We meet the stars of the Saint Petersburg Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake…and their angelic 4-year-old
As I am shown up to the suite where I am to meet Konstantin Tachkin, the Artistic Director and Founder of the Saint Petersburg Ballet Theatre and Irina Kolesnikova, Prima Ballerina and the beating heart of the company, I am more than a little nervous. Having danced when I was much younger, until illness put paid to any aspiration I might have had of a career in dance, I am very much aware that I am about to interview two of the ‘greats’ of the dancing world.
The St Petersburg Ballet Theatre (St PBT) is a relative new ballet company by Russian standards. Founded in 1994, by a man with absolutely no background in dance, it might seem surprising that it has become one of the most critically acclaimed touring companies in the world. However Konstantin, an ex-SAS soldier with experience in tourism and a deep-rooted love of the art and culture of Saint Petersburg, clearly knew what he was doing.
He is also a man who can get things done. Just seven weeks after recruiting his first dancers from the graduates of the famous Vaganova Ballet Academy (formerly known in Soviet times as the Kirov Ballet School), Konstantin’s new company gave its first performance, premiering with Giselle.
Irina joined the company as a soloist in 1999, aged eighteen. She was clearly ambitious, with a determination to rise to the top:
“For the first six months of my career I worked at one of the government subsidised companies and I realised that my career progress would be quite slow, as all the principal positions were being held on to by established dancers and my progress would be blocked.
“I wanted to advance quickly. I came to this company because I knew that I could prove myself and I would not be relying on another dancer retiring”. Within three years Irina had been promoted to Prima Ballerina. Konstantin adds, “In my company I am not interested in people hanging on to position, I am interested in finding the best ballerinas and letting the public decide. We are a private ballet company, we can only show the best, or the tickets don’t sell”.
It’s those other companies’ loss, because with Irina in lead roles, the St PBT has gone from strength to strength. The company has performed to rave reviews on six continents and in all the best theatres in the world.
The company is here in Singapore for the second time since their Singapore debut in 2015. They are once again staging the most famous ballet in the world, Swan Lake. Their performance is a reproduction of the 1895 original. The score is played in full, the choreography remains very nearly true to the Petipa’s original vision, and the staging and costumes transport you back to the great theatres of the 19th century.
The run is nearly sold out and I ask Irina what keeps the audience coming back to see the same ballet again and again:
“Everything comes together in this ballet; music, scenery, choreography and the story. It really is the perfect ballet… it’s also very important for me that my brain does something different in each performance. I look back on yesterday’s performance to see what I can do differently today”. I have no doubt that it is the prima ballerina’s commitment to continually exploring the emotional and intellectual facets of the role that helps keep the St PBT’s production so fresh.
Konstantin and Irina also don’t shy away from using their art to engage with the difficulties of the modern world. In 2016, as the company was looking to develop a contemporary work, the couple watched the developing Syrian refugee crisis unfold on the TV. This was the stimulus for the idea behind Her Name Was Carmen, a new ballet staged to Bizet’s score and set within a refugee camp. In collaboration with Oxfam the couple visited the camps in the Balkan states to ensure authenticity and to use their fame to raise awareness.
I wonder whether Irina found it difficult to dance Carmen and when Irina answers it is clear that the ballet left a lasting impression on her. “It was a very difficult experience both physically and emotionally. My body was being used in a different way. I was crying while dancing”. It was an intensely personal ballet for Irina, as the stories of the women she met in the camps were woven in to the narrative. She even danced one scene with a plastic ring given to her by one young girl.
The ballet was not universally well received but Irina is fierce in defence of its value:
“I’m glad we did it. There were a lot of people talking about helping refugees but not a lot of people doing anything about it and this ballet company did.” With a pound from each ticket sale going to the Oxfam Refugee Crisis Appeal the ballet raised vital funds for life-saving essentials for the refugees. I ask whether they would like to become known as ‘the Ballet company that makes a difference’ and Konstantin emphatically replies “We don’t regret, and we are ready to do it again”.
For now, however, it is back to a stage full of tutus.
There is no doubt that the story of Swan Lake holds an enduring appeal. It has a beautiful heroine in Odette; a young girl cursed by an evil sorcerer and doomed to live as a white swan, only taking her human form by moonlight. The plot could not have been better written by Disney; culminating in a battle between good and evil, as with all good fairy tales, love eventually conquers all.
I ask Konstantin and Irina about their own fairy tale, because not only do they work and tour together, but they are also married and have a four-year-old daughter, Vasilina. She is present throughout our interview and is, perhaps, the best behaved four-year-old I have ever met. Vasilina travels with Konstantin and Irina and has always known her life to be one of moving around. The couple travel for at least six months of every year and, apart from a couple of short trips, Vasilina has always accompanied them.
I ask these parents whether they, like so many expats, worry about the effect on Vasilina of being taken away from home. Konstantin’s answer reminds me that perhaps we should all stop agonising and start celebrating the experiences that life overseas offers our children; “I think for Vasilina it is very good. She sees different people and nationalities, countries, different architecture, different languages and culture. When we are at home she always asks when we are flying again”.
What will happen when Vasilina is old enough to start school (age six in Russia) is something they’ll deal with when the time comes, but for now Vasilina and her parents clearly embrace all the world has to offer.
When asked how they manage the demands of Vasilina’s day-to-day routine alongside the demands of the ballet company and constant travel, Irina answers with humour “It’s a little bit easier now, but when she was two, two-and-a-half, that was really difficult!” We swap stories of long-haul flights with toddlers and it is clear that Irina is very much a hands-on mother. In fact, the closeness between mother and daughter is touchingly apparent throughout the interview. Vasilina does not leave her mother’s side and touches her mother periodically, playing with her earrings or hair.
My own daughter takes ballet lessons with a great deal of joy but, with legs like a foal’s, she is yet to reveal any great talent. Does Vasilina dance, I wonder? “She is always dancing, every day. She doesn’t take class as she’s too young but she feels the music”. Typically children in Russia don’t start disciplined dance classes until they are older and their bodies are physically ready.
The daily routine for young dancers training under the Russian Soviet regime was notoriously brutal. Irina has spoken in the past of her experience at the Vaganova Academy and today quietly explains, “It was difficult, not between students, but the teachers were tough”. I ask whether she would allow Vasilina to follow in her footsteps and she replies, “From what I know it is easier these days. I believe teachers need to be tough and strict, but should not humiliate their pupils”. As for Vasilina, she has two very proud parents who will support her to do whatever she wants when she grows up.
Just a day after arriving in Singapore, Konstantin and Irina are off to Macau and then Hong Kong for sold-out runs before returning to the 1,500 seater MES theatre at Mediacorp for opening night of Swan Lake on 8th May. I am truly lucky to have been granted an audience with these icons of the ballet world. The little girl in me wants to perform grand jetés all the way home.