Irina Kolesnikova

Art Is Our Only Tool

by Sara Veale

The extensive touring schedule of St Petersburg Ballet Theatre has acquainted audiences world-round with the regal allure of Irina Kolesnikova, SPBT’s prima ballerina for 15 years and counting, and, by the company’s own words, “the sparkling jewel” in its crown. In the past 12 months alone, the Russian doyenne has turned heads in Singapore, Finland, South Africa, Israel, New Zealand and beyond. 


Next stop is the UK, where she’s leading the premiere of a new ballet as part of English National Opera’s dedicated Irina Kolesnikova London Season. The production, a collaboration between SPBT and development charity Oxfam, is inspired by Kolesnikova’s recent visit to two refugee camps in the Balkans and intended to raise awareness about the ongoing plight of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan. It’s a twist on Georges Bizet’s Carmen, featuring choreography from Olga Kostel and performances from 50 SPBT dancers, including Kolesnikova in the titular role.

Here the famed ballerina tells us about the motivations behind her political activism, and the novelty of a brand-new commission amid a career that’s seen her dance nearly 1,000 Swan Lakes.


In April you visited the Tabanovce refugee camp in Macedonia and Prevoso in Serbia. What prompted you to create Her Name Was Carmen off the back of this experience?


We had this idea since the refugee crisis started and decided we had to raise awareness. As we are a ballet theatre and I am a ballerina, our art is our only tool. After visiting the refugee camps in the Balkans with Oxfam and talking to the refugees, I realised the absolute necessity of doing something to help them and tell their story.  


Ballet is not a typical platform for activism. How did the idea come about to team up with Oxfam and use ballet as a means of raising awareness for this issue?


I have never been involved in political activism, but I am certain that culture can be partly involved in communicating political messages. Her Name Was Carmen was devised in support of international aid organisation Oxfam and their Stand As One campaign. This production will draw attention to the heart-breaking stories of some of the people we met in the refugee camps. One pound from every ticket will also go directly to Oxfam’s Refugee Crisis Appeal.


What drew you to the story of Carmen in particular?


As the mother of a young child, I was struck by the number of children caught up in this crisis. The story of Carmen is about love. We have adapted the classical tale and set it in a refugee camp. Carmen’s driving force was to bring families together that have been torn apart. Hers is a story of freedom – its beauty as well as its cost.

St Petersburg Ballet Theatre rarely commissions brand-new works. Is the production a classical one?

Yes. For our ballet company to have a new commission is a rarity, and I feel honoured to have had this very special new commission choreographed for me. The 50-strong company has been choreographed by Olga Kostel.

What do you hope people will take away from the performance?


I hope this production will touch the audience in ways they wouldn’t expect and draw attention to the refugee crisis.