Ballet thrives on live coaching. Her roots extend to the source.

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Ballet thrives on live coaching. Her roots extend to the source.
Irina Kolpakova works with Catherine Hurlin, the American Ballet Theater’s youngest principal, at a rehearsal space in New York on Sept. 20, 2023. Dance, more than any other art, is an oral tradition, thriving on live coaching, and Kolpakova, at 90, remains the ABT’s principal répétiteur. (Seth Caplan/The New York Times)

by Elizabeth Kendall



NEW YORK, NY.- Irina Kolpakova was intently watching two dancers rehearse in an American Ballet Theater studio on a September afternoon when she abruptly jumped up from her seat, clapping to stop the action. SunMi Park and Cory Stearns had just reached the moment in the beginning of the grand pas de deux in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Nutcracker” when they join hands and rush forward, raising their arms to the sky.

“You must take all sky and all world in your arms!” Kolpakova said to them, lifting her own arms and enraptured face to the sky. And at that moment Kolpakova, who turned 90 in May, seemed like a young girl ecstatically holding the universe in her arms.

Kolpakova is Ballet Theater’s principal répétiteur, working especially with its leading dancers. Dance, more than any other art, is an oral tradition; it thrives on live coaching. And Kolpakova is a consummate coach, her skill evident in her rapid-fire suggestions delivered in an emphatic mix of Russian-English, her poses, her quick adjustment of a dancer’s chin or shoulders.

She has worked at Ballet Theater, which opens its fall season Wednesday at the David H. Koch Theater, for more than 30 years, bringing her exacting advice to several generations of ballerinas and their partners, along with her manner, a distinctive mix of rigor and impulsiveness, bossiness and empathy.

And now she’s having a full-circle moment. She is working again with Susan Jaffe, one of her protégées. Kolpakova has a particularly strong tie to Jaffe, the former ballerina who was recently appointed Ballet Theater’s artistic director. “Irina’s presence is so important for the company,” Jaffe said, “because she comes from the very source of classical ballet. Having her in our midst gives our dancers the inspiration to make that language new again.”

Kolpakova had a long and stellar career as a ballerina in the Kirov Ballet (today’s Mariinsky) in the former imperial capital, St. Petersburg, becoming known for her “cantilena,” a special kind of connectivity within the musical phrasing.

“She dances from a center of mysterious calm, and with an all but invisible attack,” New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce wrote when she saw Kolpakova on a Canadian tour in 1974.

But she brings to the coaching job something even deeper than her own dance experience. Born in 1933, she’s a living embodiment of the very history of her art since czarist times — the period when what we now think of as classical ballet had its full flowering.

She was in the last graduating class of Agrippina Vaganova, who codified the Russian training method and gave her name to St. Petersburg’s famous ballet academy. Before that, Vaganova was a ballerina working under Marius Petipa, the generator of ballet’s precious classics such as “La Bayadère,” “The Sleeping Beauty” and “Swan Lake.”

That makes Kolpakova, in ballet succession terms, a direct descendant of Petipa.

Each generation, and each company, needs to find its own way to dance Petipa. It was Mikhail Baryshnikov, himself a product of the Kirov, who invited Kolpakova to New York, in 1989. He was then Ballet Theater’s artistic director, trying to nurture a generation of young American dancers to replace the international stars the company had depended on to boost ticket sales. One of those young dancers was Jaffe, to whom he showed a tape of Kolpakova in the Petipa ballet “Raymonda.”

Jaffe remembered Baryshnikov asking: “Do you like her? Do you want to work with her? She was my mentor.”

Kolpakova accepted Baryshnikov’s invitation. “I’d always liked America,” she said. She had been with the Kirov, in 1961, when they toured “for three months — on the train! — New York to LA, stopping in all the different cities. We tried to see the Balanchine company, the Joffrey. …” She’d had a good life in Russia, she said, but was “interested to see how another ballet company lives.”

For years now she has worked and lived mostly in New York with her husband, Vladilen Semenov, her former partner at the Kirov.

I first met Kolpakova in 1990 in St. Petersburg, when The New Yorker sent me to write about how the dissolution of the Soviet Union was playing out in its most refined ballet company, the Kirov. She was already splitting her time between New York and Russia, and was on one of her periodic trips back. From my first day in the theater, I felt the reverence surrounding Irina Alexandrovna, as she was called. (Russians use the first name and patronymic to signal respect.)

I was so awed by Kolpakova, who at that time was already a coach, that I ordered a whole banquet at my little hotel to accompany the interview she had agreed to. (A banquet was affordable to a journalist in those crazy confused days when the Soviet Union had just fallen and the ruble with it.) Kolpakova impulsively offered to drive us to my hotel from the theater in her big black car — almost no dancers had cars then — and I saw how her grandeur was mitigated by a kind of amused modesty, a spontaneous generosity.

I saw those qualities again recently when I watched Kolpakova working at Ballet Theater. Rehearsals are brilliant theater on their own. Dancers were trying out different body angles, experimenting with partnering counterweights, shouting advice or questions to one another, laughing at mistakes. Then a sudden switch to absolute concentration to show a sequence of dancing.




And Kolpakova, mostly watching from her chair, was in motion too, raising her head and arms along with the dancer. Or she was shouting one of her Russian-accented favorite prompts: “You need stretching” or “move arms immeediately” or “Vo vo vo,” when someone nailed a phrase. Or “only move your this part!”

She would jump up from her chair to adjust a ballerina’s angle by touching her ribs or gently slapping open her thigh. She showed the dancers her own arabesque in plié, at just the right angle — chest wide, arms open, face alive. She took the ballerina’s place with her partner, push-pulling arms with him (“Hold your arm long!” she shouted to Daniel Camargo), demonstrating how to use the partner’s strength, indicating how the partner must hold the ballerina to let her move full out.

“It’s jeweler’s work,” Kolpakova said. She had just demonstrated how the slightest change of angle in the air can bring a dancer suddenly into focus — or ensure that a partner holds a ballerina without her pitching forward or falling off pointe.

What was most moving, however, was seeing the specific nature of Kolpakova’s emotional bond with each ballerina she was coaching, the precision of her generosity. With Park, who’s young — not yet a principal dancer — she showed the steps a lot, and spoke inspirationally about them. With Devon Teuscher, a principal, she analyzed.

“Devon has an academic brain,” Kolpakova said. “She studies how to master her body, so the steps look natural.” With the veteran principal Hee Seo, there was an even quicker shorthand: A questioning look from Seo and a hand signal from Kolpakova were all that was needed for Seo to become even more delicately commanding and womanly.

“She is great ballerina,” Kolpakova said to me in an aside.

At the end of the rehearsal I asked Seo what she had gotten from Kolpakova. “She was my first coach when I came to the company 12 years ago,” Seo said, suddenly tearing up. “She creates a tone in the studio that is always positive. She helps with physical preparation and mental preparation.” Then she smiled. “She’s the only one who knows everything about my life.”

After the “Nutcracker” rehearsals, I watched Kolpakova’s work with Catherine Hurlin on the Sylph Variation from Harald Lander’s “Études,” part of the Koch season. Hurlin, at 27, is Ballet Theater’s youngest female principal. She has rehearsed with Kolpakova for just a year, but their communication already seems as mutually trusting as Kolpakova’s with Seo.

“I don’t understand this position,” Hurlin said, turning on arabesque. “More stretch,” Kolpakova said. “A little bit more here — air,” she pointed to her own upper arms. “Flick of hands here?” Hurlin asked at the end of another fleeting arabesque. Kolpakova nodded, and showed with her hands.

As the rehearsal ended, Kolpakova said to me, sotto voce, “She has so much temperAHment” — the word is the same in Russian — “so much going on inside.” Then she jumped up to compliment Hurlin by imitating her intensity as a village maiden in a recent performance in Ratmansky’s “On the Dnipro.” But now Hurlin is supposed to be not a human, but a Sylph. I asked her if it was hard for a modern woman with a strong personality to become this enchanting, seductive, age-old ballet trope, the Sylph.

“Yes, it’s true, my personality is not very soft,” she said.

And yet, what I saw in their rehearsal was Hurlin, with Kolpakova’s encouragement, finding ways to infuse that compliant, seductive Sylph with just a hint of her own contemporary matter-of-factness. This sylph emerging in rehearsal was not a copy of anything — she was a lightly ironic Hurlin-Sylph.

What has she gotten from Kolpakova? I asked Hurlin in Kolpakova’s earshot. Kolpakova began to protest about what was sure to be a compliment, but Hurlin continued to think. “In answer to your question,” she said, looking up, “I would say port de bras more than anything else.”

Port de bras: the myriad ways that upper-body, arms, head and face meet the air. That is, all world and all sky.

As Kolpakova coaches a new generation of Ballet Theater's dancers, Jaffe remembers her arrival. “I’ll never forget that first day she was here,” Jaffe said. “She and I started working on that moment in ‘Swan Lake’ when the Swan Queen comes in. She was running around, showing those fast back attitudes. ‘Svobodno! Svobodno!’ she kept saying — “Free! Free!”

The other dancers didn’t know what to do with Kolpakova — her Kirov style, her eagle eye, her excited suggestions. But her arrival came at a good time for Jaffe.

“I overworked everything,” she said. “I was locked up in my body. My upper back was too far behind me, so my arms were always late.” Little by little, the two worked on what Jaffe called “lifting the body in a different way, so the arms can be coordinated, so by the time you strike a pose, you’re on top of it, not fighting against the music.” The rest of the company saw the change in Jaffe, and began to line up to rehearse with Kolpakova.

“Susan,” Kolpakova said warmly, “risknula” — “risked working with me.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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