Francesco Ventriglia brings new energy to ballet company

The new artistic director of the Royal New Zealand ballet 36-year-old Italian Francesco Ventriglia comes with great credentials as a dancer, choreographer and administrator.  He trained at the Ballet School of La Scala, Milan, joining the world-renowned ballet company of La Scala in 1997. He performed a wide range of repertoire including Hilarion to Sylvie Guillem’s Giselle at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and at Covent Garden. He has created works for leading dancers and one of his works was staged at the Venice Biennale.

After retiring from the stage, aged 31, he was appointed Director of MaggioDanza in Florence, but in 2013 the company was dissolved as, like many Italian companies, cultural budgets were becoming unsustainable.

Ventriglia is now making a new life for himself in New Zealand “In New Zealand there is an openness and energy, no one puts me in a difficult position and  I feel the people in the company love me. I have a lot of dreams to create in New Zealand.”

He considers the RNZB to be a ballet company with some of the highest standards in the world but he wants to take the company to a new level

He says “Ballet, like all arts is in continual evolution. If you see a film or video of a ballet 10 years ago you will see how much ballet has changed”

“The canon of much ballet technique has changed and it changes very fast in the ballet world. You need to be in the right place within that evolutionary process, that’s why it such a hard job being a dancer”

“The RNZB has a lot of young talents. Some people say it is a young company – I say it is a company with young dancers and while it may be a young company it is a company with as strong history.”

“Having young and talented dancers means we can push them to achieve higher standards and higher goals. The fact that we are a national company as well as a touring company means we need to strive even more to achieve our goals and to improve our acting and our technique”

He sees the company as being a more boutique version as some of the major overseas company’s such as the Royal Ballet. “They have a mainly classical repertoire but they also present new creations with new choreographers which is an important new trend for all companies as well as saving the classics such as Swan Lake”

“If we look internationally there are a lot of new choreographers and we should be inviting them to New Zealand. The dancers need to be versatile, able to dance the classics as well as the work of new choreographers”

“I was in Te Papa recently and saw the phrase “Embrace the Past – Build the Future. That’s perfect – exactly what I think. If you want to enter the future you must know your past very well. To bring the past with you – the classical repertoire is the past and is your ticket to go into the future”

“Cultural memory is most important, if you study the history of ballet you understand human history. Just as we keep alive the writings of Dante and Shakespeare so we need to keep the classical dances.”

In terms of getting dancers to be able to express feelings through technical means Ventriglia believes the heart and the mind have to be interlinked. “Technique is nothing if you don’t put your heart in your legs. And only heart is not enough if you don’t have the technique. Technique is the vocabulary, our words. If you don’t have good technique, you can’t talk” And if you don’t have heart you can’t touch the audience. So we need to have both, but that is also why it is hard to be a great dancer.”

“When I am teaching technique I try to explain. I try and frame the movement with a purpose. I ask the dancers to think – What, Why and How”

“If you have a good reason for the movement then your body, the intelligent machine – if you put the right question into the brain, the body will follow and find the answer.”

He sees the need to balance the classical and the contemporary repertoire and next year he will be bringing three very contemporary choreographers to NZ for the first time.”

“One of them is William Forsyth who is known around the world. He is a genius, He has changed dance. If we look back in the story of contemporary dance there was Petipa and after him we had Balanchine. Balanchine took Petipa’s ideas to an extreme point in terms of balance and opposition. Forsyth has taken this even further.”

“That’s why it is important for the dancers and audiences to engage with Forsyth so they can understand something about the construction of ballet, through movement and how the past is connected with the present.”

“Another of the choreographers is Alexander Eckman, a young Swedish choreographer who is considered to be a genius. His ballet Cacti explores contemporary art and how people react to in trying to understand. The dancers sing, play musical instruments. There are four violinist on stage. It becomes more than a ballet, more a form of the theatre and a form of art.”

The third choreographer will be Andonis Foniadakis, a forty year olf Greek choreographer who is in demand around the world with recent woks performed in Brazil Australia and Cedar Lakes.

“His movements are just crazy. He goes faster than the music. When you are watching his work you have the sensation of watching the movement played in fast forward with the dancers going faster and faster, like incredible machines.”

Also in the programme for next year he intends to restage the company’s great classic Romeo and Juliet. As he says “To have a company that can do new, challenging  contemporary works along with one of the great classics will show the real strength of the company”

Ventriglia is also a choreographer in his own right having produced numerous works

“One of my passions is to create dance and to express myself through choreography. But that is not why I am here, I am here as the Artistic Director not the company y choreographer. I would love to put on one of my works in one of the season but at the moment that is not near the top of my list of things to do.”

He created a work for the Venice Danced Biennale which dealt with issues around disability, having the dancers from La Scala in wheel chairs. “It was a shock for the audience and the dancers.”

“We talked to a lot of people in wheel chairs and they explained how people feel after they have had an accident. People think that for them love is finished. But it’s not. “They explained that they still react to seeing an attractive person even through the body might have a different reaction. They can still feel love.”

“I tried to talk about love and disability. It was a long process. These were beautiful dancers from La Scala and I had them sitting in wheel chairs telling them they had to stop using their legs for this ballet. The bodies for the dancers was secondary – love was foremost. It was an experiment for me to talk about different ways of using the body to express emotions and feelings”

“At times I can be meditative, at other times observational and I can also be very funny. I did the Wizard of Oz. it was a comic ballet. In the theatre you can explore and express different kinds of dance. I was lucky to have opportunities to do choreograph with several companies like La Scala and the Bolshoi. And I worked with important people as well as working with important musical scores. So I have choreographed works to composers such as Shostakovich, Schoenberg and Brahms. For me it is a challenge to write to a score and to ask why that music was written.”

“When I wrote the Shostakovich Symphony No 7 I discovered it was written by the composer sitting in a Leningrad bunker while the city was under siege by the Nazi’s and that it was performed by a half starved orchestra. Do you have to know why he wrote the work and how it was performed and what that means? I think there ballet was able to translate the vision of the music.

“I even made one ballet based on the music of the pop group Genesis. It was the story of people going to a Genesis concert in the 1970’s. That wasn’t my time, I was born in 1978 but I asked my older brother and his friends about what is was like at that time, what was happening in London with music and art. It was a great opportunity to try and understand a moment in our culture.”

“I am also interested in the music of Phillip Glass although some of his contemporary pieces might be a bit extreme and the public might find it too long or complicated. These days you can’t have people on the theatre for two or three hours with that sport of music, it’s boring for them. They are so used to immediate entertainment” So you need to build a product which is fast and instant if you want to bring in a younger audience, you need to understand what they need”

He is excited about the company’s European tour planned for next year, particularly taking the company to Italy “Italians love anything which is not Italian. If it’s not Italian then it’s perfect. There will also be an element of pride for Italians that the artistic director of this company is an Italian. And the fact that the RNZB has chosen to perform in Italy will make audiences even more interested.”

“And it is not just another company being a Royal ballet company has a real cache for Italian audiences. It doesn’t matter if it’s from London, Flanders or Sweden, it’s a Royal ballet and we go there with Giselle which is one of the most romantic of the ballets.”

John Daly-Peoples has a relative on the board of the RNZB