Svetlana Zakharova hosting "Big and Small." Dress by Yulia Yanina. Photo by Vadim Shults, courtesy Zakharova

Svetlana Zakharova on Starring as a TV Host

Ballet may be a silent profession, but Svetlana Zakharova quite often appears on the stage in front of the audience with a microphone in hand. And this audience measures in the millions. For the past few years, Zakharova, in addition to her busy performance schedule as a prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Theatre and an étoile of La Scala Theatre Ballet, has been exploring a new role as a TV host of two popular dance programs on the arts television channel in Russia.

This year, in addition to emceeing her own televised charity dance festival called "Svetlana" with her 9-year-old daughter Anna, Zakharova was a host of the children's dance show "Big and Small" and a co-host of the fourth season of "Grand Ballet," a hit competition show, which was filmed this summer and premiered on television in Russia on November 4. The first four episodes are already available on YouTube.

How did the idea of hosting a TV show come about?

When I was offered to host a TV show (the third season of "Grand Ballet" on the Russia-Kultura TV channel in 2018), I was initially very surprised. Previously, I had participated in television shows only as a jury member. So when I received a call from the channel's program director and was invited for a meeting to discuss a new project, I was certain that it would be another invitation to be a judge.

At first, I hesitated because the whole idea was quite unexpected. But then I thought that it would be interesting to try myself in a new role.

What is "Grand Ballet"?

The main goal of this project is to give prominence to young ballet dancers, most of whom are just beginning their professional careers. Each participating couple represents their city and their ballet company. "Grand Ballet" consists of six episodes, with each having its own special theme. After each performance, the jury evaluates each participant who takes part in the competition. The judges, who are highly regarded ballet professionals [in this season, the judges are Diana Vishneva, Farukh Ruzimatov, Denis Matvienko and Alexei Miroshnichenko] point out the positive and negative aspects of the performance and suggest corrections in the form of a master class.

In the final, seventh episode, the winners are announced and given awards for Best Female Dancer, Best Male Dancer and Best Couple. The show culminates with a gala concert. And all these happen in front of a multimillion TV audience. So "Grand Ballet" provides the opportunity for the entire country to meet a new generation of talented ballet dancers.

What is your role as a host?

My role is to present our participants in the best possible light and to tell the viewers about the best qualities of their dancing. As a professional ballerina, I know what it takes. So I do my best to support and encourage the young dancers. Since I am familiar with almost all repertoire presented during the show, it is so much easier for me to talk about their performances than, I think, for my wonderful co-host, Ildar Abdrazakov, who is an opera singer. I am certain I would have had the same challenges if I were to host the "Grand Opera" show.

This season of "Grand Ballet" was filmed during the pandemic. What was different this time?

Because of the pandemic, everyone had to spend nearly four months without performing on the stage and rehearsing in the studio. It was quite difficult to stay in shape—and I know it from my own experience. For this show, the dancers had to prepare, in a very short period of time, six different programs, which included both classical and contemporary pieces. Another challenge was that there were no spectators: the participants had to dance looking at the empty theater, facing television cameras and the judges.

A man in a tux stands on a stage gesturing at Zakharova, in a long pink gown, microphone in hand.

On "Grand Ballet" with her co-host, Ildar Abdrazakov

Vadim Shults, courtesy Zakharova

What is the most satisfying part of being on this show?

Seeing the results. As the history of previous seasons of "Grand Ballet" has proven, after the end of the project, many young dancers become stars. During the show, it's so rewarding to see them gain experience and grow and develop as artists. In the first days of the competition many of them feel somewhat tentative and constrained; as the show progresses, many undergo a real transformation. It's so wonderful to see how they change and improve—sometimes beyond recognition.

You already warmly mentioned your co-host, Ildar Abdrazakov. What was it like to host a ballet show with the world-famous opera singer?

Just like in ballet, a reliable partner onstage is very important—it is a big part of success. And Ildar was an amazing partner and co-host in every way. We established a natural rapport from the start and were able to easily continue each other's line of thought. It was very enjoyable to work with him.

In each episode of the show you are wearing a beautiful gown. Who designs them?

On this season I was dressed by the famous Russian couturier Valentin Yudashkin. For the recently aired children's dance show "Big and Small," where I was a sole host, my gowns were created by another prominent Russian designer, Yulia Yanina. I choose my wardrobe myself. For me, to have the right dress is important: Each outfit creates a new look and it really affects how I feel, gives me confidence and creates a special atmosphere.

You also founded your own dance festival for children, "Svetlana." Tell us more about it.

Svetlana is already six years old. Every year, about 800 children take part. We receive applications from children's dance groups from all over the country. The selected participants and their families come to Moscow to take part in the gala, which is broadcast on the Russia-Kultura TV channel. The organizers of the festival cover all expenses for the participants and also provide free tickets for the gala, which are distributed through various charitable organizations.

Your 9-year-old daughter Anna is one of the hosts. Is she following in your footsteps?

When Anna started hosting this festival with her co-host, Gena Pereverdiev, four years ago, they were still very young kids. And now they are already confident and experienced presenters. They know all the subtleties and nuances of their roles. Before the show, they read and memorize a lot of text and participate in filming of TV clips. I usually open and close the festival, and for the rest of the time the stage belongs to the children.

Two children stand on either side of a be-gowned Svetlana Zakharova. A character in white with a clock stands at her side as well.

Zakharova with her daughter Anna and Gena Pereverdiev

Photo by Batya Annadurdyev, courtesy Zakharova

Have you ever thought about having your own TV show?

I am always open to new projects—I go with the flow and see where it takes me.

How did you feel during the quarantine?

It was especially difficult in the first month due to uncertainty. We did not know when we would be able to return to the studio and perform on the stage. But at the end of July, the Bolshoi Ballet was back to rehearsals, preparing for the season. Our artistic director, Makhar Vaziev, invited four young dancemakers from Europe to create new contemporary choreography.

What does the Bolshoi Ballet's current season look like?

Since September, the company has already shown almost the entire classical repertoire. And we perform not for online streaming but for live audiences, who take all the precautions when they come to the theater, wearing masks and keeping social distance. [Editor's note: According to new safety measures, the ticket sales to all performances at the Bolshoi Theater starting November 27 through December 31 will be limited to no more than 25 percent of total occupancy of the theater.] And I am very grateful to ballet fans for the fact that they come to the theater and support us, and we, in turn, support them with our art form.

How did the pandemic change you?

Today, each performance on the stage in front of the audience is felt and appreciated differently. Every performance is a gift. I enjoy every moment onstage and realize that this opportunity may disappear at any moment.

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Lydia Abarca Mitchell, Arthur Mitchell's First Ballerina, Builds On Her Mentor's Legacy in Atlanta

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

For more than 25 years, coaching at Ballethnic has been a lifeline back to Abarca Mitchell's days with DTH. She had a stellar career, both with the company and beyond, but left the stage at age 30 after an injury sustained performing in Dancin' on Broadway. Her husband's job transferred them to Atlanta, where she transitioned to a full-time job as a medical transcriptionist while raising a family. Now retired from her second career, Abarca Mitchell continues to forward Arthur Mitchell's legacy, not only through coaching but also by building community among DTH alumni and writing her memoirs—a fairy-tale story of a child who came from the Harlem public-housing projects and became a trailblazing Black ballerina.

Abarca Mitchell grew up during the 1950s and '60s, the oldest of seven in a tight-knit family. She always danced, taking cues from Hollywood figures until a fourth-grade teacher saw her talent and encouraged her to seek formal training. The family couldn't afford ballet lessons, but Abarca Mitchell earned a scholarship to attend The Juilliard School's Saturday youth program, and later the Harkness Ballet's professional training program. But for all of those ballet classes, Abarca Mitchell never had the opportunity to see or perform in a ballet production. She didn't understand the purpose behind ballet's tedious class exercises.

When the fast-growing Harkness Ballet moved its scholarship students to the June Taylor Studio on Broadway, Abarca Mitchell remembers hearing live drumming, clapping and laughter coming from the studio across the hall. It was a jazz class taught by Jaime Rogers, who'd played Loco in the West Side Story movie. Abarca Mitchell started sneaking into Rogers' classes.

When Harkness informed her that her scholarship was exclusively for ballet, Abarca Mitchell left the program. She saw no future for herself in the white-dominated ballet world, and focused on academics during her last two years of high school.

At 17, Abarca Mitchell met Arthur Mitchell. He had made history as the first Black principal dancer with New York City Ballet, which he had joined in 1955, and had just begun to shape what would become Dance Theatre of Harlem when he hired Abarca Mitchell in 1968. Within a month, she was back on pointe. Within two months, she was performing in Arthur Mitchell's Tones. "I didn't even know what ballet was until I was onstage," Abarca Mitchell says. "All of a sudden, it was my heart and soul."

Arthur Mitchell made sure his dancers saw NYCB perform, and subsequently brought Balanchine's Agon, Concerto Barocco and other NYCB works into the DTH repertoire. "Physically and emotionally, I felt the connection of jazz in Balanchine's choreography," Abarca Mitchell says. "His neoclassical style was just funky to me. I could totally relate."

For the first time, Abarca Mitchell danced with people who looked like her and shared the same aspirations, she says, with a leader who "saw us through his eyes of love and achievement."

In Abarca Mitchell's 30s, after a performing career that took her from DTH to the film version of The Wiz to Bob Fosse's Dancin' and beyond, her husband's job took their family to Atlanta. She soon connected with Gilreath and Waverly Lucas. The couple, also DTH alumni, were influenced by Arthur Mitchell's model when they founded Ballethnic, seeking to create access for dancers of all backgrounds to develop as classical dancers and perform a repertoire that represents the company's culturally diverse home city. Over time, Abarca Mitchell became a trusted advisor.

Abarca Mitchell goes in at least twice a year to coach Ballethnic's productions—such as Urban Nutcracker, set in Atlanta's historically Black Sweet Auburn neighborhood, and The Leopard Tale, which features the company's signature blend of classical pointe work with polyrhythmic dance forms of the African diaspora. These final rehearsals give Abarca Mitchell a way to fast-track the transfer of her mentor's values.

Two dancers in blue and black practice clothes and face masks, the woman in pointe shoes, pose together in a first arabesque tendu. Abarca Mitchell steps out of a mirrored pose as she adjusts the fingertips of the male dancer.

Lydia Abarca Mitchell works with Ballethnic's Calvin Gentry and Karla Tyson.

Courtesy Ballethnic Dance Company

She recalls that Arthur Mitchell taught his dancers to present themselves at their finest—to enter a room with their heads held high and shoulders back—and to dress, speak and walk with dignity and self-respect. He reminded them that they were pioneers and ambassadors for Blacks in ballet. As the company gained international stature—Abarca Mitchell was the first Black female ballerina to appear on the cover of Dance Magazine, in 1975—he insisted the dancers remain humble and in service to the greater mission. But he was also a taskmaster. "No nonsense, no excuses," Abarca Mitchell says. "There was no slack. If he was rehearsing something that you're not in, you'd better be on the side learning it."

"He didn't throw compliments around at all. You had to really kill yourself to get a smile from him." After a run-through, she says, "you didn't want to be singled out."

Abarca Mitchell takes a slightly different approach, though she doesn't compromise on the values her mentor instilled. When coaching large casts of all ages and different levels for Ballethnic, she has found ways to inspire people without tearing them down. She calls it a "tough love" approach.

"I've got to make them want to do it. I don't want to beat them into doing it," Abarca Mitchell says. "I tell them, 'You're here because you want to be, and because you auditioned and were accepted. Now, show me why I should keep you here.'"

"I tell them, 'I'm here to make sure you'll look good—you know: 'That looks fake. Let's make it look real. Think about what you're doing, so that it's not just a gesture.'"

Arthur Mitchell instilled this level of emotional honesty in his dancers, and it was key to the company's quick success. "We were bringing a thought forward," says Abarca Mitchell. "We were bringing a feeling forward, so that the audience could connect with us."

In addition to her position as rehearsal director for Ballethnic, Abarca Mitchell is today part of 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy, a group of DTH alumni who seek to give voice to people responsible for the company's success in its early years. "It's incredible," she says, "how many people took something from DTH and applied it to their lives."

As Ballethnic prepares to co-host the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference and Festival in January 2022, Abarca Mitchell hopes to help strengthen the network of dance companies associated with Ballethnic, such as Memphis' Collage Dance Collective. "The dream is for all of us to collaborate with each other," she says, "so that it becomes more normal to see a Black ballerina, so it's not just a token appearance."

Today's young dancers face different challenges from what Abarca Mitchell faced. She finds that they're more easily distracted, and sometimes act entitled, because they don't know or appreciate how hard earlier Black ballerinas like herself worked to clear a path for them. But what she's passing on will benefit them, whether they choose to pursue dance careers or become doctors, lawyers, professors or something else entirely. "The principles are the same," she says. "Work for what you want, and you will achieve it."

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