She was in the last graduating class of Agrippina Vaganova — 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 himself, the generator of ballet’s precious classics like “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 L.A., 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, Russia, 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.)
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