Irina Kolpakova is a hummingbird of a woman, perfectly erect and poised as she walks into the cozy interview room tucked deep in the recesses of the Metropolitan Opera House. Her brown hair is kept off her face with a thin headband; she wears dark pants and a soft red sweater over which she wraps a leopard-print shawl. Voilà! Instant glamour. We shake hands and she sits, never wavering from that ballerina-perfect posture. Kolpakova is turning eighty the next day, but does not want a fuss to be made over her birthday. Still, the occasion demands some form of ceremony. As we speak, her expression is alert, her tone animated; her passion for her art emanates from her like a heady cloud of perfume. Her hands, as she talks, do a graceful little ballet of their own, and the geranium-pink nail polish only adds to their elegance.
Tell me about the city of your youth.
I was born in Leningrad. I was only there for three years. Then my mom and I moved to Molotov, which is now Perm.
And when did you start taking ballet lessons?
Nine years old.
Where did you study when you were young?
Molotov, because the Kirov Theatre—now the Mariinsky—was evacuated there. When my mom brought me to the first class, Vaganova was still alive. It was the time of Vaganova.
I wanted to ask you about Vaganova because not too many people in this country know about her contribution to classical ballet. What can you say about her teaching method? What was distinctive or different or important?
Vaganova told us to use all parts of our body together at the same time. Not only this movement for the leg, this movement for the arms, this movement you’re supposed to learn how to use for your head, neck. No, all together, all the time. And she was huge—in Paris they called her the Queen of the Variations. She was … amazing. And she was really smart. She combined French method with Danish. I think that’s unique. Her method was unique.
When did you first visit the United States?
With the Kirov Ballet. It was 1962, I think.
And when did you come here permanently?
Permanently? In 1990. Initially, Sol Hurok brought our company to America, and it was a huge success. It was three months of travel around America. He invited us again two years later. And then, when Hurok was dying, there was another impresario, and I came with Kirov.
And in 1990 you made your home here?
My home is Russia. Though I have worked here for twenty-three years, so, of course, I have a home here too.
In Washington Heights, yes?
I have a lot of addresses here. I always change. Because it’s interesting. And I love that wonderful park in Washington Heights, the Cloisters. Unbelievable. It makes me happy because I try every day, early morning, to come to the park and walk. Move my body a little bit. Then it’s easier all day for me to work. It’s very comfortable for me here.
I read that you’re considered one of the most memorable Auroras of your time. Can you say more about that role and what it’s meant for you?
That’s wonderful classical ballet, pure classical ballet. Absolutely genius music. The Tchaikovsky. And Petipa’s choreography. Vaganova told us, With each step, each movement, you’re supposed to do it very clean. With Sleeping Beauty, the ballet, we’re asked to be pure in the classical ballet. Light.
It’s a beautiful ballet. I love it. I wanted to hear you talk about it since you’ve danced that role. Can you talk about some of the differences between Russian dancers and companies and American dancers and American companies?
You know, life in the theater is pretty much the same. In class, then all-day rehearsal, then performance. There are different schools, but otherwise, everything is the same. In Saint Petersburg, we have a wonderful theater. That’s our home theater. We spent all day there. Wonderful theater. Stage, everything inside. The New York City Ballet has its own theater. And a few more, the San Francisco Ballet and some other one in Seattle. But when the company doesn’t have a home theater, like the American Ballet Theatre, it’s really difficult. At first you work. Then you travel. Then you have two months at the Metropolitan Opera House.
You’ve been the Ballet Mistress of American Ballet Theatre for a number of years, and you’ve coached some of the greatest dancers here. Do you want to tell us anything about coaching or your experience with anybody in particular?
You know, I coach them like Vaganova taught me to coach. They’re supposed to understand about the basics. Because it’s easier to dance, it’s less physical when you know how you need to present movement and how you can move around the stage. In our school they told us to take the whole stage, don’t move in small spaces. The whole stage. And that’s easier. I have worked here a long time because it’s comfortable to know more about the right school, about how to be different in different performances. Not only one type of dance. No, the dance is tailored to each person.
And I would imagine that having been a dancer, you know that being a Ballet Mistress enables you to, in a way, extend your career. I mean, you are still very involved in dance even though you have retired mostly from performing. Isn’t that true?
Yes. I need to explain some movement, I need to show something. Understand it, for young dancers.
And what are you working on this season?
The company is doing Sleeping Beauty, Don Quixote, and Le Corsaire. What else? A Month in the Country and Sylvia—I love Sylvia very much. Onegin, but yesterday was the last performance.
I’m sorry I missed that.
Yes, I worked a little bit with it.
Do you go with the company when they travel?
Where are you traveling this year?
This year we were in Hong Kong, and China, then Washington. And we’re going to Los Angeles after the May season.
Do you like that part of the work? Do you like traveling?
I like traveling. It’s interesting to see new cities. I had never been to Hong Kong and China.
Do you take class still?
No. No, I do my exercises.
I read that you still do some performing. You were doing the Czarina in The Snow Maiden.
Yes. It was with my husband, the dancer Vladilen Semenov. The Czarina is a very small role. But it was nice to be on stage again, to be on the stage with my husband. It was a very nice moment.