St Petersburg Ballet performs Swan Lake. Photos: V. Zenzinov

St Petersburg Ballet coming to The Venetian in Macau

Dancer Irina Kolesnikova is behind the success of the St Petersburg Ballet, which will display its magic at performances of Swan Lake in Macau

The St Petersburg Ballet returns to this part of the world next month after their last performance at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre in 2011. This time they’re bringing Swan Lake to The Venetian Macao as part of a tour that started in Singapore and will continue to Australia and New Zealand.

The fact that additional shows had to be added in the Singapore, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney stops confirms the troupe’s position as one of the most successful touring companies that rely on “Russian” ballet as a brand to attract international audiences.

Entrepreneur Konstantin Tachkin, who founded the troupe in 1994, says that “we are the only company in Russia with no state support or private sponsorship”. Instead, the company – which has 60 dancers and stages 200 to 250 performances a year worldwide – survives on box office receipts and in some cases, fees from venues – a remarkable achievement given the costs of international touring.

St Petersburg Ballet prima ballerina Irina Kolesnikova performs in Swan Lake. Photos: V. Zenzinov

The success of the company has much to do with their prima ballerina, Irina Kolesnikova.

Born in Leningrad (St Petersburg), Kolesnikova was trained at the city’s renowned Vaganova Academy, one of the world’s oldest and most respected ballet schools. In 1998, aged 19, she turned her back on more famous companies and joined St Petersburg Ballet as a soloist. By the age of 21 she’d been promoted to principal and soared to stardom, so much so that the troupe’s tours are often advertised as “The Irina Kolesnikova Season”.

A ballerina in the grand imperial manner with long, elegant lines, dazzling technique and glorious legato movement, it’s easy to see why Kolesnikova has won so many devoted fans. Having such a genuine superstar has helped raise the company’s standing – it not only performs regularly in world ballet capitals such as London, Paris and Tokyo but does so in prestigious historic theatres such as the London Coliseum and the Theatre des Champs Elysees, a rare feat for a touring troupe.

A St Petersburg Ballet dancer performs on stage in Swan Lake.

What makes such an outstanding ballerina stay with a company that tours all the time, especially when she has to leave her small daughter (she and Tachkin are married) to go on the road?

“I love to travel,” says Kolesnikova. “It’s wonderful to be able to experience so many different countries, cultures and people.”

That’s why, adds Tachkin, “there’s no problem getting good dancers to join the company. They’re excited by the opportunity to see the world.”

This is ballet as a commercial venture and, given the imperative to sell large numbers of tickets, the repertoire inevitably focuses on “big name” ballets such as The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker and, of course, Swan Lake.

After 15 years of touring, Kolesnikova has danced Odette/Odile in the ballet nearly 1,000 times. How does she manage to keep the role fresh? The secret, she says, is to find a different way to dance it every time: “You mustn’t repeat yourself – otherwise you would certainly get bored.”

The premiere of the troupe’s first original ballet in London this August also marked a shift of direction for the company.

Titled Her Name was Carmen, it uses Bizet’s music and elements of the plot of Carmen, but with a twist – the setting is a refugee camp in our own time.

St Petersburg Ballet dancers are “excited by the opportunity to see the world”.

Much though she loves the classics, Kolesnikova was delighted by the chance to dance something created for her. The theme also held a special meaning: “In April I visited refugee camps in Macedonia and Serbia,” she says. “So for me this is a very personal story – when I dance the ballet, I am dancing for the refugees.”

Deeply moved by the whole experience, she is haunted above all by the memory of a little girl who gave her a plastic ring.

“A few days later, we heard that she had disappeared – no-one knew what had happened to her. Apparently a lot of children go missing in the camps.”

The child – and the actual ring she gave Kolesnikova – were incorporated into the ballet and, commendably, the company donated part of the ticket proceeds to Oxfam.

While there’s no denying St Petersburg Ballet’s popularity with the general public, opinion from reviewers and serious ballet-goers is often mixed.

Although there’s acknowledgment of the quality of Kolesnikova’s own dancing and often praise for other dancers, there’s criticism of overall artistic standards and of the way the troupe is marketed as a star vehicle.

In this context, it’s worth remembering that the legendary Anna Pavlova toured the world in much the same way – in Peru a little English boy saw her and fell in love with dance: his name was Frederick Ashton and he became one of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century.

So you never know what seeds may be sown by Tachkin and Kolesnikova’s dedication to bringing ballet to a wider audience.

Swan Lake, St Petersburg Ballet, Venetian Theatre, The Venetian Macao, December 2 and 3, HK$388 to HK$888. Inquiries: (853) 2882 8818

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Russian superstar brings a fresh take to Swan Lake