Irina Kolpakova in the studio with Katherine Williams. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe.

Being coached by a treasure like former Kirov prima Irina Kolpakova is an experience most dancers only dream of. But company members at American Ballet Theatre have been the lucky beneficiaries of her wisdom since 1990. Thanks to Instagram, where pros like Gillian Murphy and James Whiteside share snippets of their sessions with Kolpakova, any ballet lover can be a fly on the wall during rehearsals with the famed ballet mistress.

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Irina Kolpakova, currently a ballet mistress at American Ballet Theatre at age 85, is a living dance legend. She studied under Agrippina Vaganova and went on to dance as prima ballerina at the Kirov Ballet (now the Mariinsky). In the '60s, she astonished American audiences with her interpretation of Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty during the Kirov's U.S. tours. She was a partner to Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, and for the last 30 years she has set and coached ABT dancers in the classics.

With an influence that spans so many generations of dancers, it's not surprising that Kolpakova's youthful energy is one of her calling cards. That infectious quality is part of what makes Aurora her signature role. In this clip from 1982, Kolpakova, who was 49 at the time of the performance, channels the teenage Aurora's unbridled joy with purity and lightness in each step.

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Katherine Williams as Myrtha. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe.

With a large exhale, Katherine Williams steps into a series of arabesque chugs, as if the force of her breath is propelling her forward. "Big step out, big," coaxes ballet mistress Irina Kolpakova, watching from the front of a small studio at American Ballet Theatre in May. It's a big step indeed for Williams—after 10 years in the corps de ballet, the 29-year-old is preparing for her debut as Myrtha in ABT's production of Giselle, her very first principal role. One month after the premiere, Williams was promoted to soloist.

"Myrtha is the hardest thing I've ever done," Williams admits. "By the end you feel like you're going to throw up. I was using my breath as much as I could to help me get through it."

While Williams is tall and a natural jumper, she was surprised when artistic director Kevin McKenzie cast her in such a fierce and powerful role. "Generally they give me the happy peasant girl, something softer," she says. "I think it was a leap of faith for Kevin to allow me to embrace a totally different side of myself."

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ABT principals Christine Shevchenko and James Whiteside rehearse "Swan Lake" in Singapore.

In the middle of American Ballet Theatre's spring season, principal dancer Christine Shevchenko takes a break from her comedic role of Pierrette in Harlequinade to (briefly) transform into a swan. During the half hour rehearsal, Shevchenko seamlessly transitions from Odette to Odile, running through her various solos without pause—save for the short conferences with ballet mistress Irina Kolpakova, which switch between Russian and English almost as quickly as Shevchenko whips out her fouetté turns (but more on those later).

"The rehearsal process is a lot different right now because every week it's a new ballet," Shevchenko says during a rehearsal break last week. "I'm really trying to squeeze in as many Swan Lake rehearsals as I can, and at the same time, I'm trying to prepare for Don Quixote, which is the week after," she explains of juggling the season's eight programs. "This is my first year as a principal during the Met season, so I'm learning how to figure it out as we keep going. In a way, I'm used to doing parts last minute because that's how I got most of my roles," she says. Ahead, Shevchenko shares exactly how she's gearing up for her Met debut on June 20.

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William Forsythe rehearses Kochetkova and San Francisco Ballet corps member Francisco Mungamba in his Pas/Parts. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

Maria Kochetkova has a voracious appetite for inspiration. A principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet since 2007, she spent the last few years guesting with American Ballet Theatre during their spring season. “ABT is very different from SFB—it has a very different rep, it has very different dancers, incredible dancers you can learn from," says Kochetkova. Last summer, she joined the company as an official principal, taking on a grueling schedule that leaves her shuttling between California and New York.

“I really wanted to learn more and also try to balance my repertoire," she says. “San Francisco Ballet does a lot of new and more contemporary works—we don't always do full-length and classical ballets, which I feel I need. And at ABT, you get the full-length classicals, but not so many contemporary works."

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In English, Le Papillon translates to “the butterfly.” Airy, elegant and frolicsome, Russian ballerina Irina Kolpakova effectively evokes the winged creature in this 1983 clip. Marie Taglioni originally choreographed Le Papillon in 1860 for her protégé Emma Livry; over a century later, French choreographer Pierre Lacotte created his own version for 20th century ballerinas. He made brilliant use of small choreographic details to characterize the butterfly and her human prince, here danced by Mariinsky Ballet (then Kirov) alum Sergei Berezhnoi. In contrast to his grounded chugs and low-relevé swivels, Kolpakova’s quick, buoyant feet seem to flutter. Her arms billow up when she lands from jumps like wings catching the wind and, at the end of the opening pas de deux, she alights on Berezhnoi’s knee as delicately as a butterfly would on a petal.

Both dancers had celebrated careers in Russia and have passed their talents on to new generations. Berezhnoi spent time teaching at Boston Ballet, and Kolpakova coaches ballerinas at American Ballet Theatre. Happy #TBT!

For more news on all things ballet, don't miss a single issue.

Ballet mistress Irina Kolpakova rehearses Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes. Photo by Kyle Froman for Pointe.

It's two weeks before the March world premiere of American Ballet Theatre's The Sleeping Beauty at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, and principals Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes are hard at work. As the couple begins Princess Aurora and Prince Désiré's Act III wedding pas de deux, they exude a rediscovered sense of classicism that seems strangely exotic. Instead of six o'clock penchées and indulgent développés, Vishneva luxuriates in a world of arabesques allongées, modest extensions, lowered passés and softened ports de bras. But rather than appear antiquated, these stylistic inflections further accentuate what is going on above the waist—the engaging relationship between Aurora and her prince.

ABT's new Sleeping Beauty, a labor of love spearheaded by artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky and co-produced by La Scala in Milan, stands to be the crowning glory of ABT's 75th-anniversary season. “Of all the great full-lengths, The Sleeping Beauty stands as a perfect symbol of classical ballet," says artistic director Kevin McKenzie. “I wanted a production that we could call our own, and Alexei delivered it. It's a perfect anniversary gift."

Gillian Murphy with her partner, James Whiteside. Photo by Kyle Froman for Pointe.

"I try to bring myself to every moment in the ballet, my own understanding about trusting that all is good in the world: going from Aurora's slightly shy but joyous nature in the beginning to expressing a more serene quality in the second act to awakening back into the world again to meet her soul mate." –Gillian Murphy

What makes this version especially distinct is Ratmansky's commitment to restoring Marius Petipa's original choreography, which premiered in St. Petersburg in 1890. A team of régisseurs at the Mariinsky Ballet, using the Stepanov dance notation system, codified The Sleeping Beauty on paper in 1905. The documents were later smuggled out of Russia during the 1917 Russian Revolution; they are now housed at the Sergeyev Collection at Harvard University. Ratmansky and his wife, Tatiana, both of whom learned to read Stepanov notation, referenced this score as well as photographs and other documents to painstakingly reconstruct Petipa's original intention.

"It's fascinating to explore what we can piece together about the historical style and Petipa's choreography," says ABT principal Gillian Murphy, who is also dancing Aurora. "It looks easier because there are lower legs and more demi-pointe, but it actually feels more difficult because you're constantly restraining yourself. It takes extra energy to sort of put the breaks on."

Murphy notes that, for her, Aurora is one of the hardest roles in the classical repertoire because of the stamina and technical clarity it demands. "Sometimes the simplicity and purity of ballet can be the most difficult thing to accomplish and to make exciting," she says.

For principal Paloma Herrera, who performed as Aurora in March (before her May 27 retirement), that is precisely why the rehearsal process is so integral. "You have the technique inside you so that you can be free onstage, especially in a ballet like this," she says. "It's a fairy tale—complete magic."

This summer, Open World Dance Foundation—an organization that provides unique programs and events to preserve the history and philosophy of Russian ballet training—is hosting a three-week summer intensive and teacher-training seminar in New York City. The program, held July 13–August 1, provides a rare opportunity to work with three women who studied directly under renowned Russian pedagogue Agrippina Vaganova: American Ballet Theatre ballet mistress and former Mariinsky star Irina Kolpakova; Ludmila Safranova, a professor at the Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg who danced as a principal with the Mikhailovsky Ballet; and Irina Trofimova, who studied pedagogy under Vaganova and has taught at the Academy continuously since.

 

This is not the first time that Open World Dance Foundation has brought together East and West. Last November, the organization joined forces with The George Balanchine Trust to stage the late choreographer’s work on Vaganova Academy students for the first time in the school’s history. Now, American students and teachers have the opportunity to experience a distinctly authentic window into Agrippina Vaganova’s influential training method. Kolpakova, Safranova and Trofimova—who are all in their eighties—are among only four of her pupils still teaching today. For audition and application information, click here.

Alessandra Ferri in "Romeo and Juliet." Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT.

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.

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Sometimes ballet can feel a bit like arithmetic: Turnout should stay at exactly 180 degrees, arabesque should rise to at least 90 degrees, fifth position should have zero space in between your toes and heels. But although there are certain marks we all aim to hit, the artistry in ballet comes from the limitless ways there are to get there.

 

Last night at the Dance Magazine Awards, former American Ballet Theatre star Susan Jaffe recounted the first time she met legendary ballet master Irina Kolpakova. At the time (1989), Jaffe had already been an ABT principal for six years, but she was so in awe of Kolpakova's talent and background as one of the last students of Agrippina Vaganova that she went up to Kolpakova, stood in parallel with her hands limp at her sides and said, "I know nothing. Teach me."

 

As Kolpakova graciously accepted her award, she spoke of how patient Jaffe was as they went back to the beginning every day so Jaffe could unlearn and relearn everything she knew about technique, and discover an entirely new way of using her head, arms and épaulement. It was astounding to hear how even a principal at one of the top companies in the world would go back to the square one to try a completely different approach to moving. 

 

Even though class can feel like a never-ending quest for perfection, a place where we all try to be "correct," there's never just one right way to dance. Because, if you really think about it, how boring would that be? 

It seems the most natural place for a dancer to perform is within a dream. Once the stage transports you deep into the world of the ballet, the audience experiences a surreal vision. Many ballets incorporate a dream scene, but Petipa’s Raymonda comes from the dreams of any girl who has fallen in love. The entire world slows as Raymonda floats through a heavy sleep, moving as if she imagines each step with closed eyes.

 

In this video from 1980, the Kirov Ballet's Irina Kolpakova-—now a ballet mistress at American Ballet Theatre—lulls the audience into a dreamlike trance. Her movement is legato and smooth, as if she’s manipulating the air. Kolpakova is the master of control—from her slowest renversé to her sprightly piqué attitudes. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

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