What a Life

Irina Gensler, a Russian Ballet Grande Dame, Reveals Her Secrets

Most Russian ballerinas retire in their early 40s. Irina Gensler is different: She danced solo parts until she was 51—and now she is passing on her wisdom to the next generation.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Irina Gensler crossed her slender legs in light velvet pants and shoes of soft leather, placed a thick photo album on her knees and smiled: here it was, an archive of eight decades of life immersed in Russian ballet.

With delicate, youthful fingers, Gensler pointed at the photos of herself, a strong and unusually flexible dancer with sparkling eyes and curly dark hair.

During her 35-year-long career at Mariinsky Theater, also known as the Kirov, Gensler performed Spanish, Italian, Polish, Gipsy, Hungarian, and other character dances in dozens of classical ballets.

Today, at age 87 she gives lectures about character dance for teachers at Russia’s best-known ballet school, the 280-year-old Vaganova Academy.

The ballet professor believes that the secret of her longevity is her natural resilience and her commitment to preserving and passing on the traditions of classical character dance from generation to generation.

Most Russian ballerinas retire in their early forties. Gensler was different: She danced solo parts on the Mariinsky stage until she turned 51.

But even after that, she never really retired and continued to teach ballet in Egypt, Italy, Spain and at the Vaganova in St.Petersburg.

“Currently I am working on restoring the original Polish dance ‘Krakowiak,’” Gensler told The Daily Beast. “You see, I have to pass on the character parts, that I was destined to perform in classical ballets to the next generations of dancers—this is my life responsibility.”

Gensler was born in 1930 in Leningrad in a family of intellectuals. “My father came from a family of Germans, who Peter the Great brought from Europe, generations ago,” Gensler explained her last name.

Her uncle played clarinet in the city’s philharmonic orchestra—Gensler danced whenever she heard music. She is one of very few living ballerinas who studied in the class of Agrippina Vaganova, the originator of the eponymous ballet method based on the Imperial Russian Ballet.

During World War II, when thousands of people died of hunger in besieged Leningrad, the Vaganova school was evacuated to a village in the Ural mountains outside the city of Perm.

“It was a tiny provincial place, where we had no place to dance but at least we were not hungry,” the ballerina remembered.

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Some of her colleagues at the Kirov theater—known as the Mariinsky today—dreamed of dancing and living abroad. Rudolf Nureyev was the first famous ballet star to defect to the West. In 1961 he refused to go back to Leningrad during the theater’s tour in Paris; the same year he performed at London’s Royal Ballet. “I couldn't think of escaping from my country where I had two children and my parents,” Gensler told The Daily Beast.

This year Russian ballet, which was inspired by 19th century Romanticism, marks the 200th anniversary of Marius Petipa, a groundbreaking French-born choreographer of the Mariinsky Theater.

“On the 29th of May, 1847 I arrived by ship in St.Petersburg… I served for 60 years at the same place, in the same theater, quite a rare phenomenon,” Petipa wrote about in his memoirs about the Mariinsky, where he created more than 70 ballets, including the famous Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. Petipa died in Russia, at age 92.

My repertoire included 25 ballets. It was not difficult for me, as from an early age I adored ballet. Whenever I heard music, I could dance endlessly

“It is so wonderful, that we have Petipa!” Gensler said as she recalled her own experience, learning character dances in Swan Lake, as well as La Bayadère, from her old ballet masters—just the way her own students learn from her today.

Gensler’s strong posture, emotional gestures and girlish voice make you forget about her real age. “My repertoire included 25 ballets. It was not difficult for me, as from an early age I adored ballet. Whenever I heard music, I could dance endlessly,” she remembers. “You see, it is not only your grace, flexible limbs, or your ability to lift your leg to 180 degrees that makes you a good ballet dancer,” Gensler told The Daily Beast, punching the air with a firm fist. “It is very much your stoicism, your resilience.”

Ballet theaters do not pay much, many graduates of our academy move to work on the West. In 1989 my entire course of graduates immigrated, it was a remarkable change.

Such qualities have served Russian ballerinas well during their country’s wars, repression and economic struggles of the last three centuries. “Ballet theaters do not pay much, many graduates of our academy move to work on the West,” Gensler said with regret. “In 1989 my entire course of graduates immigrated, it was a remarkable change.”

Political systems collapsed and grew strong again, scandals at the theaters filled dancers’ hearts with depression and panic, but choreography survived all the storms and turbulence.

In 2013 an acid attack on the Bolshoi Theatre director Sergei Filin shocked even the most indifferent Russia observers.

In one of his first interviews after the violence, Filin told me that “the attack was the culmination of a long-running battle at the Bolshoi Theatre over roles, money and onstage glory.”

A few years later, Anastasia Volochkova, former prima ballerina of the Bolshoi, said on Russian television that the theater’s management forced its ballerinas to act as escorts for business and political elites in Moscow and Paris.

No violence, provocative battles or intrigues could spoil Russian ballet’s reputation for excellence, however.

Ballet schools continue to empower their graceful students, and dancers are still willing to accept long and demanding hours and low pay to pursue their dream of a life on stage.

To make it on time for her classes, Gensler wakes up early in her one-room apartment on the outskirts of St. Petersburg.

She walks to the station to catch a local train to downtown St. Petersburg, the city where Anna Pavlova, George Balanchine, Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov and many other great dancers learned the basics of classical choreography.

This month, football players and fans visiting St. Petersburg for the World Cup might be interested to see the Vaganova Academy on Rossi Avenue, the former Imperial Ballet School that was established in 1788 during the era of Empress Anna. They may even catch a glimpse of a flock of ballet dancers hurrying into the school.

It is her strong character, the passion of dance that she passed to us, the unique knowledge of character dance, that cannot be written on paper.

Even after so many years, Gensler is still deeply committed to her role as a keeper and restorer of original choreography created by Petipa and other great ballet masters.

Gensler’s students know only too well that, unlike music, the moves, looks and passion of character dance cannot not be put into a series of notes. “Irina Gensler, my dear teacher, likes to say that ballet masters pass choreography ‘from foot to foot’; I learned from her at Vaganova school,” one of her former students, St. Petersburg choreographer and dancer Andrei Bogdanov told The Daily Beast.

“It is her strong character, the passion of dance that she passed to us, the unique knowledge of character dance, that cannot be written on paper.”

Bogdanov thanked Gensler for giving him and other students what he called a “theatrical vaccination” against the frequent drudgery and hardship of daily life.

“It protects us from, and helps us rise above, the hunchbacked, grey reality that we often see in the streets outside the theater.”