She graduated her ballet school and joined the Kirov Ballet in 1947, where she danced such roles as Aurora (The Sleeping Beauty), Myrtha (Giselle), Odette-Odile (Swan Lake), Kitri (Don Quixote) and Parasha (The Bronze Horseman).
Ninel Kurgapkina was one of the last pupils of Agrippina Vaganova. She was appointed a director of the Vaganova Academy in 1972. From 1969 she was a primary coach at the Kirov and has taught master classes at institutions including the New York City Ballet, the Paris Opera Ballet, and the Louisiana Scala Opera Ballet.
She died, aged 80, in a road accident near Saint St. Petersburg, on 8 May 2009.