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By Nina Alovert
Irina Kolesnikova looks like a princess straight out of Russian fairy tales. The 25-year-old ballerina from Konstantin Tachkin’s St-Petersburg Ballet Theatre (SPBT) has a feminine, well-proportioned figure and soft, expressive arms. Her face is oval shaped with a high, open forehead; her green eyes look like lakes. Technically she is a strong, classical ballerina who has a lofty jump and effortless multiple pirouettes. She has an innate expressiveness and she is a smart actress who knows how to work on a role.
As Odette/Odile in Swan Lake she performs without misusing high arabesques and attitudes. Her arms, which she raises as if they have sprung from her spine, are always wings—never snakes. Completely engrossed in the music, Kolesnikova dances poetically, without harsh accents, as if singing one unending musical phrase.
Her Odile is not a seductive beauty, but a magical bird, full of triumph. By simply standing next to von Rothbart, without taking her eyes off the Prince, the atmosphere around her becomes charged.
Kolesnikova’s artistic range includes lyricism, humor, and tragedy. She has dazzled in roles such as Giselle, Kitri, Aurora, Nikiya and Masha, the Russian name for Clara in The Nutcracker.
However, when Kolesnikova graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy in 1998, no one could have predicted her bright future. Kolesnikova grew up in St. Petersburg where her father was in the military and her mother was a kindergarten teacher. When she was a child taking gymnastics classes, she saw The Sleeping Beauty on television and was amazed at how ballerinas danced on their toes. She asked her mother if she could switch to dance and her mother agreed, enrolling her at the famed Vaganova Academy.
Kolesnikova remembers her years at the school with dread. Elvira Kokorina, her teacher, often humiliated her in front of the class and tried to convince her that she was ugly and untalented. By graduation, Kolesnikova hated the school and had lost all confidence. No one at the Kirov (Maryinsky Theatre) or the Musorgsky Theatre Opera and Ballet (the second biggest company in St. Petersburg) was interested in hiring her.
One day, while walking down Nevsky Prospect, she ran into a former classmate, Yuri Glukhikh, a member of SPBT. He convinced her to audition for the company, and this became her lucky break.
“I immediately had a hunch that she could progress through the company ranks,” said Tachkin, the founder and director of SPBT. “I asked our teachers to start working with her on Swan Lake. Even at the first rehearsal, I was almost ready to put her on that night.”
By the end of her first season at SPBT she was dancing Odette/Odile, but it took two years for Irina to regain her confidence onstage. Now Kolesnikova says that her ballet mistresses at the theater, Svetlana Efremova and Lubov Kunakova (both former Kirov ballerinas), are her real teachers.
When Alla Osipenko, the Kirov legend, saw Kolesnikova dance, she became a ballet mistress at Tachkin’s theatre in order to work with her. “She brought tears to my eyes,” says Osipenko. “I consider Irina a gem, a treasure. Thank God there are those we can trust to carry on our great St. Petersburg School. She is an artist—rare today—with technical brilliance. But first, she is an artist.”
Kolesnikova has placed in several international competitions including a silver medal at Varna 2002; the Natalia Makarova Prize and the silver medal at Perm’s “Arabesque 2002”; gold medal at Prague 2002 and a silver medal at Japan’s International and Modern Dance Competition 2005. SPBT published a book about Kolesnikova in 2004. Last year she was nominated by British critics for “Best Female Dancer” at London’s National Dance Awards.
Tachkin’s SPBT is the youngest ballet company in Russia today, having made its debut in 1994. It is unique because it is a privately funded company with no government subsidy. The company dances mostly full-length classical works and employs more than 70 dancers, who come from all over Russia.
When Tachkin’s company tours to England, Australia, South Africa and Japan, Kolesnikova is a favorite. “Kolesnikova is exquisite and in a different league from anyone else on stage. She is a dancer of magnetic power,” wrote Ann Nugent of Shinshokan Dance Magazine in Japan. Laura Thompson of London’s Daily Telegraph said, “a star she undoubtedly is.”
Kolesnikova’s performances in Russia are routinely sold out. The audience showers her with curtain call after curtain call and fans send multitudes of e-mail to her website (www.irinakolesnikova.com). The critics, however, are a bit colder towards her than their Western counterparts (maybe in part due to snobbery). But therein lies the phenomenon of Irina Kolesnikova. This is the first time that the mastery of Russian ballet is being represented not by the ballerinas of the Bolshoi or the Kirov, but by a star from a smaller, independent company.
Nina Alovert is a photographer, critic, and author. Her photographs appear in the book Irina Kolesnikova.