Behind the scenes in the career of a prima ballerina

February 22, 2020, 1:00 PM UTC
Irina Kolesnikova as Odette and Dmitry Akulinin as Prince Siegfried in "Swan Lake."
Konstantin Tachkin

Irina Kolesnikova has a wealth of credits on her dance card, but the prima ballerina has made her career from one particular role of a lifetime.

That would be the famous yin and yang characters of Odette and Odile in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, which has become her personal trademark since the age of 21. Her performance as the Swan Queen is regarded as a standout for a ballet that has been redone countless times on the stage and silver screen for nearly 150 years. After her debut at the London Coliseum in 2015, The Telegraph described Kolesnikova’s portrayal of Odette as “truly a thing of remarkable beauty and technically flawless.”

Since then, as a member of the world-renowned St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre (SPBT), she has gone on to dance in sold-out seasons in London, Paris, Seoul, Melbourne, Johannesburg, Hong Kong, Stockholm, and Copenhagen.

Konstantin Tachkin

Kolesnikova just made her U.S. debut in New York City at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Howard Gilman Opera House and took the time to speak with Fortune about her career.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Fortune: When did you start your career? What inspired you to go into ballet?

Kolesnikova: I became a professional ballerina at the age of 18, straight after my graduation from the Vaganova Academy [in Saint Petersburg, Russia]. When I was 5, I saw a ballet, The Sleeping Beauty, on TV, and I was so impressed by what I’d seen. That’s when I decided to be a ballet dancer.

Playing the twin roles of Odette and Odile has become a bit of a trademark for you. What made you gravitate toward Swan Lake? Are you looking forward to trying new projects?

First of all, in my repertoire of classical ballet, there is not only Swan Lake, but also The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, Don Quixote, Romeo and Juliet, Giselle, and also my favorite: La Bayadere. In regards to Swan Lake, I really love this ballet as I have a chance to show two opposite characters during one show. In terms of new projects, I would like to dance Anna Karenina, Manon, and Tatiana from Evgeny Onegin.

What’s your daily and annual schedule like? What kind of work/life balance is available to you? What about time off—is this a benefit available to you? How flexible are these requests during contract negotiations?

Almost every day I have classes and rehearsals. The upcoming tours are scheduled until mid-2021. The tour schedule is very intensive, but I always prefer to have a week break in order to recover and recharge somewhere near the sea.

What is your money management like? Does the company provide certain benefits for you at a certain stage in your career, like food and board, travel expenses, or insurance?

All costs mentioned above are covered by the St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre or inviting party. Indeed, I do have my own fee that is also covered.

How does the Internet and social media affect your line of work? Does widespread sharing or availability of video affect in-person attendance or career opportunities (for better or worse)? Also, how does it affect training?

Whenever I have any spare time, I have a chance to engage with my fans and ballet fans in general. Overall, social media doesn’t affect my daily work routine.

Irina Kolesnikova as Odette and Kimin Kim as Prince Siegfried during the London Coliseum season of “Swan Lake.”
Konstantin Tachkin

Injury must be a top-of-mind concern for every dancer. It’s said one performs better if he or she doesn’t have a “Plan B,” but in the case of an unforeseen event, do you have one? What kind of financial safety net or insurance is there for ballet dancers so they can continue to make rent until they can dance again?

Whenever the ballet dancer gets injured, he or she is still getting paid their salary until they can make a comeback to the stage.

Beyond injuries, how much of a concern is burnout in the ballet world? Is mental health being taken as seriously as physical health in recent years?

I never got into these problems, so I cannot comment on this. Even if there is an intensive schedule, I still get enjoyment by dancing. Any mental and physical spending are compensated by the reaction from the audience—especially during curtain call when the audience are giving standing ovations. You feel like you can dance straight away again.

What is your long-term plan for your career? How do you prepare for life after dancing professionally?

At present, I am not thinking about finishing my career. However, last year I graduated from Vaganova Academy with a coaching diploma—even though I already have the experience of coaching and preparing two [other ballerinas] for the roles of Odette and Odile.

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