Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Bolshoi Prima ballerina's grace under pressure

From Lianne Turner and George Webster, CNN
September 21, 2012 -- Updated 1005 GMT (1805 HKT)
  • Ballet star Svetlana Zakharova has been dancing almost everyday since the age of six
  • Russian prima ballerina spent much of her childhood training away from home
  • Zakharova: Ballet is not just my profession, it is my life

Moscow, Russia (CNN) -- Making it to the top as a prima ballerina takes a lot of work, strength and time -- and, says, Svetlana Zakharova, "a lot of emotions."

The 33-year-old Russian has been prima ballerina, or principal dancer, with Moscow's prestigious Bolshoi theatre company for nearly a decade and her presence on a cast list is guaranteed to fill any theatre in London, New York or Paris.

Zakharova's grace and stage presence belie her difficult, and sometimes lonely, journey to the top.

Born in the historic, north-western city of Lutsk in Soviet-era Ukraine, Zakharova's mother sent her away to train at the age of 10 -- first to Kiev, then at St. Petersburg's esteemed Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet.

Ballerina: I feel limitless on stage

"It took me a few years to get used to the ballet," she said. "My child's body was not ready to handle such loads, and the legs that were used to walk upright had to be twisted and the back always had to be held straight. It was a huge strain and I did not have the strength."

It was an unhappy period in the young Zakharova's life. She says that she would find herself crying "all the time" between the conveyor belt of exams and rehearsals.

More from Human to Hero: Molecular gastronomy chef Heston Blumenthal

Only when, as a teenager, her body grew tall, strong and athletic did she begin to see how her future might pan out.

"When I was about 13 or 14 ... I really realized that I wanted to become a ballerina," she said.

From then on she practiced everyday, often for up to eight hours solid. She says she didn't miss out on the usual freedoms of childhood: "I cannot say that it was a sacrifice," she said. "I do not even think about it."

At first, it took me a few years to get used to the ballet -- my child's body was not ready to handle such loads
Svetlana Zakharova, ballet dancer

Revealingly, she wouldn't wish the same experience for her own daughter, who was born in February 2011.

"I cannot imagine myself giving her away to study in a different town," she said. "I asked my mum, 'Why? How did it happen?' And she said, 'You know, even until now I can not understand what I was led by -- it must have been something from above.'"

Zakharova graduated from Varganova Academy in 1996, aged 17, and immediately joined the Mariinsky Ballet -- one of Russia's preeminent ballet companies -- and a year later was promoted to principal dancer.

In the seven seasons that followed, she learned the bulk of the company's repertory, including the great classical roles of Giselle, Odette-Odile in "Swan Lake" and Aurora in "The Sleeping Beauty."

More from Human to Hero: Former piano prodigy Benjamin Grosvenor

Despite growing national acclaim -- she was awarded one of Russia's highest artistic accolades, the Golden Mask, for two consecutive years at the turn of the millennium -- she was getting itchy feet.

"I worked in the Mariinsky theatre for seven years, and I danced the whole classic repertoire there, and the contemporary repertoire," she says. "But all of a sudden I started to realize that I was not developing any more. Day in, day out it was the same and the same -- and suddenly I wanted to change something."

That change came in a dramatic move to Mariinky's main rival, the Bolshoi ballet company in Moscow, known for it's "grander, more expansive style," according to Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper.

On stage, something from within takes place and you understand sometimes that human abilities are limitless
Svetlana Zakhorva, ballet dancer

Zakharova hasn't looked back since. With the Bolshoi she has traveled the globe and in 2007 she was awarded the Russian State Prize for outstanding achievement in ballet. Next year she is scheduled to perform at Milan's renowned La Scala opera house, where she will dance Giselle.

Success, though, has not eradicated a persistent grain of self-doubt. Even now, as she enters her 15th year as a professional dancer, Zakharova still regards herself, for the most part, as a student.

"When I'm in rehearsal I always feel like I'm a pupil -- and not at all a ballerina" she reveals.

Indeed, it's only in those comparatively brief moments on stage that Zakharova says she truly believes in herself as a performer.

"This transformation is unique," she explains. "Something from within takes place and you understand sometimes that human abilities are limitless. During the performance you do such things which you completely did not expect from yourself."

Whatever it is that envelops her on stage, the feeling is addictive. Zarkharova has been dancing almost everyday since the age six and now finds it hard to imagine what the future will hold when, one day, she will have to hang up her ballet shoes for good.

"Ballet is not just my profession, it is my life ... It is horrible for me to think that one day it will all finish."

Ivana Kottasova contributed to this story

Part of complete coverage on
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Sunday Oliseh plays for NIgeria at the 1998 World Cup in France.
When Sunday Oliseh was a young boy, he never dreamed he would one day carry the hopes of 170 million people on football's biggest stage.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 0928 GMT (1728 HKT)
Retired Nigerian midfielder Sunday Oliseh went from playing football on the streets of Lagos to taking part in two World Cups.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Olof Mellberg never lived out his childhood tennis fantasy, but he did achieve something millions of football fans around the world can only imagine.
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1117 GMT (1917 HKT)
If you're aiming to land a top job at the world's most famous financial district, it might help to take up a sport -- but perhaps not the one you're thinking of.
April 2, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
He travels in private jets and is one of the world's highest-paid athletes, but Fernando Alonso does not forget his humble beginnings.
March 27, 2014 -- Updated 1211 GMT (2011 HKT)
Being blind has not stopped Verity Smith. The singer has starred on stage and written a book -- but she's most at home on a horse.
March 19, 2014 -- Updated 1534 GMT (2334 HKT)
Tai Woffinden's arms, hands, face, neck and shoulders are adorned with tattoos. But most revealing is the portrait of his late father on his back.
March 12, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
He established himself as one of the most famous American players in European basketball history -- and is still cooking up a storm.
March 5, 2014 -- Updated 1314 GMT (2114 HKT)
Sebastien Foucan has proved even more elusive than his acrobatic bomb-maker who was eventually blown away in "Casino Royale."
February 26, 2014 -- Updated 1435 GMT (2235 HKT)
Imagine hurtling down a mountain at 60 miles an hour. Now imagine doing it virtually blind. For Kelly Gallagher, it's a thrilling reality.
February 19, 2014 -- Updated 1945 GMT (0345 HKT)
Having suffered bitter disappointment on the running track, Jana Pittman is finding peace on ice at the Winter Games in Sochi.
February 12, 2014 -- Updated 1341 GMT (2141 HKT)
Sochi is preparing for an Olympic invasion -- but perhaps it didn't expect a former Soviet soldier to be leading the charge.
February 6, 2014 -- Updated 1308 GMT (2108 HKT)
The words no athlete wants to hear: "You can't ski anymore. Racing is finished for you." But, luckily for her, Fanny Smith refused to believe her doctor.
January 29, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
"Blood was coming out of every hole in my body and I was completely unconscious," says French daredevil Xavier de Le Rue.
January 22, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jenna McCorkell has been dancing on a knife edge since first representing her country at the age of 10. "How ice skating is evolving, it's insane."