The Kirov Ballet comes to Birmingham Hippodrome next week. Susan Turner met its star ballerina Uliana Lopatkina at the Mariinsky Theatre, the company's home in St Petersburg.
Prima ballerina Uliana Lopatkina makes a dramatic entrance even for an interview, arriving 43 minutes late with profuse apologies and much expressive gesturing.
Has it been a hard day? I enquire politely: "Always, always" she murmurs, rolling large smoke-grey eyes.
She has come straight from the rehearsal studio, explains this 5ft 10", ultra-willowy Kirov Ballet star, who at 34 is a national icon in Russia in much the way we idolise our football players or the late Princess of Wales.
Nevertheless, she has managed to exchange her practice clothes for a fashionable black tunic over leggings and patent knee-length boots. There are pearls at her throat and ears and her copper-coloured elfin hairstyle is blow-dried to perfection. Her strong-jawed face is carefully made-up. She looks glossy and groomed.
Her sombre off-stage presence is perhaps a reflection of a stage persona that, by all ac-counts, is intense, precise, immaculate. She has been described as "The Soul of Russia," and the "the world's greatest classic dancer of her time." It's said one hasn't lived if one hasn't experienced her Dying Swan.
Lopatkina takes her considerable technical and dramatic talent, and the fact she feels she has to uphold the Kirov's formidable classical heritage and ballet as an art form, very seriously indeed.
The company's fifth studio at its home in the bowels of the beautiful Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg is reserved for her exclusive use. There she works regularly on her technique for up to five hours at a stretch and it is not unu-sual for her to still be rehearsing at 10pm.
She believes her coach is the most important part of the process and since returning from maternity leave four years ago, has worked with former Kirov ballerina Irina Christiakova.
"I am a perfectionist," admits Lopatkina, "but to reasonable limits. I can perceive nor-mality. For me, the hardest thing is to find a balance between my personal life and my work.
"The major part of the work is done in the studio, with the teacher the most important component. Your teacher tunes your body emotionally. This is imperative as the body has to not only feel, but show, vivid emotions. Every gesture, every line of the body has to speak. This special dance language is worked on in the studio. Of course, during rehearsals you also have to make the body perform the choreography!
"How each dancer finds the emotion to get through the show is very individual and every one has to find his or her way of doing that. It comes from outside or from your psyche, or from literature, the arts. For me, the inspiration is music, always music."
She has been working especially hard of late due to settling into a new dance partnership with former St Petersburg State Academic Ballet Theatre soloist, Ivan Kozlov. She first danced with the 25-year-old at a gala in Moscow last year where she was to perform La Rose malade. Her original partner sustained an injury and Kozlov stepped into his shoes.
The partnership was so successful he was invited to join the Kirov as a principal (no doubt at Lopatkina's insistence) and is one of very few dancers with the company who is not a graduate of the Vaganova Ballet Academy, the Kirov's feeder school, and who has not come up through the ranks. The couple will dance together on the company's tour to Birmingham next week.
"I am tall and it can be very difficult to find partners to dance with. Disproportion means disharmony and that not does provide the audience with the aesthetic joy of watching a couple," she explains. "But it's not only physique. You have to pay alot of attention to finding emotional compatibility; you have to be believable on stage. As in the old traditional Hollywood movies, you have to create an affair to remember.
"Ivan is very interesting to work with and it felt comfortable from our first rehearsal together. I am always trying to find partners who answer me on stage. Ivan's presence in the Kirov lets me dance more. There are other tall girls in the company, but he is mine at the moment. I got him first!" she exclaims.
Born in Kerch in the Ukraine of parents who worked in the shipyards, Lopatkina was desperately homesick when selected for the Vaga-nova Ballet Academy and sent to St Petersburg. There, she was one of the last proteges of the dancer and teacher Natalya Dudinskaya.
"I was nine years old and my mother and father could not be with me and could only visit St Petersburg very rarely. I had relatives here but they were strangers. So I was in boarding school in a dormitory of 18 square metres with nine other girls. For the first two years it was a disaster, I was very homesick. But then I got accustomed to it and life was not so hard."
She graduated to the Kirov Ballet in 1991 and by 1995 was already a principal. There have been numerous accolades since - she met her architect and novelist husband Vladimir Kornev at one of the award ceremonies - and in 2006 Lopatkina was made a People's Artist of Russia..
Her daughter Maria, nicknamed Masha, is now five years old although Lopatkina - four when she had her first ballet lesson - believes her too young to start dance class. Is she impressed by mummy's job? I ask. "She doesn't articulate everything. She is very sincere if she likes something I do and says so. If she doesn't, I know that too," laughs Lopatkina.
Lopatkina also takes her motherhood role extremely seriously and it saddens her that the demands of working in the theatre and a tough touring schedule mean she doesn't get to spend as much time with Masha as she wishes.
"It's so difficult," she sighs. "I don't get to spend as much time with her as I want and to bring her up myself. I miss her very much when we go on tour, although I'm fortunate that my mother lives nearby and takes care of her."
And did having a baby change her outlook and bring fresh emotion to her dancing?
"I don't agree that a ballerina is more emotional after giving birth," she emphasises. "Stage for me is another life. Giving birth changed me but it's private and very precious. Spending a long time on maternity leave gave me an opportunity to think about how I would return to my work and this gave me an impetus to re-work my old parts and look at my journey in a different way.
"But giving birth didn't add emotion, or change how I interpreted my roles. After all, a ballerina's personality is built on all her life's experiences - the loss of love, parents dying, friends dying. Motherhood is just one of those experiences so no, you don't have to give birth to find emotion."
* The Kirov Ballet is at the Birmingham Hippodrome from Tuesday to Saturday next week (Box office: 0870 730 1234).