Pursuit of perfection

As she prepares to perform the classic Swan Lake to Macau audiences for the first time this December, Russian ballerina Irina Kolesnikova tells High Life about the many sacrifices she has made to be at the top of her craft.

It is every little girl’s dream to be a ballerina, as she embodies the quintessence of femininity. But tutu dress, pointe shoes, a perfect bun and impeccably applied make up are not the only requirements aspiring ballerinas obsess about. Being a professional ballerina is one of the toughest jobs in the world. Behind the glamor, performing at the highest level requires rigorous training, hard work and dedication. In ballet, effortless beauty is transcended through pain and sacrifice and nobody knows this better than Irina Kolesnikova, Prima Ballerina of St Petersburg Ballet.

Born in St Petersburg, Kolesnikova’s dream as a young girl was to be a doctor. Her father, a lawyer, and her mother, a kindergarten teacher, encouraged her to play sports. First, she excelled at swimming, then ice skating and gymnastics followed. It was her prodigious talents in these two artistic sports that led young Kolesnikova, aged 9, on her journey towards ballet stardom, which began through the doors of St Petersburg’s famous Vaganova Ballet Academy, the inspirational cradle of Russian ballet. Kolesnikova studied at the Academy under Elvira Kokorina and eventually, after nine years, she graduated in 1998.

During the same year, Kolesnikova was accepted into Konstantin Tachkin’s St Petersburg Ballet Theatre as a soloist. Her first teacher was former Kirov Ballet star and Honoured Artist of the USSR, Svetlana Efremova. Within two years, Kolesnikova’s extraordinary talent and acting abilities were recognized. She was promoted to principal and in 2001 became the company’s Prima Ballerina at 21.

It is in the definitive role of Odette and Odile in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake that has made Kolesnikova a global star. Her portrayal of the Swan Queen has become an indelible personal trademark. Debuted in 1895, Swan Lake is set to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s immortal score. It tells the story of Prince Siegfried, who falls madly in love with the Swan Princess Odette, a young woman who was transformed into a white swan by the evil sorcerer Rothbart.

Ahead of her performance in Macau this winter – and just like any other time – one of Kolesnikova’s first priorities will be to stay fit, because she believes that the body is an important aspect of the role she portrays.

“I have spent a lifetime ensuring that my body fits the physical aesthetic of classical dance, but the mind is more important. My challenge is always character, emotion and belief,” she explains. “The body has to be a given. It is part of the perfection we strive for. There is a ritual that suits the body, but the mind is individual to each dancer. I find working on character and keeping my portrayals authentic to be a hard job. Over the years, dancing, acting and living my characters has become an obsession. I am still obsessed, but in a nice way.”

Kolesnikova likes to be admired for both her technique and interpretation of the character she is cast for. The two elements must be one. In Swan Lake, she plays both Odette – a timid, innocent princess – and Odile, who is a séductrice and daughter of Rothbart. The two roles are far different from each other, yet Kolesnikova finds pleasure from changing character in the middle of her per-formance.

“I literally dance two roles in one evening: Odette, the soft vulnerable character and Odile, the tougher and cunning character,” she says. “It takes a great deal of technical skill to do so and is emotionally draining, but I love it!  The 15 minutes between changing from one role to another is crucial for me. Do not dare come into my dressing room at interval. That is my time, when I shed one character and absorb the next!”

Off stage, Kolesnikova is a mother and a wife. While being a professional ballerina is demanding enough, she also takes care of her daughter with the help of her mother and the support of her husband.

“I balance my family and professional life with understanding from all people around me. My mom especially understands the situation,” Kolesnikova explains. “She, like a good Russian grand-mother, takes an enormous weight from me and cooks for both of her babies – me and Vassilisa. She cares for us both and sings us to sleep after a hard day. My husband is the kindest man I know.”

If her daughter ever becomes a ballerina, Kolesnikova hopes that she will develop her own specific talents.

“Copies are not what we need. Originality makes great art,” she comments.

Devoted to her family and a master of her art, Kolesnikova tells everyone who wants to pursue a career in ballet that unless there is a strong determination, don’t even think about it.

“Do not start if you do not have the guts to finish. This is not a part time profession. It is a lifestyle, not just a job,” she warns.

“Be prepared to give up chocolate pudding forever! Be prepared to have an aching body and be prepared to work from 10am to 10pm every day. There are glamorous moments to be sure, but you cannot enjoy the champagne life when you have three acts of Swan Lake the next day!”

As far as her beauty regimen is concerned, Kolesnikova says that she does not wear make up on a normal day.

“My diet looks after my skin,” she smiles. “I do not eat meat, but I do like shopping, buying nice classic clothes and handbags – that sort of thing.”

Kolesnikova likes to be admired for both her technique and interpretation of the character she is cast for. The two elements must be one. In Swan Lake, she plays both Odette – a timid, innocent princess – and Odile, who is a séductrice and daughter of Rothbart. The two roles are far different from each other, yet Kolesnikova finds pleasure from changing character in the middle of her performance.

“I literally dance two roles in one evening: Odette, the soft vulnerable character and Odile, the tougher and cunning character,” she says. “It takes a great deal of technical skill to do so and is emotionally draining, but I love it!  The 15 minutes between changing from one role to another is crucial for me. Do not dare come into my dressing room at interval. That is my time, when I shed one character and absorb the next!”

Off stage, Kolesnikova is a mother and a wife. While being a professional ballerina is demanding enough, she also takes care of her daughter with the help of her mother and the support of her husband.

“I balance my family and professional life with understanding from all people around me. My mom especially understands the situation,” Kolesnikova explains. “She, like a good Russian grandmother, takes an enormous weight from me and cooks for both of her babies – me and Vassilisa. She cares for us both and sings us to sleep after a hard day. My husband is the kindest man I know.”

If her daughter ever becomes a ballerina, Kolesnikova hopes that she will develop her own specific talents.

“Copies are not what we need. Originality makes great art,” she comments.

Devoted to her family and a master of her art, Kolesnikova tells everyone who wants to pursue a career in ballet that unless there is a strong determination, don’t even think about it.

“Do not start if you do not have the guts to finish. This is not a part time profession. It is a lifestyle, not just a job,” she warns. “Be prepared to give up chocolate pudding forever! Be prepared to have an aching body and be prepared to work from 10am to 10pm every day. There are glamorous moments to be sure, but you cannot enjoy the champagne life when you have three acts of Swan Lake the next day!”

As far as her beauty regimen is concerned, Kolesnikova says that she does not wear make up on a normal day.

“My diet looks after my skin,” she smiles. “I do not eat meat, but I do like shopping, buying nice classic clothes and handbags – that sort of thing.”

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