Ellie O’Byrne went to Oslo to meet the Russian dancers bringing Swan Lake to Dublin next week
Onstage in Oslo’s beautiful Art Deco Folk Theatre, the dancers of St Petersburg Ballet Theatre are being put through their paces ahead of their evening’s performance of Swan Lake.
Members of the Corps de Ballet and the principal soloists are being drilled, their dance master playing snippets of music from an iPad as they take to the floor again and again, repeating complex sequences of jumps and delicate footwork with the dedication and discipline for which Russian ballet is renowned the world over.
Sitting in the 1,400-seat auditorium, the husband and wife team of Konstantin Tachkin, the founder and director of the company, and prima ballerina Irina Kolesnikova are watching the afternoon class.
Theirs is an interesting tale. Tachkin, a former parachutist with the Soviet Special Forces, founded St Petersburg Ballet Theatre in 1994 after he left the army. In the quarter century that followed, the young interloper into the world of state-funded Russian companies has met with remarkable commercial success on the international stage, cashing in on Russian ballet’s global reputation for excellence while remaining independent of sponsorship or funding.
Kolesnikova trained from the age of 10 in the famed Vaganova Academy in St Petersburg, formerly the Imperial Ballet School, Russia’s very first ballet school. The academy has close ties to the Mariinsky Ballet company, known as the Kirov Ballet in the Soviet era. Kolesnikova graduated at 18 and has been prima ballerina with Tachkin’s company since she was 21, receiving widespread acclaim for her singularly fluid and expressive style.
In particular, she has become renowned for her memorable dual roles of white swan Odette and black swan Odile in the ballet she will dance tonight with the company. As Odette, she is a creature of exquisite fragility and grace; as Odile, darkly seductive and charismatic.
“I prefer dancing Odile,” the 39-year-old star says with a smile.
While she says she hasn’t been counting, Kolesnikova knows she’s danced the lead in Swan Lake close to 1,000 times with her company, which celebrates 25 years in existence this November. Is it difficult not to get bored with a role she’s danced so often? She shrugs, and looks towards Tachkin to help her translate: she understands English very well but sometimes resorts to Russian in her answers.
“Yes, it’s difficult to stay fresh when you dance the same role so many times,” she says. “But I try to forget each yesterday and dance the role each time as though it’s my first time, to bring something new to the audience.”
Kolesnikova has spoken in the past about the “constant pain” that being a prima ballerina demands, and in particular, the challenge of returning to physical form following the birth of her and Tachkin’s only child, Vasilisa, now five. While pregnant, she stopped performing at two months but continued her regular exercise regime until the beginning of the last trimester and felt like she was “starting all over” when she returned to ballet following her daughter’s birth.
Now 39, she’s just been awarded a so-called ‘Red Diploma’ in dance instruction, the highest merit a ballet teacher can hold in Russia: is she planning an exit strategy for her retirement? There’s no swan song on the cards just yet, she says.
Amongst the things Kolesnikova wants to share with future students is a return to a fundamental element of ballet that she feels is at risk of becoming lost to emerging generations of ballet stars.
“The world is changing, of course it is,” she says. “More and more, I see the element of sport on stage, an emphasis on technique over artistry. To me, this is unfortunate. When you focus on athleticism alone, you lose the idea that first and foremost ballet is an art form. People are showing technique, but on the stage, the character and the artistry is the most important. You are telling a story.”
With a gracious nod and a smile, the prima ballerina leaves for her own pre-show routine.
Later in the evening, her words will resonate while watching her perform; the audience is breathlessly intent each time she takes the stage, hooked not only on the astonishing grace of her technique, but also on her expressive face, where timidity, sorrow, and a slow unfolding of love dance across her features as Odette, replaced by devilish glee, and seductive triumph when she’s dancing as Odile.
Tachkin remains behind to talk. He’s very proud of his company’s success, not least because of their independence, which has always been a cornerstone of his business model. “The idea was formed not to accept any sponsorship, from government or private organisations. In November, we will celebrate 25 years and we’ve proved that it’s possible to be a big company and not to take money or subsidies from anyone. This is the main difference between us and the big state companies.”
Bringing ballet classics like Swan Lake, whose original choreography is now nearly 150 years old, to new audiences is Tachkin’s intention; he doesn’t set much store by some attempts to modernise what he considers to be ballet’s masterpiece.
“I don’t think it’s necessary to try to change everything and do things in modern dress. I’ve seen it and I don’t like it at all.
The St Petersburg Ballet Theatre travels with 45 dancers. For their forthcoming Dublin Swan Lake dates, they’ve enlisted the RTÉ Concert Orchestra to play Tchaikovsky’s original composition.
“Some dancers prefer to dance to recorded music now, because they feel it’s safe,” Tachkin says. “It is more dangerous to have live music, because the dancers rely on the tempo so it’s all in the hands of the conductor. Irina depends on the music very much, on the conductor and on the first violin. If the first violin is not good, she can be worried and it can upset her performance.
“But,” he says with a smile and a shrug, “when you perform classical ballet, the atmosphere is always better with live music.”
St Petersburg Ballet Theatre’s production of Swan Lake, led by prima ballerina Irina Kolesnikova, is at the Bórd Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, October 22-26