GNicholls

Svetlana Zakharova

25 posts in this topic

Being new to ballet, I don't always understand the passions that certain dancers and styles evoke among experts. It seems that Svetlana Zakharova evokes a lot of criticism on this forum and with certain critics, while other critics and publics rave about her.

My own impression from watching YouTube clips is that there is a certain feline quality in her dancing: extreme extensions and torso stretches, something like the late 16th-century Mannerist Italian paintings with their exaggerated poses, elongated fingers, etc. -- and that "extreme" stage presentation is quite of our time too. The humanistic qualities of subtlety and sentiment don't seem to have the traction they used to have -- the world has changed I fear. Her mime is very limited; she just gets up there and dances and executes with indomitable will and something about that appeals to me. Yet I can also see how those whose judgment of ballet is more sophisticated than mine would differ, noting that sometimes they find her work cold.

Question in connection with Zakharova: what is "over-extension" of the feet en pointe and what effect does it have?

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G,

Zakharova is an incredibly divisive ballerina, as you've guessed, she's in a long line of ballerinas of that ilk which all cropped up in the wake of Sylvie Guillem who is without doubt the most controversial ballerina of the past 25 years and who has pretty much set the template for what is expected of ballerinas in companies all over the world, now. There's Alina Somova at the Kirov, Darcey Bussell was seen as being the British Guillem, Alicia Amaitrain at Stuttgart, the up and coming Melissa Hamilton at the Royal, indeed nowadays a ballerina isn't seen as being a ballerina unless she can scratch her ear with her foot.

The image is of etiolated, ultra thin, hugely flexible, which is what over extension is about. In the photos Cuban supplied you can see various shots of Zakharova in a developpe a la second, basically lifting the leg up in a vertical split. It used to be that a developpe shouldn't raise the hip of the leg that was going up into the air, or contort the trunk of the body. Even extremely flexible ballerinas in classical companies would tone down the height they could lift a leg to in order to be correct in the placement of their body.

The great American choreographer Balanchine was an early forerunner in the dancers he developed and the way he reworked classical ballet into neo classical ballet - he liked extremity, he liked the contortion of legs raised despite what it did to the rest of the body (I know I'm giving a very potted version here, folks).

But in the latter half of the 20th century things started changing in the gymnastic approach to classical ballet, mainly in the West and in the shape of ballerinas. The Paris Opera Ballet specifically produced a line of etiolated, hyper flexible virtuoso ballerinas such as Elisabeth Platel, and then came Sylvie Guillem who had a unique physiognomy and whose extensions were just jaw dropping in their height - she became a superstar ballerina, which was important as the ballet boom of the 60s and early 70s was long over and there was no Nureyev's, Fonteyns, Farrells who could fill opera houses on star status. Guillem set off a kind of space race amongst schools who all wanted to produce ballerinas of unnatural flexibility - Zakharova, a star ballerina, is one of the most flexible in the world today.

This is a hugely controversial issue amongst balletomanes and scholars, because in order to pull off the stunts, the whole technique of ballet has had to change, ballet which is primarily, or was primarily about the placement of the body in an harmonious order has become about contorsion, as seen in those photos of Zakarova.

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Early training in gymnastics before starting ballet doesn't seem to be all that unusual any more. Baryshnikov has often talked about studying gymnastics before discovering ballet. When you see those extreme stretches and the splits against the wall that he does in the practice sequences in White Nights, you have to wonder if that very early gymnastics stretching made some of that possible. This is the 1975 Time Magazine article about him with that reference to gymnastics and it's appeared in other biographies:

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,945404-3,00.html

Natalia Osipova started in gymnastics training before switching to ballet because of an injury:

http://www.natalia-osipova.com/osipova-2.html

Her extreme extensions and airborne splits seem influenced by early gymnastics to me.

I haven't done any sort of comprehensive survey on this question, but I wonder if the popularity of gymnastics in recent decades (which young children typically start by age 5 or so) might be having some influence on ballet training (which doesn't get serious until children are 8 or 10?).

If you look back at critical writing in the 19th century, athleticism was typically frowned upon, but that seems to have reversed in the 20th century, at least in some circles in classical ballet. The move toward gymnastics seems consistent with that direction.

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In defense of Guillem---there is more to her than high extensions and beautiful feet---there is a wonderfully expressive artist. I can't say the same thing about Zakharova.

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In defense of Guillem---there is more to her than high extensions and beautiful feet---there is a wonderfully expressive artist. I can't say the same thing about Zakharova.

In further defense, Guillem showed a willingness to moderate her ability to hit high extensions when they were inappropriate to the piece (see the attitudes uses in SB--textbook, not the attenuated line popular now). She Also did NOT distort her hip/line of her torso to achieve her extensions, or at least not so far as I have seen. To me that makes a major difference.

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G,

Zakharova is an incredibly divisive ballerina, as you've guessed, she's in a long line of ballerinas of that ilk which all cropped up in the wake of Sylvie Guillem who is without doubt the most controversial ballerina of the past 25 years and who has pretty much set the template for what is expected of ballerinas in companies all over the world, now. There's Alina Somova at the Kirov, Darcey Bussell was seen as being the British Guillem, Alicia Amaitrain at Stuttgart, the up and coming Melissa Hamilton at the Royal, indeed nowadays a ballerina isn't seen as being a ballerina unless she can scratch her ear with her foot.

The image is of etiolated, ultra thin, hugely flexible, which is what over extension is about. In the photos Cuban supplied you can see various shots of Zakharova in a developpe a la second, basically lifting the leg up in a vertical split. It used to be that a developpe shouldn't raise the hip of the leg that was going up into the air, or contort the trunk of the body. Even extremely flexible ballerinas in classical companies would tone down the height they could lift a leg to in order to be correct in the placement of their body.

The great American choreographer Balanchine was an early forerunner in the dancers he developed and the way he reworked classical ballet into neo classical ballet - he liked extremity, he liked the contortion of legs raised despite what it did to the rest of the body (I know I'm giving a very potted version here, folks).

But in the latter half of the 20th century things started changing in the gymnastic approach to classical ballet, mainly in the West and in the shape of ballerinas. The Paris Opera Ballet specifically produced a line of etiolated, hyper flexible virtuoso ballerinas such as Elisabeth Platel, and then came Sylvie Guillem who had a unique physiognomy and whose extensions were just jaw dropping in their height - she became a superstar ballerina, which was important as the ballet boom of the 60s and early 70s was long over and there was no Nureyev's, Fonteyns, Farrells who could fill opera houses on star status. Guillem set off a kind of space race amongst schools who all wanted to produce ballerinas of unnatural flexibility - Zakharova, a star ballerina, is one of the most flexible in the world today.

This is a hugely controversial issue amongst balletomanes and scholars, because in order to pull off the stunts, the whole technique of ballet has had to change, ballet which is primarily, or was primarily about the placement of the body in an harmonious order has become about contorsion, as seen in those photos of Zakarova.

I wish I had written the above!

There was a similar discussion in the Aesthetic IssuesForum. See Aesthetic versus Gymnastic Svetlana Zakharova Interview

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I wasn't slating Guillem. I love Guillem, all I said was the aesthetic of Guillem has become the modern template of ballerinas in the major companies all over the world. Guillem's unique physiognomy indeed allowed her to appear undistorted with sky high extensions - attributes that Zakharova, Somova et al didn't possess, their extensions distort every aspect of the body, and indeed compared to them Guillem now appears almost demure, and why there will probably never be another Guillem as her body really was a one off.

I don't argue that Guillem is a unique and real artist, though her intelligence and approach to the classics have made her contorversial, the abnegation of a grown up, savvy intellect within the great ballerina roles was never her thing; she was never simpering, innocent, child like, naive.

Probably her most controversial contribution though has been the way ballet and ballet technique has distorted itself in order to replicate the Guillem aesthetic, every single one of those shots of Zakharova being a case in point. No way would you have found a ballerina in the Bolshoi or Kirov being allowed to get away with that pre Guillem and every single company now has at least one or two ballerinas who are in the Zakharova/Somova mould.

But also it's sadly what audiences have come to expect of ballerinas a great deal of the time - Guillem became a sensation with a far wider audience sadly because people flocked to see her get her legs up, and Artistic Directors ever aware of the permanent red of the balance books realised that in replicating a sensation they could increase profits.

What I do find interesting about the videos Christian posts of the Cuban virtuosos is how 1950s/60s the physiques of the ballerinas often are. Viengsay Valdes, she of the superhuman technique has a body very much like those 1950s Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo ballerinas, no flashy extensions, turn out not pushed to 180 etc, the trade off between extreme flexibility and strength has firmly landed on the side of strength.

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G,

This might be interesting for you to illustrate what we've been going on about. Videos of Sylvie Guillem and Svetlana Zakharova in the pas de deux from William Forsythe's In the Middle Somewhat Elevated (you have to get through a bit of interview for the Guillem vid:

Sylvie Guillem

Svetlana Zakharova

In the Middle... was created for Guillem by William Forsythe in 1987. It was created as a guantlet almost to classical ballet, it's an intensely classical ballet, but reimagined for a new generation of dancers, of which Guillem was the chief exponent. Hyper flexible, fast, technically superb.

In the Guillem version she is despite the extremity absolutely classically placed, the distortion is in tempo, classical form, speed - but Guillem is academically correct, she never distorts or throws herself around, she uses turnout impeccably.

Now the ballet, as seen in the Zakharova version is about flinging yourself into pretzel shapes and extreme contortions, the dance is miniscule because the gymnastic element takes all the energy.

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G,

This might be interesting for you to illustrate what we've been going on about. Videos of Sylvie Guillem and Svetlana Zakharova in the pas de deux from William Forsythe's In the Middle Somewhat Elevated (you have to get through a bit of interview for the Guillem vid:

In the Middle... was created for Guillem by William Forsythe in 1987. It was created as a guantlet almost to classical ballet, it's an intensely classical ballet, but reimagined for a new generation of dancers, of which Guillem was the chief exponent. Hyper flexible, fast, technically superb.

In the Guillem version she is despite the extremity absolutely classically placed, the distortion is in tempo, classical form, speed - but Guillem is academically correct, she never distorts or throws herself around, she uses turnout impeccably.

Now the ballet, as seen in the Zakharova version is about flinging yourself into pretzel shapes and extreme contortions, the dance is miniscule because the gymnastic element takes all the energy.

Thanks for the visual comparison. The beautiful tension and strength of Guillem's performance is utterly lost in Zakharova's rendition as you say.

I found this version with Kondaurova very interesting as well:

While she has high extensions, I don't think of her as an ear-whacker of the same ilk of somova and Zakharova. This clip however seems to illustrate how far the choreography has come from what Guillem was doing--the contortions (deliberate) of Kondaurova's upper body in the part that shows the same choreography done by Guillem make the segment almost unrecognizable...

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This clip however seems to illustrate how far the choreography has come from what Guillem was doing--the contortions (deliberate) of Kondaurova's upper body in the part that shows the same choreography done by Guillem make the segment almost unrecognizable...

That's the thing about In the Middle, isn't it, that absolutely pure straight classical spine Guillem maintains throughout. Most notably the attitude when all of a sudden she's Margot Fonteyn in a perfect 90 degree angle attitude with the leg enclosing her partner's body and the high arabesque moment when her hip is down and it's about how far the arabesque can go while still being classically correct with a straight high back, non lifted hip - in the other two it's a whacked up past 180 degree penchee with a back that's completely horizontal.

Everything that made In the Middle, so erotic, sexy, tense is gone.

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My views have changed since the previous post. My own experience with extension pretty much ends with tying my shoelaces! But I now see from the photos how, in raising her leg so high, Zakharov puts her torso out of line. To clarify the question I asked, which was referring to the supporting foot in a developpe of the second: I read somewhere that Darcy Bussell has to curve her supporting foot forward to allow high extension of her other leg, and over time this plus dancing while significantly injured may have contributed to serious hip degeneration. It seems to me that Zakharova likewise curves her supporting foot further forward than would otherwise be done. I can't quite tell from the Guillem video, although I see she is much better suited generally to this work than Zakharova.

For me as a member of the ballet public there are three related issues: one of general taste, another of a style wherein the classical body line is distorted, and finally the question of how much injury risk I can enjoy watching. I realize all ballet dancers at this level have injuries that may be major, but still have to draw the line somewhere.

An analogy from the classical music world: Sergei Rachmaninoff, a great composer and one of the greatest pianists ever, had huge hands that could easily span a twelfth on the keyboard, and also had an unusual hand condition that allowed him to spread his fingers widely from each other, even in fast passages. A singularity, like Sylvie Guillem! Certain of his compositions exploit these hand-stretching capabilities, but in my opinion even outstanding pianists really shouldn't attempt them if their hands are smaller and they have webbing between fingers. Yet his tremendously difficult Piano Concerto No. 3 ("Rach 3") has become the standard at international piano competitions, so young artists play it even when it doesn't suit their hand structure. It isn't right -- in the same way I see now that young artists having to imitate Guillem's or Zakharov's high extensions isn't right.

Thank you everyone for insightful posts, especially Simon G. for your excellent explanation of the history and context. I'm going to be more discriminating about dancers. Ready to move on to other topics now.

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To clarify the question I asked, which was referring to the supporting foot in a developpe of the second: I read somewhere that Darcy Bussell has to curve her supporting foot forward to allow high extension of her other leg, and over time this plus dancing while significantly injured may have contributed to serious hip degeneration. It seems to me that Zakharova likewise curves her supporting foot further forward than would otherwise be done. I can't quite tell from the Guillem video, although I see she is much better suited generally to this work than Zakharova.

Ahh, I know what you mean now regarding feet. The thing is when a ballerina goes up on pointe she's effectively balancing on her toes on the block inside her toe shoe. This takes years of strength training for the ankles, feet etc as the pressure it puts on her feet is enormous. You may read alot about being "pulled up" this just means that leg and torso muscles are bracing themselves in order to help balance the strain.

The problem comes with aesthetic appreciation. The best feet are those with relatively poor arches or not overly arched feet, as this allows a perpendicular line from tip of toe right up the leg, to the torso, meaning that it's easier for the ballerina to take the strain of going up on pointe. BUT as with hyperextension, a very high arch is aesthetically beautiful and pleasing on the eye. When a very arched foot is in a toe shoe on pointe it creates a beautiful banana shaped curve - the erotic charge of a beautiful foot in a toe shoe has been enshrined by many choreographers creating for specific dancers known for the beautiful shape of their feet. Notable famous ballerinas for their feet have been Sylvie Guillem, Anna Pavlova, Lynn Seymour, Darcey Bussell & Zakharova.

Again as with hyper flexibility, beautiful feet are a big factor in considering whether potential dancers gain entry to schools and companies.

The physical downfall is that very arched feet throw the weight of the body forward when a ballerina in on pointe, so the dancer has to compensate by drawing herself back and fighting against her body's natural habit of throwing her weight forward over the arch of the foot. This is also at odds with the technique of Classical ballet which is very much to do with perpendiuclar lines and body placement.

How a ballerina copes with her feet and weight placement can have a massive impact in how she interprets a role. Zakharova often seems as if she's presenting her feet first holding the main torso back.

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Thanks, atm711 and aurora, for your defense of Guillem's artistry, and Simon for your clarification of that. It's a fascinating discussion, especially for someone like me without a background in dance.

Comparing Guillem and Zakharova in the Forstythe, Simon hits on one element that is very evident to an untutored eye like mine: the relative lack of energy in Zakharova's version. I loved it when Simon wrote that this makes Zakharova's version "miniscule" when compared with Guillem's.

The Forsyth choreography in this piece -- and the music -- demand energy and a kind of finality in every movement (battement, arabesque, arms, position of head). Guillem achieves this. Zakharova does not.

With Zakharova, there seems to be some kind of time-delay before the extremities manage to catch up with what the body core is doing and what the music is calling for. What is thrilling when danced by Guillem comes across as slightly ho-hum (though quite attractive, of course) when danced by Zakharova.

I don't know whether I would have noticed this if I hadn't had the Guillem clip for comparison.

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When the Bolshoi brought "La Bayadere" to Berkeley a year or two ago, I saw two Nikiyas, Alexandrova and Zakharova. Having read so much about Zakhavora here and seen YouTube videos, I was prepared for a more dramatically sophisticated -- perhaps over-the-top -- Somova.

I saw something quite different. While she insisted on the >180 degree splits in her jetes with a bent back leg, and had a few distorting extensions, for the most part, she was beautiful, particularly in her upper body, and mostly disciplined with non-jump extensions. Not at all what I had expected.

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My views have changed since the previous post. My own experience with extension pretty much ends with tying my shoelaces! But I now see from the photos how, in raising her leg so high, Zakharov puts her torso out of line. Thank you everyone for insightful posts, especially Simon G. for your excellent explanation of the history and context. I'm going to be more discriminating about dancers. Ready to move on to other topics now.

G,

Do you know what, I think I came down too heavy as being critical of Zakharova and hope I haven't put you off her. Regardless of whatever she does or doesn't do you love her and her dancing and that's the most important thing, she does it for you and that won't change and shouldn't change.

There are tons of ballerinas who one's supposed to like who are held up as being the pinnacle of dance and who leave me cold. I don't know if you've come across Tamara Rojo? She's the balletomanes ballerina of choice, feted to high heaven, universally acclaimed and I've never seen her once when she's done it for me, hasn't left me indifferent and cold and wondering what all the fuss is about.

I think that knowledge especially specialised knowledge gets in the way of love and enjoyment, which is what it's all about, should be all about, without that it's just academic steps and posturing.

Me personally I defintely think Zakharova is an intriguing dancer, there's a reserve and coldness which is somehow very engaging for me, she's got a very self absorbed persona onstage, and she is a technical virtuoso with or without the extensions. I like that coldness in artists which something burns underneath.

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I don't know if you've come across Tamara Rojo? She's the balletomanes ballerina of choice, feted to high heaven, universally acclaimed and I've never seen her once when she's done it for me, hasn't left me indifferent and cold and wondering what all the fuss is about.

Ditto.

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Guillem has always been an exceptional ballerina for me because whenever I saw her, she always combined her natural gifts with artistry and adherence to the academic laws. Guillem knew how and when to employ her unique feature. Natural giftedness is the foundation, but technical and artistic development are key.

Looking back, I have to say that from the beginning, I felt that Moiseyeva (Zakharova’s first coach), didn’t temper Zakharova’s extreme approach while she remained in St. Petersburg. At the Bolshoi, Zakharova is Semenyaka’s pupil; and reportedly she has gotten her to dial it down somewhat. Zakharova has always had discernable port de bras, turn-out, epaulement, and professional presentation. She’s consistent in the basics as a terre a terre dancer, yet she isn't an aerial/Romantic ballerina or a dance actress. Unlike Zakharova, Somova has none of these attributes.

Zakharova started at the Kiev School. Two years out from graduation she entered the Vaganova Prix competition, and her appearance there led to the invitation to join the advanced class at V. Academy to complete her studies. She graduated V.A. from Professor Elena Yevteyeva’s class, was hired by the Mariinsky Theatre, then she was handed over to Olga Moiseyeva. I recall that she was immediately fast tracked and was appointed a principal in 1.5 years. At the beginning of her career, Zakharova was considered the culmination of her “predecessors” in the Mariinsky Theatre at that time (namely Makhalina and Mezentseva). These two primas were thought to be “extreme” for their respective generations – but their salad days were under the Soviet system. Zakharova was regularly 1st cast, given the central assignment both at home and abroad. In the new Russia of the mid 1990s, for Russian balletomanes, Zakharova was novelty - and bank for the Mariinsky management. On the other hand, for the connoisseurs and Petersburg pedagogical community she wasn’t “novelty” but a question mark at best. Then as now, they revere Lopatkina as the supreme Vaganova exponent of this generation. The rise of Somova began in October of the 2003-2004 season when Zakharova left for the Bolshoi. This was when former ballet director, Makhar Vaziev began to push Somova to the forefront as her replacement.

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Thanks Cygnet for identifying key influences and factors in Z.'s career. Actually Simon G. you haven't put me off Zakharova, but I understand better what her limitations are. Also what is meant by beautiful feet. What I like about Ballet Talk is the experienced posters who both know and are able to clarify what they are talking about. Rare nowadays in any field! For this audience member it's about attending to the whole performance, not just the wow factor.

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Thanks Cygnet for identifying key influences and factors in Z.'s career. Actually Simon G. you haven't put me off Zakharova, but I understand better what her limitations are. Also what is meant by beautiful feet. What I like about Ballet Talk is the experienced posters who both know and are able to clarify what they are talking about. Rare nowadays in any field! For this audience member it's about attending to the whole performance, not just the wow factor.

You're welcome GNicholls :D. There are a bunch of other threads on this site that discuss the reletntless quest for the +180 extension. Guillem transitioned smoothly into modern dance. As a prima she was blessed to have a relatively long career (by today's standards), with few major injuries. Here's a rare Guillem interview:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2006/sep/14/dance

This isn't a cautionary tale, but artists inevitably deal with the artistic/technical choices they make. The physical and career consequences vary. For example, Zakharova sustained two hip injuries in the course of 6 months this year. The first caused her to miss the Bolshoi's February enagement at the Orange County of the Performing Arts; and the second was the recent Covent Garden tour. So, this issue is something to seriously think about.

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Zakharova sustained two hip injuries in the course of 6 months this year. ... and the second was the recent Covent Garden tour.

As expected, La Scala announced that Zakharova is not dancing in Forsythe Night in September, for "personal reasons".

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Thanks for the link, Rosa. According to the website, Zakharova's performances are being taken by:

Alina Somova, Olesia Novikova and Polina Semionova.

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