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.


Ebullient and expressive, Kolpakova's lyrical upper body is a complementary counterpoint to the staccato steps in Aurora's third act variation. As she piqués traveling backward at 0:28, her legs extend long behind her while her neck and delicate wrists float with ease. In her manège, she hits each écarté with a thrilling accent. Perhaps the most exciting part of the video, however, is her bow, which goes on for a whole minute. The crowd's wild reaction is a testament to the astounding impact Kolpakova has had on this art form throughout her life. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

Jayme Thornton for Dance Magazine

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