Fashion pioneer Coco Chanel's rags-to-riches story told through new Dubai Opera ballet

The show Bolshoi Ballet principal dancer Svetlana Zakharova's solo show is inspired by the life of the famed designer

Bolshoi Ballet principal dancer Svetlana Zakharova will perform at the Dubai Opera. Photo: Bravo Awards
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A ballet dancer’s feline abilities are not limited to the stage. These qualities are also helpful when it comes to dealing with the trepidation felt before performing to a new audience.

Bolshoi Ballet principal dancer Svetlana Zakharova, 43, is feeling the jitters ahead of the UAE debut of her new solo show Modanse at Dubai Opera on Friday and Saturday.

This is despite gracing some of the world’s biggest stages, including Milan's Teatro alla Scala and New York's Metropolitan Opera.

“I have a cat at home and when she sees something new, she approaches it with interest and checks it out very carefully,” she tells The National.

“I think we dancers share much in common in these situations. We are excited about visiting new places, but cautious enough to ensure it goes smoothly.”

This approach has served her well since the premiere of Modanse at Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre in 2019. The show has also been staged across Europe, including at The Coliseum in London.

Split into two parts, it begins with Come Un Respiro (Like a Breath) by Italian choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti.

Created for Zakharova, the piece, featuring a pair of all-male and female duets, is set to baroque music by 18th-century German-British composer George Frideric Handel.

With parts of Come Un Respiro evoking the energy and fury of a Milanese catwalk, further exploration of the vulnerability imbued within the all-seeing fashion world forms the basis of the main event of Modanse.

Created by Yuri Possokhov, the acclaimed resident choreographer of San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, the second half, dubbed Ballet Gabrielle Chanel, pays tribute to Coco Chanel.

It begins with Zakharova silhouetted in a lounge chair, while images and words attributed to the 20th-century French fashion pioneer are projected in the background.

The piece goes on to provide vivid snapshots from the designer's life — from growing up in an orphanage to shaking up the fashion world and notions of femininity through rebellious innovations such as the woman's suit, elegant cocktail dresses, as well as the pioneering abstract fragrance Chanel No.5.

To tackle such a towering figure, Zakharova voraciously researched her subject.

“She has a fascinating story because she was a person who lived, loved, created art and suffered,” she says.

“To bring her life to the stage I had to read a lot of biographies, studies about her and looking at the photographs.

“At one point, I even doubted if there is enough room to bring such a vibrant, active and diverse life in one single work. But as I prepared and put on those costumes and became her, I felt all those emotions on stage.”

Strengthening that connection are the 80 costumes used in the production created by Chanel artistic director Virginie Viard.

Modanse is the latest chapter of the fashion house's enduring relationship with the ballet world, beginning with Coco Chanel’s friendship with Serge Diaghilev, founder of the influential 20th-century French ballet company Ballet Russes and continuing with the fashion house’s patronage of the Paris Opera Ballet.

“She also loved Russian ballet and would throw parties to entertain Russian artists,” Zakharova says.

“She is directly related to ballet and our production features some excerpts of other ballet performances Coco Chanel made costumes for.

“While Modanse is a brand new production, it will show her direct relation to ballet through the work.”

Finding that balance between telling a great story and exhibiting pinpoint technique will be an equally compelling challenge.

Zakharova admits it is an existential battle shared by all accomplished dancers.

“Ballet basically consists of technical hurdles, like making a simple pirouette. So, if an artist is not into it, you can see it right away,” she says.

“Emotion comes first. There is always technique, but the thing is to bring it to a level where it can’t interfere with your performance. You can never leave anything behind the curtain.”

Modanse by Svetlana Zakharova is at Dubai Opera on Friday and Saturday at 8pm. Tickets, starting at Dh345, are available at

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Updated: January 26, 2023, 3:37 PM