my cynicism would get in the way of awe.

I will admit, that for the majority of the first act, I found myself waiting for the punchline — the tension being built in the run-up to Irina's appearance could be felt throughout the room. Would she be as good as we all hoped?

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"I'm informed that the happy ending I just witnessed, where Odette and Siegfried effectively ride off into the sunset, is not the traditional ending of the ballet."

The bravos and whistles throughout the show said yes. Irina's ethereal stage presence made me wonder if she was really dancing at all, such was the walking-on-air way she moved around the floor. But what was really special, wasn't Irina's dancing (although even to my unseasoned eyes, it was flawless) it was her acting. Her wide-eyed innocence as Odette, swapped with the conniving sensuality of Odile, meant that you could be forgiven for thinking it was two separate dancers. An eyebrow raise, a hint of a smile — I could see how she still found ways to keep the role as fresh as ever.

And I got my Julia Roberts moment.

The ending of the ballet, as it turns out, is not as straightforward. I'm informed that the happy ending I just witnessed, where Odette and Siegfried effectively ride off into the sunset, is not the traditional ending of the ballet. As this is a Russian production, the storyline purposely avoids the heartache of Odette's death, in a development made to the ballet during Soviet times (but that's another story).

I have no doubt that audiences will flock (excuse the pun) in their droves to Swan Lake when it descends to the Bord Gais. For their Dublin dates, the RTÉ Concert Orchestra has been enlisted to play Tchaikovsky’s original composition, accompanying the 45 dancers. The ballet is a magical evening in and of itself, but Irina's enchanting acting, and effortless floating across the stage, immediately enchants the audience from the moment she debuts to her last bow.

St Petersburg Ballet Theatre with Irina Kolesnikova presents Swan Lake, accompanied by the RTE Concert Orchestra, at Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin, from Tuesday, October 22 until Saturday, October 26.

Featured image: St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre

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