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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Chisako Oga photographed for Pointe by Jayme Thornton

Chisako Oga Is Soaring to New Heights at Boston Ballet

Chisako Oga is a dancer on the move—in more ways than one. From childhood training in Texas, California and Japan to a San Francisco Ballet apprenticeship to her first professional post with Cincinnati Ballet, where she quickly rose to principal dancer, she has rarely stood still for long.

But now the 24-year-old ballerina is right where she wants to be, as one of the most promising soloists at Boston Ballet. In 2019, Oga left her principal contract to join the company as a second soloist, rising to soloist the following year. "I knew I would have to take a step down to join a company of a different caliber, and Boston Ballet is one of the best companies in the country," she says. "The repertoire—Kylián, Forysthe, all the full-length ballets—is so appealing to me."

And the company has offered her major opportunities from the start. She danced the title role in Giselle in her very first performances with Boston Ballet, transforming a playful innocent into a woman haunted by betrayal with dramatic conviction and technical aplomb. But she also is making her mark in contemporary work. The last ballet she performed onstage before the pandemic hit was William Forsythe's demanding In the middle, somewhat elevated, which she says was a dream to perform. "The style really clicked, felt really comfortable. Bill drew something new out of me every rehearsal. As hard as it was, it was so much fun."

"Chisako is a very natural mover, pliable and strong," says artistic director Mikko Nissinen. "Dancing seems to come very easy for her. Not many have that quality. She's like a diamond—I'm curious to see how much we can polish that talent."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, does a pench\u00e9 on pointe towards the camera with her arms held out to the side and her long hair flying. Smiling confidently, she wears a blue leotard and a black and white ombr\u00e9 tutu.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

A Life-Changing Opportunity

Oga began dancing at the age of 3. Born in Dallas, she and her family moved around to follow her father's job in IT. Before settling in Carlsbad, California, they landed in Japan for several years, where Oga began to take ballet very seriously. "I like the simplicity of ballet, the structure and the clear vocabulary," she says. "Dances that portray a story or have a message really drew me in. One of my favorite parts of a story ballet is diving into the role and becoming the character, putting it in my perspective."

In California, Oga studied with Victor and Tatiana Kasatsky and Maxim Tchernychev. Her teachers encouraged her to enter competitions, which she says broadened her outlook and fed her love of performing in front of an audience. Though highly motivated, she says she came to realize that winning medals wasn't everything. "Honestly, I feel like the times I got close and didn't place gave me perspective, made me realize being a dancer doesn't define you and helped me become the person and the dancer I am today."

At 15, Oga was a semifinalist at the Prix de Lausanne, resulting in a "life-changing" scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet School. There she trained with two of her most influential teachers, Tina LeBlanc and Patrick Armand. "She came in straightaway with strong basics," Armand recalls, "and working with her for two years, I realized how clever she is. She's super-smart, thoughtful, driven, always working."

She became a company apprentice in 2016. Then came the disappointing news—she was let go a few months later. Pushing 5' 2", she was simply too short for the company's needs, she was told. "It was really, really hard," says Oga. "I felt like I was on a good track, so to be let go was very shocking, especially since my height was not something I could improve or change."

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

Moving On and Up

Ironically, Oga's height proved an advantage in auditioning for Cincinnati Ballet, which was looking for a talented partner for some of their shorter men. She joined the company in 2016, was quickly promoted to soloist, and became a principal dancer for the 2017–18 season, garnering major roles like Swanilda and Juliet during her three years with the company. "There were times I felt insignificant and insecure, like I don't deserve this," Oga says about these early opportunities. "But I was mostly thrilled to be put in those shoes."

She was also thriving in contemporary work, like choreographer-in-residence Jennifer Archibald's MYOHO. Archibald cites her warmth, playfulness and sensitivity, adding, "There's also a powerful presence about her, and I was amazed at how fast she was at picking up choreography, able to find the transitions quickly. She's definitely a special talent. Boston Ballet will give her more exposure on a national level."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, poses in attitude derriere crois\u00e9 on her right leg, with her right arm out to the side and her left hand grazing her left shoulder. She smiles happily towards the camera, her black hair blowing in the breeze, and wears a blue leotard, black-and-white ombre tutu, and skin-colored pointe shoes.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

That was Oga's plan. She knew going in that Cincinnati was more stepping-stone than final destination. She had her sights on a bigger company with a broader repertoire, and Boston Ballet seemed ideal.

As she continues to spread her wings at the company, Oga has developed a seemingly effortless artistic partnership with one of Boston Ballet's most dynamic male principals, Derek Dunn, who Oga calls "a kind-hearted, open person, so supportive when I've been hard on myself. He's taught me to believe in myself and trust that I'm capable of doing whatever the choreography needs." The two have developed an easy bond in the studio she likens to "a good conversation, back and forth."

Dunn agrees. "I knew the first time we danced together we had a special connection," he says. "She really takes on the artistic side of a role, which makes the connection really strong when we're dancing onstage. It's like being in a different world."

He adds, "She came into the company and a lot was thrown at her, which could have been daunting. She handled it with such grace and confidence."

Derek Dunn, shirtless and in blue tights, lunges slightly on his right leg and holds Chisako Oga's hand as she balances on her left leg on pointe with her right leg flicking behind her. She wears a yellow halter-top leotard and they dance onstage in front of a bright orange backdrop.

Oga with Derek Dunn in Helen Pickett's Petal

Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Perspective in a Pandemic

The pair were heading into Boston Ballet's busy spring season when the pandemic hit. "It was really a bummer," Oga says. "I was really looking forward to Swan Lake, Bella Figura, some new world premieres. When we found out the whole season was canceled, it was hard news to take in."

But she quickly determined to make the most of her time out of the studio and physically rest her body. "All the performances take a toll. Of course, I did stretches and exercised, but we never give ourselves enough time to rest as dancers."

She also resumed college courses toward a second career. Oga is one of many Boston Ballet dancers taking advantage of a special partnership with Northeastern University to help them earn bachelor's degrees. Focusing on finance and accounting, Oga upped her classes in economics, algebra, business and marketing. She also joined Boston Ballet's Color Our Future Mentoring Program to raise awareness and support diversity, equity and inclusion. "I am trying to have my voice inspire the next generation," she says.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

One pandemic silver lining has been spending more time with her husband, Grand Rapids Ballet dancer James Cunningham. The two met at Cincinnati Ballet, dancing together in Adam Hougland's Cut to the Chase just after Oga's arrival, and got married shortly before her move to Boston. Cunningham took a position in Grand Rapids, so they've been navigating a long-distance marriage ever since. They spend a lot of time texting and on FaceTime, connecting in person during layoffs. "It's really hard," Oga admits, but adds, "We are both very passionate about the art form, so it's easy to support each other's goals."

Oga's best advice for young dancers? "Don't take any moment for granted," she says without hesitation. "It doesn't matter what rank you are, just do everything to the fullest—people will see the hard work you put in. Don't settle for anything less. Knowing [yourself] is also very important, not holding yourself to another's standards. No two paths are going to be the same."

And for the foreseeable future, Oga's path is to live life to the fullest, inside and outside ballet. "The pandemic put things in perspective. Dancing is my passion. I want to do it as long as I can, but it's only one portion of my life. I truly believe a healthy balance between social and work life is good for your mental health and helps me be a better dancer."

Louisville Ballet in Andrea Schermoly's Rite of Spring. Sam English, Courtesy Louisville Ballet.

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Schermoly is also no stranger to film, having created a digital short called In Passing for the Ashley Bouder Project in 2015. But her most recent film project for Louisville Ballet, a new version of the iconic Rite of Spring, breaks ground—or, rather, ice—with its fresh, arctic take on the Stravinsky masterwork.

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