“Queen of the Bolshoi and all she surveys,” wrote Debra Craine in The Times, reviewing Svetlana Zakharova on the opening night of the Bolshoi’s recent Covent Garden residency. “And doesn’t she know it.” Observing her high cheekbones and regal posture, I wonder whether the legends about the prima ballerina’s frosty demeanour towards journalists are true. Sitting opposite her – on a slightly lower sofa – I quietly quake as my audience with Zakharova begins.

Svetlana Zakharova in <i>Gabrielle Chanel</i> © Jack Devant
Svetlana Zakharova in Gabrielle Chanel
© Jack Devant

But my fears are completely unfounded. Perhaps recognising my translator, Anna Ovsyanikova, helps. Anna’s father, Valery, is Music Director of the Vaganova Academy who was on the panel when Zakharova was invited to join the famous St Petersburg Academy. Zakharova relaxes, her heart-shaped face wreathed in gracious smiles, as we discuss the current Bolshoi Ballet tour and her new programme.

London is a special city for Zakharova. She was only 17 on her first visit, where she danced Masha in The Nutcracker with the Kirov (Mariinsky), having just graduated from Vaganova. Her rise was stratospheric, and she swiftly became famed for her beautiful legato dancing in roles such as Giselle, Odette and Nikiya. In 2003, she received an offer to join the Bolshoi, with which she has performed on countless London tours. I wonder how London audiences compare with Moscow.

“Audiences are so different, even within cities in the same country,” she begins. “I have the feeling that a lot of people who come to the Royal Opera House during a Bolshoi residency book to see specific artists, so I feel a special energy coming from the audiences here.”

Svetlana Zakharova as Aegina in <i>Spartacus</i> © Damir Yusupov | Bolshoi Ballet
Svetlana Zakharova as Aegina in Spartacus
© Damir Yusupov | Bolshoi Ballet

Zakharova neatly deflects my question about whether she reads reviews, explaining they don’t always reflect the adulation expressed by audiences. However, she adds, eyes twinkling, “there were so many good reviews after the first night of Spartacus that the Bolshoi press sent me everything and I read it all avidly!”

I tackle the ‘Queen of the Bolshoi’ tag head on. Is she aware of it? “During rehearsals or during class, I don’t really think about it, but in performances,” she admits, “where the expectations of the audiences are so high, then yes, I am aware… but I’m never thinking about how to cling on to my crown! After a great success, I need to put all that to one side and prepare my next role, so it helps not to get big-headed.”

Does her status bear an onerous responsibility in terms of her position within the company? “My teacher Ludmila Semenyaka sometimes tells me, ‘Svetlana, you cannot do that – the youngest members of the company are watching you!’ So yes,” she admits modestly, “perhaps some artists do look up to me.” Just as when she was young she would look up to particular dancers? “When I arrived at Mariinsky, there were a lot of really great ballerinas. I would always watch the big established names to see what I could take on board, but also to see what I might do differently.

“When I graduated from Vaganova and got into the Mariinsky, Olga Moiseyeva took me under her wing straight away and stayed my teacher and mentor for seven years.” Moiseyeva, who studied with Agrippina Vaganova herself, prepared all the classical ballets with Zakharova and was “the greatest influence on me becoming a ballerina in those first few years”.

Svetlana Zakharova (Odette) and Denis Rodkin (Siegfried) in <i>Swan Lake</i> © Damir Yusupov | Bolshoi Ballet
Svetlana Zakharova (Odette) and Denis Rodkin (Siegfried) in Swan Lake
© Damir Yusupov | Bolshoi Ballet

Zakharova moved from the Mariinsky to the Bolshoi in 2003. How different are the performing styles of these two great Russian companies? “St Petersburg and Moscow are very different cities. And the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi are as different as those two cities. When I first moved to the Bolshoi, there was a huge difference in style, although it is less today. The stage of the Bolshoi,” she explains, “is much bigger than the Mariinsky so the ballerina has to have a lot of stage presence from the very first moment we see her. So all the gestures have to be a little more exaggerated to fill the stage. At the Mariinsky, there is a more academic approach; every gesture is very precise to tell the story. The Bolshoi is more about exaggerated emotions, exaggerated gestures. Everything is larger!”

Those exaggerated gestures were certainly evident in the bigger-bolder-louder performance of Spartacus which kicked off the tour in thrilling style, Zakharova dancing the role of Aegina, the Roman consul’s power-hungry concubine. When we discuss how she recovers after a performance, she admits that the hardest thing is switching between very different roles. “Physically, to go back to Spartacus after Swan Lake is very demanding. A very different set of muscles are working and you are using very different techniques. In Spartacus everything goes up and down, there’s nothing academic!” she laughs, indicating the ridiculous lifts with a hand gesture, “but in Swan Lake, it’s much more ‘horizontal’.”

Svetlana Zakharova as Odile in <i>Swan Lake</i> © Damir Yusupov | Bolshoi Ballet
Svetlana Zakharova as Odile in Swan Lake
© Damir Yusupov | Bolshoi Ballet

But what about within Swan Lake itself? How difficult is it to portray Odette and Odile – the White Swan and her Black Swan nemesis? “In Yuri Grigorovich’s version, there is no aim that Odile tries to copy the White Swan. In this interpretation, the White Swan symbolises what is pure within the prince himself, but when the Black Swan is in the picture, she tries to deviate him from his pure ways, to betray his white soul. It’s a very psychological staging, a more philosophical approach to this fairy tale.”

Zakharova confides “a little secret” that she finds it easier to depict Odile than Odette. “In every woman, there is a desire for attention. To channel this as a ballerina is far easier than establishing the White Swan, who is completely pure and trusting in the world. There aren’t many people on this earth like that, and perhaps that is why the prince completely falls in love with Odette at first sight. And that is why, to interpret the White Swan, you have to have a completely different sense inside – a calm, pure energy. With the Black Swan, everything is simple; nothing is simple with the White Swan!”

Is Odile technically more difficult? “Technically, Odile is comfortable,” Zakharova shrugs. “Dancing 32 fouettées may seem the most difficult thing, but technically, the White Swan is harder. A ballerina shouldn’t even consider dancing Swan Lake if she cannot dance 32 fouettées, but to get the White Swan Adagio completely within character... there are not many ballerinas who can do this.”

Svetlana Zakharova in <i>Gabrielle Chanel</i> © Jack Devant
Svetlana Zakharova in Gabrielle Chanel
© Jack Devant

Zakharova expresses that she has “no talent for choreography” but she is very interested in contemporary dance. In 2017, she brought her Amore programme to London. This December, she follows that up with a programme that pairs two one-act ballets created by Yuri Possokhov and Mauro Bigonzetti. Come un respiro is a reworking of the latter’s Progetto Händel that Zakharova performed with Roberto Bolle at La Scala a few years ago – “probably one of the best ballets Bigonzetti has created, it has a very special atmosphere” – and she was keen to programme it again when the MuzArts production first came to life in Moscow last June. She pairs it with Gabrielle Chanel, a work by Possokhov, whose Francesca da Rimini featured in her Amore triple bill.

Loosely based on episodes from the early life of Coco Chanel, Possokhov’s ballet is a completely new creation, based on a specially commissioned score from Ilya Demutsky. The ballet aroused much interest in Moscow. “Even the very name Gabrielle Chanel attracts people’s attention. People are curious about her.” Chanel was inextricably linked to the world of dance. She knew Stravinsky and the impresario Sergei Diaghilev in Paris and snippets of Le Train Bleu and Apollon musagète – for which she created the costumes – appear in the new work. The Coliseum show, presented by MuzArts, will be cast entirely from the Bolshoi’s ranks, bringing her and her colleagues back to the capital. Zakharova clearly cannot keep away from London for long.


With thanks to Anna Ovsyanikova for acting as translator