Irina Kolesnikova has the kind of grace you notice as soon as she walks in a room. The prima ballerina has just arrived in D.C. after making her US debut at New York City’s Brooklyn Academy of Music and despite the long days filled with travel, rehearsals and performances, Kolesnikova is full of energy. She seems like the sort of person who has never tripped a day in her life, the kind of person who always makes the right move at the right time. This weekend, she, along with the rest of the St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre, will perform Swan Lake at the National Theatre, where she will dance the iconic roles of Odette and Odile.
Kolesnikova’s decades long career as a ballerina, which started at the age of 10 when she entered the renowned Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet, is obvious from a mile away. Her passion for movement and story and emotion is just as evident off the stage as it is on the stage.
“At the age of ten, when I went to the Vaganova Academy, I already understood that this was my job,” she says through a translator. “If you manage to get through it and graduate, then when you turn 18, you go to a theatre… It begins your life and becomes your career.”
And what a career it’s been. Kolesnikova has conquered many of the classic roles ballet fans around the world know and love, including Clara in The Nutcracker, Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, Kitri in Don Quixote, Nikiya in La Bayadère, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet and many more. While her resume is diverse, she’s made the most headlines for the role she’ll step into again this Friday, the rich dual role of Odette / Odile, which she has been performing since 2007.
The ballet, which is full of soaring music by Tchaikovsky and genre defining moments, follows the story of Princess Odette and Prince Seigfried, who fall in love after Odette is turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer. True love, as it usually does, can break the curse, but the sorcerer attempts to trick the prince with the help of his daughter, the beautifully evil Odile. The trick works and Seigfried accidentally proclaims his love for Odile instead of Odette. That betrayal causes Odette to choose death instead of staying a swan for the rest of her life and Seigfried, filled with remorse, decides to join her.
“It’s a classical ballet, it’s art that can be understood by older generations and younger generations,” says Kolesnikova. “There’s the music of Tchaikovsky, the fascinating story of two opposite characters, a moment of betrayal and the genius choreography. Plus, the magical atmosphere.”
That heady combination of beauty and sadness is what makes Swan Lake an eternal classic, she explains. “It’s all combined together. You hear genius music, you’re attracted to the beautiful picture on stage and you’re told a beautiful and interesting story.”
Although, after performing the role for 10+ years, Kolesnikova admits that it can be difficult for her to find new things to get excited about within the story. She’s always searching for that deeper layer.
“I dance this role so often… It can be hard to find new nuance in the role,” she explains. “I don’t want to be like a machine, that’s the hardest part.”
For Kolesnikova, the best roles are always filled with nuance. She loves meaty stories that give her a lot of emotional heft to work with, the kind of roles that stick with you.
“For me, the most attractive roles are dramatic roles, not just princess roles.”
While her career defining role in Swan Lake has been challenging and rewarding, Kolesnikova is quick to respond when we get on the subject of the most satisfying moments in her career. The answer lies in her daughter, who was born in 2014 and often travels around the world with her and her husband.
“After I had a baby, I went on maternity leave and it was so hard for me to come back,” she says. “When I was able to do it and get back into ballet, I was so satisfied with myself. It was my biggest personal achievement… It was a combination of motherhood and my career.”
Kolesnikova doesn’t take that opportunity to travel around the world with for granted, but it doesn’t hold a candle to how she feels when she’s finally on stage.
“The energy you receive from the audience when you’re on stage, it’s inspiring, it fills you with emotion,” she says, adding, “Physically, you even recover better when you receive this energy… It’s like recharging a battery.”
Swan Lake is at the National Theatre from Friday, February 21 through Sunday, February 23. Get your tickets here.