An interview with Igor Kolb, principal dancer of the Mariinsky Ballet

by Marc Haegeman

Igor Kolb is one of the prominent male dancers of today’s Kirov-Mariinsky Ballet. He is 25, a laureate of the Vaganova Prix for young dancers and recently was promoted to principal of the company. Kolb can regularly be seen as a lead in most of the great classics of the repertoire, having in a short time matured into a dancer who is able to top his lyrical style and elegant, virile manners with a splendid mastery of classical dance.

British dance critic Judith Mackrell gives quite an accurate description after seeing Igor Kolb on a recent Kirov tour in the UK: "His huge jump and flaring line are pure Kirov, but it's his unusual modesty that clinches his power. Kolb's technical feats look all the more amazing because he never tries to juice up the audience before he whirls into action or hog the applause when he has finished." Debra Craine wrote in ‘The Times’ about his performance in La Bayadère: "Kolb is an immensely appealing Solor, a honey of a warrior who declares his undying love for Nikiya yet falls under the spell of Gamzatti, the Rajah’s beautiful, scheming daughter. So appealing, in fact, that you almost forgive him. His dancing, meanwhile, is splendidly realised, strong and flexible."

A dozen of years ago, a career in dance, let alone becoming a principal of the Kirov Ballet in St. Petersburg, the company of Nureyev and Baryshnikov, seemed anything but obvious for Igor Kolb. "I was born in Pinsk, in southern Belorussia", Kolb explains, adding quickly: "People usually think this is a typo for the capital Minsk. I spent kind of a vagabond life in my childhood, attending whatever I could. One day I entered a dance school, when accidentally a few days later some people from Minsk arrived to enrol children for the Belorussia State Ballet School. That’s how I ended up in Minsk and some seven years later in the Theatre of Minsk. I was the first and still the only one in my family to get professionally involved in the theatre."

Not that it all came that easy for Igor Kolb. "When I entered school, I was two years too old. Moreover, my family lived far away and I had to attend a boarding school - the word alone is enough to frighten everybody. Yet my teachers supported me enormously in this difficult period. Their names might not ring a bell, but I owe everything to them. During my first years I had Vera Shveitsova, a classmate of Olga Moiseyeva and Ninella Kurgapkina, who are famous ballet masters at the Mariinsky Theatre. Later I studied with Mr. Jansen, who worked in the Mariinsky Theatre for some time, and finally with Alexander Kolidenko."

Kolidenko prepared Kolb to take part in the Vaganova Prix, the annual international competition in St. Petersburg for young dancers. Kolb took third prize in 1996 and it eventually made him decide to choose for St. Petersburg. "I came to St. Petersburg, auditioning six times within six months. I really wanted to live in this city and work in the Mariinsky theatre. Jansen helped me with accommodation." While still a student Kolb was already dancing with the Minsk Ballet, yet after he had graduated, he auditioned a seventh time in St. Petersburg and was – much to the displeasure of the Minsk Ballet, seeing its best dancers leave this way - finally allowed to join the Mariinsky Ballet.

Moving to distant St. Petersburg again demanded a lot from the young dancer. "I adored everything", Kolb says, "but I didn’t have much money and already during the first week all my money was stolen. Moreover, Jansen, the only person I knew in town, left."

Kolb was also quick to realize that his training in Minsk was not in the same league as the one provided by the famous Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg. "There is a long way between Minsk and St. Petersburg. Minsk is a provincial city. And certain aspects of dance, no matter how good you are, are provincial. Even from the Vaganova itself some dancers don’t have a perfect preparation. So, coming from Minsk, I don’t think I was shining very brightly." However, Kolb found an able support in ballet master Yuri Fateev with whom he started to work at the Mariinsky and tried the utmost to make him feel comfortable. By decision of the management Kolb was later transferred to study under the distinguished Gennady Selyutsky, who is to this day his regular coach.

Now some five seasons later, and a principal dancer, Igor Kolb doesn’t conceal his gratitude towards the company’s management for the opportunities he has been offered. He also strongly believes in the strength of the Mariinsky. "What makes our theatre unique is its tradition, a certain spirit. It’s difficult to explain what a spirit of a theatre is, but it is handed down from one generation to the next. It’s probably the same with the Paris Opera. They will also say: it is ours, this is our tradition, even though it was Nureyev who worked there for so many years. Yet the main thing is that it comes straight from the soul. It is a certain statement of our soul. When you see our dancers on stage, you can immediately recognize their distinctive style. The best examples to my mind are ballerinas like Zhanna Ayupova and Uliana Lopatkina. It’s hard to put into words, but when you watch them, you know they are the Kirov style."

Igor Kolb admits feeling closest to the great, traditional classics which form the core of the Mariinsky’s repertoire and is particularly attracted to the lyrical-romantic roles which suit best his introspective nature: the poet in Chopiniana, Prince Désiré in The Sleeping Beauty, Siegfried in Swan Lake, the Prince in The Nutcracker and Albrecht in Giselle. In recent seasons he became the company’s most convincing interpreter of Fokine’s romantic fantasy Le Spectre de la rose. To his own surprise Kolb has now also been cast as the valiant warrior Solor in La Bayadère and the slave Ali in Le Corsaire, roles which revealed different sides of the dancer. "After dancing these, I no longer know how to define myself as a dancer."

When asked how his roles are chosen, Kolb answers: "There is no longer such a thing like ‘emploi’ in our theatre. Yet I try to stay with my capabilities. Even when I am offered a role for which I think I am not suited, I try to turn it down. I don’t think I would be suited to dance Basil in Don Quixote for instance, because I believe I lack the necessary emotion for this. I have no ambition to be a universal dancer. It is very rare that it goes well. Of course, one can dance any role. But if I already sense that it is not really good for me, others will as well."

Kolb indeed approaches his performances with a lot of care and observing him at work in the rehearsal studio clearly reveals the meticulousness and precision of his preparation. "I cannot dance anything which is unfamiliar to me." Since he is enrolled in the St. Petersburg Conservatory for a degree as ballet teacher, he disposes of plenty of reference material, books and video, to prepare his roles.

Like so many of his fellow-dancers he feels sceptical towards the recent reconstructions of the Petipa ballets undertaken by ballet master Sergei Vikharev at the Mariinsky Theatre. Kolb has repeatedly danced Prince Désiré in the reconstructed version of The Sleeping Beauty and was Solor in the premiere of the new/old La Bayadère in May 2002. "Perhaps I am too orthodox, but I have always thought that the old, Soviet productions of Swan Lake, La Bayadère, Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker were business cards for our company and our city. I really don’t understand why we need to have new productions now, pretending to be ‘original’ versions, while it remains very hard to prove that they are really original Petipa. Everywhere in the world people dance and develop, but we tend to go back. I might be interested in dancing these new/old versions when I am 40, but now I am 25 and I still want to jump."

When I mention the recent expansion of the Mariinsky’s repertory with choreographies from Balanchine, Petit, MacMillan, Neumeier, and from the local talents Ratmansky and Simonov, Kolb admits he is somewhat puzzled by this development and stresses: "I like it when a company has its own face and in the whole world you won’t find any better versions of Swan Lake or La Bayadère than our traditional productions. Some things we bring in our theatre are quite unique. I am all for having Balanchine or Neumeier in our repertory - it’s useful and necessary. Yet it should be kept to a certain limit. There shouldn’t be too much too soon. There is so much of Balanchine or Neumeier that people quickly lose interest in dancing them. For me the theatre needs to have a face. Of course, at the same time new productions should be added, yet nowhere in the world is there such a desire to have another repertory as in Russia now. It’s the same with our new Nutcracker, recently choreographed by Kirill Simonov. For some reason the traditional two acts weren’t enough any longer and so a third act, Princess Pirlipat, with completely new music was added. I fail to see why." The new production was premiered at the Mariinsky last February without much success.

Igor Kolb speaks about his partnerships with the Mariinsky ballerinas. As in many companies these days, at the Mariinsky it is no longer deemed interesting to create partnerships. "I don’t see why not", Kolb says. "Yet today I danced with Irma Nioradze, my next performance will be with Daria Pavlenko, and in the previous weeks I danced with Sofia Gumerova and Svetlana Zakharova. There can never develop a partnership this way. Maybe it’s not of any special interest to the audience."

He singles out Zhanna Ayupova, who is the senior ballerina in the company, as his favourite partner: "Not just because she is a star, but one can really make a performance with her. We feel each other. We can create something together. However, now it often is like: ‘I feel it. If you don’t, then just stand by me.’ That explains why there are no real partnerships anymore today, like we used to have with Maximova and Vasiliev or with Berezhnoi and Terekhova. Everyone dances far too much for himself these days. I also was so lucky to get a chance to dance with Altynai Asylmuratova, just once."

When asked what he would remember as the most cherishable moments of his career so far, Kolb starts mentioning his participation in the Vaganova Competition, but after a while he continues: "It’s very special and unexpected for me if someone comes up to me and shows his appreciation about my performance. It happens on a tour that I walk into a pharmacy or something and people recognize me and say ‘Thank you!’ These are wonderful moments. Lastly on tour in Baden Baden, in Germany, I was shopping and some people on the street asked me for a photo. A few moments later they returned and handed me a present. Moments like this are probably the most memorable of all."

December 2002.

Interview with  Igor Kolb © 2010 Marc Haegeman. All rights reserved.
First published in Dance International, Fall 2003 and reproduced here with permission.

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