Irina Kolesnikova, who performs at Londons Coliseum in August, says dancers should be nurtured, not pushed to the limits
A world-renowned Russian prima ballerina has become the latest star to condemn ballet companies worldwide for putting their dancers through unnecessarily brutal regimes.
Irina Kolesnikova, 35, doyenne of the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre, is calling for companies to nurture dancers, rather than pressing them to remain thin while pushing themselves to physically dangerous levels.
Kolesnikovas previous London performances at the Royal Albert Hall and the Coliseum sold out, and in August she is returning to the Coliseum at the same time as the Bolshoi Ballet from Moscow arrives at Covent Garden. Before that summer visit, she told the Observer: Big companies demand of their dancers at least 10-hour days 10hours of non-stop physically demanding performance. Im not the only one who thinks this is counterproductive. At some point the body just switches off. Declining to name specific ballet companies, she said: In my career with the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre, Ive danced nearly 1,000 Swan Lakes. In 2015 I danced at the London Coliseum seven Swan Lakes and two La Bayadres over 11days. This may sound like an intense workload, but I believe I am only able to be so productive precisely because I have a more gradual and gentle rehearsal period.
Kolesnikova believes some companies are more concerned about their brand than their dancers. The ballet world frowns on the individual freedom of dancers. The ballet brands come first not the freedom of the individual dancer, she said. In the ballet world, in too many cases, the status of dancers is similar to that of actors in medieval theatre subservient. There are few personal freedoms and dancers have to commit to tough regimes.
The extreme pressure imposed on dancers by companies are a common problem not only for Russia or Britain but worldwide, she said. A sensitive, collaborative relationship between dancer and choreographer can get the best out of a performer just look at the theatre. It was once normal for the director to be the only authority in the room, the actor merely a human puppet. Now, that approach simply wouldnt be tolerated by the performer. The culture in ballet will have to change. It is inevitable.
Kolesnikova has struggled with her weight since childhood. She said her teachers in Leningrad made her feel like ballets ugly duckling, constantly telling her: Look at your figure. What do you look like? Youll never be a ballerina. She said: By belittling us in class our teachers thought they were helping correct our shortcomings, and didnt understand that all they were doing was destroying our self-belief they were traumatising the child psychologically and, even with the passing of time, not everyone got over that. Sometimes these requirements verge on obsessive and have little to do with your actual performance.
Erin Sanchez of One Dance UK, which represents professional companies and individual dancers, said Kolesnikova was discussing very important issues. She said: One Dance UK has worked for the past 30 years to make significant improvements for the psychological and physical health of dancers, and we are aware of the pressures that dancers, companies and theatres face. It is important to recognise a dual responsibility for care from, and collaboration between, dancers and companies or theatres to promote the health and performance of dancers. We have seen improvements in education and clinical services available for dancers; however, there is certainly more work to be done.
Kolesnikova is bringing to the Coliseum a new ballet version of Carmen, the story of jealousy and love between a soldier and a gypsy woman. Called Her Name Was Carmen, the production will be set in a refugee camp. She has been working with Oxfam to raise awareness of unaccompanied child refugees. Last month she visited the Tabanovce refugee camp, close to Macedonias border with Serbia.
She said she was overwhelmed when a little girl put a plastic ring on her finger: Ill be wearing this ring for my performances of Carmen and I wont take it off until I know that little girls like her have a place in the world a world that is theirs as well as mine.