ballerinas ballet bolshoi

Transgender ballet dancers? Svetlana says no

Prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Theatre Svetlana Zakharova has recently sat down for a very interesting interview with

Svetlana first mentions how her interest and hands-on involvement in the Sirius Educational Centre for Talented Children in Sochi really stems from her own personal experience. From the age of 10, she had to move by herself and live in boarding schools for the entire academic year, as there were no professional ballet schools close to her home that she could attend. The Sirius Centre instead provides shorter-term intensive programmes so students don’t have to leave their homes for too long.

The conversation then moves on to acknowledge the growing momentum of the Asian ballet productions and dancers. She points out that even though the improvement in both their technique and artistry is undeniable, talking about a competition between the national schools does not make much sense in the ballet world. This is not some sport where one can keep track of points. Ballet is first and foremost an art form, and so what makes a great dancer is not the technique and flexibility, but their ability to arouse emotions in the audience.

In the end, the interviewer addresses some of the more recent instances where the so-called “woke” culture has influenced ballet performances, such as transgender ballet dancers, and the answer is… well… Russian.

I have left below an English translation of the whole conversation, but you can find the original one here. Feel free to let me know if you think there are any misunderstandings or mistakes in the translation.

“I wanted to go home all the time”

Olga Shablinskaya, AiF: Svetlana, nowadays we often see artists complain that the pandemic has ruined their plans. Did it affect your life too?

Svetlana Zakharova: There are endless performances, rehearsals, and preparation for upcoming premieres at the Bolshoi Theater. Things are humming here. But with one exception — the tours. Unfortunately, the touring life has not yet become what it used to be. The plays that have been planned recently have not been cancelled yet. And of course, I am completely absorbed in my work at the Sirius Educational Center, where I hold the position of Art Director in Choreography. If I am not busy with other work, you can find me there. My main goal is an individual approach to every child, so I personally invite qualified teachers and specialists. Children who come to Sirius are from 10 to 18 years old and study at professional ballet schools. The next session will start during the New Year holidays in January. We accept applications until November 25. After the selection, the best students will come to classes at Sirius. Kids from children’s art schools from 10 to 12 years old are also welcome.

— If you compare it with your childhood experience, it’s…

— What they have and what I had back then is incomparable. I entered the Kyiv Choreographic School and lived in a boarding school — there was no professional ballet school in the city where I was born. Then I moved to St. Petersburg and also lived in the boarding school of the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet with children from different cities and even countries. At Sirius, children come for a 24 days session or for the New Year holidays.

When I studied, I wanted to go to my mom all the time. At the boarding school, everyone was homesick, especially those who were very young. Imagine a 10-year-old child who is used to living carefree and happy with their family, their parents, and then suddenly has to face living in another city, in an unfamiliar environment. Classes are difficult, and there is no one to support you. When my daughter has a problem, she can talk to me or to her grandmother, my mother. In my childhood, I had no one to talk to. After a long day at the school, I returned to my room, tired and hungry — rehearsals often ended very late, so other girls and I would miss dinner. We would grab some quick bites, and share what we had with other girls. The first 2-3 years were very difficult. I had to survive, cultivate my willpower. Probably, there is something in this too — you grow up quickly.

But still, the visits of my mother are the happiest memories. At first, she visited me almost every weekend.

Dad always brought sausages and homemade preparations to my dorm.

Mom brought delicious homemade food. They would give me a bag of apples — it was enough for a couple of weeks. There were difficulties with product supply in stores at the time. Soon after that, we had to buy food with coupons. Of course, we could have lunch in the school’s canteen, but the food there always was bad, tasteless, and inedible. But for me, the main thing was that mom came, and not what she brought.

“It felt like I got into paradise”

— Did you have moments when you thought, “I don’t want any more ballet, I want to go home”?

— I did. My father was a military man. The year I entered the choreographic school, he was sent to serve in the GDR. My whole family moved with him while I had to stay in Kyiv. When my mom visited me for the winter holidays, I demanded that she take me home. She said, “My God, you have been fighting to enter the school!” That year, the odds were thirty people to one, this is a very high acceptance rate. However, we didn’t have to pull any strings to get me enrolled. And then I say that I don’t want to study here anymore. Mom couldn’t believe it at first, but we still moved to Germany with her. That’s when I felt really happy.

After a half-starved boarding school life, it felt like I got into paradise — shelves in German stores were weighing down with food, sweets, chocolate bars… It was unbelievable that the city was so clean and well maintained. But soon I began to miss Kyiv and my school, the atmosphere of which I somehow managed to get used to and fall in love in a short time. At some point, I realized that I might have made a big mistake. By some quirk of fate, this mistake was soon corrected.

— How did it happen?

— The famous withdrawal of Soviet troops from the GDR began.  My father was sent to Vladikavkaz, and my mother and I returned to Ukraine. So after six months of adventures — a trip to Germany seemed a huge adventure for me, a Soviet child — I returned to ballet. It still amazes me what miracles my mother did when there was no Internet or even mobile phones. She somehow found out that the Kyiv Choreographic School would enrol the extra batch of children at the end of August, literally 10 days before the start of the school year. So, we went to enter again. I hadn’t done any choreography for six months. Imagine the courage, the impudence even, of the younger me who got up to the ballet machine. I was enrolled back into my own class, already in the second grade.

“We’re not a sport!”

— Is the balance of power in the ballet world changing? It seems that Asia is gaining momentum.

– Yes, it is. Asia has always sought to comprehend our art; many Russian and European top-notch teachers have moved there, so now Asian dancers are really of a high level. For as long as I perform on stage, Asians have always been admired. They are very technical soloists, they dance a perfect corps de ballet. I know many wonderful artists from Asia who have become world-class stars. America is also keeping pace. Americans do not hold on to the old traditions of ballet art — they simply do not have these traditions. Therefore, they go the way of innovation, improving the technique and capabilities of artists.

— Won’t Asia knock Russia off the pedestal of classical ballet?

— In modern dance, we can be brought down, but not in the classical one! We have a very strong classical traditional school. I think it’s safe for us to rest easy for a while longer. And besides, we’re not a sport, we don’t compete with anyone. The point scoring system does not apply here. In ballet, the most important indicators of success are a full house and road tours: the repertoire the theatre has, and stars that perform. A good dancer arouses the interest of the public, and it does not matter what nationality they are.

— Now the world is changing so rapidly, I mean there are transgender people, etc. Can it happen that men will play women’s roles?

— There are roles in ballet that can be performed by both men and women. In La Sylphide, for example, or the role of Carabosse, the evil fairy in The Sleeping Beauty. In other plays, men sometimes play funny aunties or mommas.

— I meant a real female classical part. Like Odette and Odile in Swan Lake. In rhythmic gymnastics, handsome men can perform wearing swimsuits with sequins: the whole sports world has been rocked by this.

— There can be no such thing in ballet. After all, gymnastics is a sport. If a man has fantastic physical abilities, and he dreams of swinging clubs instead of lifting a barbell, then let him. By the way, you should see professional men’s rhythmic gymnastics performances: it is definitely worth watching.

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