St Petersburg Ballet Theatre

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USA     2011 2006 
In the last edition of this newspaper, I wrote that I had flown to Paris to see a performance by Irina Kolesnikova, Prima Ballerina of the Saint Petersburg Ballet Theatre whose founder and General Director is Konstantin Tachkin.

Irina Kolesnikova is one of my favourite Russian ballerinas, so I always take the chance to see her perform when I can. For most of the year Tachkin’s company tours the world but has never been to America. Since 2007, the company has performed yearly at the famous Théâtre des Champs Elysées and it is always a sell-out. This time, however, it was advertised not as the company’s tour but the “Irina Kolesnikova Season”.

Kolesnikova danced two evenings as Odette – Odile in “Swan Lake” and one evening as Aurora in “Sleeping Beauty”. Her partner on tour was Evgeniy Ivanchenko, a leading soloist of the Mariinsky Ballet. All the tickets were sold out long in advance of the tour.

Kolesnikova was a huge success. Well-known Parisian ballet critics were present, including Nicole Duault, whose opinions Rudolph Nureev valued so highly that, when he returned to the Mariinsky Theatre to dance “Les Sylphides”, he invited her to the performance. Nicole referred to Kolesnikova as the “diva of dance, with whom only a few world-class ballet stars can be compared”. Eleonora Mitrofanova, UNESCO’s permanent Russian Federation representative in Paris, its Executive Chairman and Extraordinary Plenipotentiary, also came to the first performance.

There was an elderly gentleman in my box who started by speaking French to me, then switched to English, and then suddenly began speaking Russian: “Do you speak Russian? Why are we speaking in foreign languages, then”? He was the son of Russian emigrés, spoke Russian fluently but with a heavy accent. Most surprising of all was when he started quoting Blok’s poetry from memory. That was how Kolesnikova’s performance began for me – with Blok’s poetry.

Kolesnikova has danced “Swan Lake” for many years and I was worried that she had “overdanced” the role of Odette – Odile. However, to my pleasure, her performance in “Swan Lake” looked fresh and, in many respects, surprising, almost as if it was her premier. There are no technical difficulties for Kolesnikova; she freely gave herself to the music and to her own physical and artistic interpretation of the role. There were many surprising moments of improvisation in her interpretation. I want to write about her second performance of “Swan Lake” since this made a special impression on me, but I am not going to go into the performance in detail. I was left with a singular feeling that something magical had taken place whose effect on the audience I do not want to analyse here. The ballerina alone created around herself an atmosphere of romantic legend, as enchanting in the scenes with the swans as in the Prince’s palace. Her exquisite poses, the beautiful movement of her arms, her captivating grace, her musicality, and the cantilena of her dancing… all these wordy descriptions still do not give the right impression of Kolesnikova’s performance. I will restrict myself to a few nuances in the ballerina’s performance.

In his book on “Swan Lake”, A. Demidov, the famous critic and ballet historian wrote that the Odette character is a character “languishing in the slavery of femininity”. That is what I saw in Kolesnikova’s Odette several years ago. However, in Paris new colours appeared in Kolesnikova’s Odette. You just had to see how, on the beat of Rothbart’s wings, Kolesnikova’s Swan, on the point of abandoning the Prince, straightens herself and proudly tosses her head. It is not possible not to abandon him, however; she cannot prevent herself from subjugating herself to Rothbart’s evil will. Her soul, however, remains proud and free even when it takes on its bewitched, royal likeness. This is a proud soul in captivity, though the idea that the persona is “languishing in the slavery of femininity”, still obtains.

Occasionally the ballerina makes a slight change in the movements of her arms in order to underline the spiritual mood of her character. Thus, in the adagio with the Prince, Odette suddenly lifts one arm in the usual “Swan” manner and the other arm also makes a move upwards, when suddenly, bending at the wrist and elbow it falls down as if to illustrate that her spirit does not believe it will be saved and liberated. This movement is repeated by Odile in order to dispel the Prince’s doubts.

Kolesnikova’s Odile arrived at the Prince’s ball filled with exaltation; but this exaltation suggested trepidation. I felt that she was simultaneously quite the earthbound antithesis of Odette and the sinister persona from gothic romanticism. When Kolesnikova dances Odette it is exquisitely sensual, and when she dances Odile something almost bacchanalian comes to the fore. Suddenly her face froze as if it had lost all expression. She cast a look somewhere out into the darkness of the auditorium and you felt that a malicious, occult figure had just revealed itself from beneath the mask of a smiling female face.

The company is dancing K.M. Sergeev’s redaction of “Swan Lake”, the first and last scene of which have become desperately old-fashioned. The nonsensical happy end disrupts everyone who performs in this ballet, Kolesnikova included. Therefore, the magic circle that Kolesnikova used to illustrate a romantic tale about a bewitched princess contained within itself a performance starting from Odette’s first appearance and ending with the Prince’s final battle with Rothbart for Odette’s salvation.

Evgeniy Ivanchenko is not one of those especially emotional dancers, but he is good-looking, noble and well proportioned. Most importantly, his is undoubtedly a blue-blooded prince who manages to carry himself with dignity. At the end of the day, a well brought-up prince should not express his emotions too openly. Ivanchenko is a dancer “of the old school”; he knows what he is doing on stage, you never see him waiting for his variations, and he is constantly engrossed in what is going on on stage. His dancing, his posture and gestures, all were elegant; his jump – high and soft. Not once did he transgress against the beauty of classical dance. As partners Kolesnikova and Ivanchenko looked fine together.
Everything seems to be going as well as it possibly can for Kolesnikova: her success is complete and her shows a sell-out. On French television, Mitrofanova called her the best Russian ballerina. Moreover, these are words spoken not about a star from the Mariinsky or Bolshoi theatres but about a dancer from an independent company not supported by the big names of famous theatres! However, all these words about Kolesnikova’s performance concern just one ballet: “Swan Lake”. The problem the ballerina has is her limited repertoire.

The company tours the world, and other countries, in the main, expect Russian ballet companies to perform classical ballets. Therefore, the company only has a few ballets in its repertoire. As a consequence, this marvellous ballerina is at risk of being considered in the history of ballet as just as one of the best performers of Odette – Odile. Kolesnikova has danced in Peter Schaufus’ company, in his new ballet entitled “Divas”. Irina danced the role of Judy Garland. I read some rapturous reviews, but this is her only experience of performing contemporary dance; i.e. just an episode in her biography. Isn’t it a shame that such a talent will not be able to be developed further! At present, the ballerina is at the height of her talent. What does the future hold for her?

The experience of this theatrical miracle created by Kolesnikova in “Swan Lake” in Paris will live long in the memory. Therefore, I will conclude with a quotation from Blok’s poetry, with which, for me, as I said, the “Irina Kolesnikova Season” in Paris, began:
“And my soul is filling fretfully yet in vain
With distant and wondrous recollections…”

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