Backstage at the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre's Swan Lake production

Piles of white swan tutus sit in a changing room, waiting for the dancers to claim them. -- ST PHOTO: LISABEL TING
Piles of white swan tutus sit in a changing room, waiting for the dancers to claim them. -- ST PHOTO: LISABEL TING
The corps de ballet in Swan Lake, a flock of white swans, is one of the ballet’s most iconic features. -- ST PHOTO: LISABEL TING
The corps de ballet in Swan Lake, a flock of white swans, is one of the ballet’s most iconic features. -- ST PHOTO: LISABEL TING
A couple shares an intimate moment minutes before the show starts. There are at least 10 married or engaged couples in the company, including director Konstantin Tachkin and principal ballerina Irina Kolesnikova. -- ST PHOTO: LISABEL TING
A couple shares an intimate moment minutes before the show starts. There are at least 10 married or engaged couples in the company, including director Konstantin Tachkin and principal ballerina Irina Kolesnikova. -- ST PHOTO: LISABEL TING
Ballet mistress Tatiana Linnik (in black) watches as dancers pirouette around her in company class in a studio at the Theatre des Champs Elysees. Linnik, herself a former dancer with the Mariinsky Ballet, delivers a flurry of instructions to the danc
Ballet mistress Tatiana Linnik (in black) watches as dancers pirouette around her in company class in a studio at the Theatre des Champs Elysees. Linnik, herself a former dancer with the Mariinsky Ballet, delivers a flurry of instructions to the dancers, then uses her iPad to select music of the right tempo for the drills. -- ST PHOTO: LISABEL TING
Members of the corps de ballet wait in the wings for their cue to enter. -- ST PHOTO: LISABEL TING
Members of the corps de ballet wait in the wings for their cue to enter. -- ST PHOTO: LISABEL TING
Against a puff of maple syrup-scented smoke, prima ballerina Irina Kolesnikova rehearses silently. Many dancers wear sweatpants and a jacket throughout the day to keep their muscles warm, shedding them seconds before they go on stage. -- ST PHOTO: LI
Against a puff of maple syrup-scented smoke, prima ballerina Irina Kolesnikova rehearses silently. Many dancers wear sweatpants and a jacket throughout the day to keep their muscles warm, shedding them seconds before they go on stage. -- ST PHOTO: LISABEL TING

Drive to keep St Petersburg Ballet Theatre independent has led the company to put on more than 200 shows a year

It is half an hour before showtime, when the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre's Swan Lake will open to a full house at the Theatre des Champs Elysees.

Ticket holders, wrapped up against the tail end of a chilly Paris winter, are milling in the marble foyer of the Art Deco, 1,905-capacity theatre, waiting to watch one of the world's best-loved ballets from the comfort of their red velvet-lined seats.

I, meanwhile, have the privilege of watching the show from a different perspective.

Ahead of the production of the ballet in Singapore next week, the company has invited me backstage to a Paris showing of Swan Lake. So here I am, nestled in the wings waiting, tucked away behind the heavy stage curtains.

Wearing soft-soled shoes, camera in hand, I watch the dancers begin to stream in.

Members of the corps de ballet, lithe and impossibly beautiful with their immaculate stage make-up, begin lacing themselves into their white tutus inside a changing room at stage right. Then, they put their puffy vests back on to stay warm and begin to limber up.

On stage, someone is mopping the dance mats. Ms Lizzie Coles, executive producer of presenter Theatre Tours Australia, says the floor has to be made slightly sticky to prevent wobbles and slips.

At another ballet company she has worked with, she tells me, they sometimes use Coca-Cola to wash the mats, for the extra gumminess after it dries.

At a control room at stage right, a tangle of wires and screens sits in front of a man in a black polo shirt with a headset, talking in a low voice to another technical assistant.

Then, as the hour hand slips past 8pm, the opening strains of Tchaikovsky's immortal music swell, the curtain rises and the magic begins.

Two decades years ago, this Swan Lake was just a dream - a dream in the head of producer Konstantin Tachkin, a former member of the Soviet Army special forces.

Although he has long left the army, there is still a military bearing to the 48-year-old, with his ramrod-straight posture, quick precise movements and lean frame.

After returning to his hometown of St Petersburg in Russia, he set his sights on becoming an impresario.

"St Petersburg is a big city, very famous in the world," he explains in clipped, Russian-accented English. "Because so many tourists come in annually, they need a cultural programme."

So he would put together productions by renting theatres, ballet companies and orchestras, and then selling tickets to these shows.

Back then, in the early 1990s, the outlay for such a venture was only about US$500 and was easy to recoup. He estimates that it would cost between US$20,000 (S$26,460) and US$25,000 today.

"After I started to see the ballets, I was not happy with the level the companies were at, but I had no influence to change anything. It was not my company. So that was when I started to think about creating my own company."

By a stroke of luck, he received a telephone call from a friend around that time, saying that the Dutch sponsor of a private ballet company wanted to pull out.

Tachkin then stepped in and bought over the 25-strong company and the newly renamed St Petersburg Ballet Theatre was born in 1994.

In a country famed for technical brilliance in dance, where ballet is a religion and companies are titanic institutions backed by centuries of history and rocked by fiery internal politics, Tachkin has managed to carve out a niche of his own.

It may not be easy to step into the ring with the big boys, but while the others - notably the Bolshoi Ballet and Mariinsky Ballet - are mammoth, state-funded outfits with hundreds of dancers, the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre is a lean, nimble creature with fewer than 60 dancers under its wing.

The company also does not accept any government funding or private sponsorship and is run as a commercial enterprise.

"The idea is to create an absolutely independent company, independent from anyone, any government, any sponsors," says Tachkin. "For me, it's absolutely a matter of principle."

The result of being driven by the bottom line is a company which primarily tours, putting on 200 to 250 shows around the globe a year.

It has also relegated to the backseat the shadowy politics which often plague other Russian companies - leading most infamously to the acid attack two years ago on Bolshoi's artistic director Sergei Filin, which left him nearly blind.

"In big state companies, everything depends on the director. In our company as well, many things depend on me, but never on my mood or how I feel about a ballerina. I put on stage the best we have," Tachkin emphasises.

"I am absolutely interested in one thing: After the curtain is down and the public goes home, they should be very, very happy."

The commercial slant of the company is also why its repertoire consists of full-length, popular classical ballets, which are virtually guaranteed to pack in the crowds.

Aside from Swan Lake, its most popular productions include Giselle, The Nutcracker and Don Quixote.

But all the choreography in the world amounts to nothing without dancers.

Every company has its star, the instantly recognisable marquee name on which to hang all the posters, banners and advertisements.

In the case of the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre, that name is Irina Kolesnikova.

Kolesnikova, who has been dancing with the company since 1999, is blessed with expressive, liquid-grey doe eyes which brim with guilelessness as Swan Lake's white swan Odette and seethe with malice as the black swan, Odile.

Like many other members of the company, she was put through the wringer of the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet, a school in St Petersburg which is notorious for its brutally demanding training and high dropout rate.

But for the 34-year-old with the girlish voice and the sylph-like physique, the rockiest part of her ballet journey so far was the last few months.

That was when she had to juggle having a child along with her career on stage. When she spoke to Life! in March, her child, Vasilina - named after a Russian folktale - was just eight months old.

Through a translator, she recounted the difficulty of getting back on stage.

"It was very, very difficult. It was through a lot of pain and tears. I found it extremely difficult to get back into shape and to get the desire back," she says.

"But once you get back on form, you forget about all of that very quickly. And now at this very moment here in Paris, it is hard to believe I am back on stage and that I have a daughter - these two things at the same time."

Fortunately, Kolesnikova has something which many other prima ballerinas do not - when she travels, she has her mother on tour with her to take care of her child. They will both be coming to Singapore when Swan Lake plays here.

She also has her husband on tour with her, as she married company founder and director Tachkin several years ago.

When Kolesnikova makes her way backstage, her white Odette tutu covered by a pink sports jacket underneath a puffy teal vest, it is as if an invisible sea parts around her. Other dancers hasten to get out of the way, lest they break her unwavering focus.

Before her entrance, she sits on a yoga mat on the floor of the wings, hair scraped back in a bun, head facing forward and eyes locked on stage.

And then, she stands, strips off her sweatpants and jacket and she is up and away.

Kolesnikova is a magnificent dancer, who blends artful characterisation with brilliant technique. While the corps de ballet may struggle to disguise a wobble or two, she never falters.

She turns her iconic 32 fouettes - where standing on one foot, she whips the other around, sending her body into a full rotation - and she transforms into Odile to seduce Prince Siegfried. It all seems effortless for her.

But after that perfection, I also see her running into the wings, gasping for air, her razor-edge collarbones rising and falling above the bodice which is pressed up against her ribcage.

And from backstage, I learn that this is what ballet is all about: It is not romantic, it is not beautiful.

Up close, I see the paint flaking off golden props, suddenly a drab brown when not illuminated by stage lights. I see the frayed threads on the costumes, the scuff marks on shoes.

Even Odette's black tutu, which on stage has such a strong, dark presence, seems diminished. Sitting on a table in Kolesnikova's dressing room, without a supple body to inhabit it, the sequins and the tulle look garish, almost cheap.

What you see on stage is an incredible illusion, sustained by the belief and brilliance of the dancers and technicians.

It is these professionals, who burst into life on stage, that make the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre's production of Swan Lake what it is - a magical, romantic, heartbreaking story and one of the world's most enduring ballets.

lting@sph.com.sg