To watch Irina Kolpakova coach Swan Lake is to witness a true artist at work. Although long retired from the stage, the American Ballet Theatre ballet mistress still possesses a commanding presence and an instinctive artistic spirit.
"Don't think about your shape when you first see Siegfried," she tells principal Isabella Boylston during rehearsal for Odette's Act II entrance. "This is not 'port de bras.' This is 'Don't touch me!' " Kolpakova demonstrates, transforming instantly into the Swan Queen. Her eyes sparkling and alive, every inch of her diminutive stature swells with a palpable energy capable of reaching the highest ring of the balcony.
Call it stage presence, call it the "it" factor, some dancers just have a natural ability to draw people in and change the atmosphere around them. Stage presence can carry a dancer to a higher artistic realm. It's the final piece of the puzzle, the emotional heart of a performance that can bring an audience to tears. Without it, even the best choreography risks falling flat.
But what is stage presence, exactly? "It's doesn't necessarily have anything to do with acting," says international principal guest artist Alessandra Ferri, herself famous for emotionally captivating performances. While technique and strong acting skills are essential components, stage presence goes beyond. "It's what people call 'charisma.' It's being in charge of the space around you and in tune with the energy of the audience."
Ferri cites Rudolf Nureyev as the ultimate example: "You could not not look at him. Even when he was standing still, he galvanized your attention." But while some dancers exude natural magnetism onstage, others struggle to capture it, giving technically brilliant but emotionally vacant performances. With stage presence seemingly so instinctive, is it possible to learn?
"I think presence stems from a seed that you either have or don't have," says Ferri. "It can't be taught completely. But, you can help people who don't have it improve."
Yuan Yuan Tan and Rubén Martin Cintas in "Onegin." Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.
Darla Hoover, associate artistic director of Ballet Academy East's pre-professional division (New York City Ballet's charismatic principal Chase Finlay is a former student) agrees to a point. "There are some special dancers where it's innate—you can just see it, even at 6 years old. But I also think it can be learned, because you're speaking about something within that comes out. And we all have those things within. When it's cultivated and nurtured, stage presence can grow."
There are a number of reasons why certain dancers lack presence. Some might be self-conscious about their dancing, or feel embarrassed showing emotion. Others simply over-prioritize technique. Hoover notes that sometimes shy dancers need the stage to really blossom. "They feel safer onstage than they do in rehearsal because the studio is so intimate."
When students are struggling, Hoover uses music to coax them out of their shells. It helps them link feelings to movement quality. "Everyone has life experiences that are emotional," she says. "I'll ask them, 'How does this music make you feel? What happened in your life that fits that feeling?' " As students practice associating music with their own experiences, they gradually learn to tap emotions without having to think of a specific event. She admits that the process takes time and conscious effort. "But then you'll see that something's changed in them," she says. "They still might not have as much presence as the dancer who has it naturally, but you can tell that change has happened."
Kolpakova often tells dancers to think of an inner dialogue to help them connect with a character. Back in rehearsal, she reminds Boylston that her movements must reflect Odette's fear of Prince Siegfried. When Boylston tries again, her movement is noticeably more alive and expressive.
Although long retired from the stage, American Ballet Theatre ballet mistress Irina Kolpakova still possesses a commanding presence and an instinctive artistic spirit. Photo Courtesy ABT.
Sometimes dancers aren't aware of how full their movements need to be to register onstage. "My teachers would say to me, 'Irina, it's not enough,' " Kolpakova recalls. "It has to be bigger so the audience sees you and understands." In rehearsals, she reiterates her teacher's advice during a mime scene between Odette and Siegfried. "More," she says, encouraging Boylston not to be too tentative. She demonstrates, gesturing first to her heart, then opening her palms and lifting up through her body. "You're saying this is me. Me. Stretch up, up with your chin." Boylston listens and repeats the sequence, this time making a larger, more readable statement.
Of course, coaching can only take dancers so far. It's up to the artist to push herself beyond her comfort zone—and that takes the courage to let go onstage as well as a willingness to practice. If necessary, experiment in front of the mirror at home for a while to help develop confidence. Remember, too, that the studio is a safe haven for mistakes.
Observing other artists can help. San Francisco Ballet principal Yuan Yuan Tan, who projects a serene, ethereal quality onstage, always found Natalia Makarova's presence particularly mesmerizing. As a young student, Tan studied videos of Makarova in Swan Lake, Giselle and Romeo and Juliet for inspiration.
But while outside sources can help improve stage presence, growth must ultimately come from within. Dancers must be willing to open up and shed their inhibitions—no one can do that for them. "We dancers can be stubborn and just do things the way we always do," says Tan. "But to be better than ourselves, we have to be willing to change."
From the April/May 2013 issue of Pointe. Updated 6/24/17.