Homage to the maestro: Royal NZ Ballet’s artistic director bows out

by Francesca Horsley / 16 February, 2017

Mayu Tanigaito is one of the dancers playing the role of Carmen. Photo/Ross Brown

In his final season as artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet, Francesco Ventriglia is staging the work of the legendary choreographer who gave him a career start.

Barely a week after returning from their summer break, the Royal New Zealand Ballet dancers are working hard in their morning class. Three or four at a time, in rapid succession, they execute a series of steps, jumps, turns and finishes. The movements across the studio demand shifts in weight, impulse and direction.

Artistic director Francesco Ventriglia marks out the next sequence. They have a minute to get it and then go into action.

“I love to teach class,” says Ventriglia, now elegant in a waistcoat and tie, when we meet afterwards. “When I am in class, I am in another land.” He draws on an extensive knowledge of ballet techniques learnt during his training at Milan’s La Scala Theatre Ballet School. “It is hard because I do a very explosive cocktail of ballet styles. After one hour, their bodies are full of information and improvement in technique.”

Francesco Ventriglia.

In the afternoon, the energy shifts to a more measured concentration as they ­practise the opening sequences for L’Arlésienne by Roland Petit. Here they shuffle and stamp in formation, then work to perfect a movement in which an arm extends over a turned head, more reminiscent of yoga than ballet.

They are preparing for the company’s Petit season, Carmen with L’Arlésienne, which begins a national tour this month. Both works are set to Bizet’s scores.

Ventriglia is surprised that this is the first time the French choreographer’s work has been performed in New ­Zealand. “Petit is one of the most important choreo­graphers of the 20th century. His works are in the repertoire of every big company – the National Ballet of China, the Tokyo Ballet, La Scala, the Paris Opera.”

Petit’s distinctive style was influenced by the mid-century intellectual milieu of Paris, including the famous cabarets the Lido and Moulin Rouge. “It is very precise and recognisable from the first two steps. In his long history with the Paris Opera, he worked with all influences of the period. Charlie Chaplin talks about him; he was a close friend of Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso – he translated all that culture and history into his steps.

“To dance Roland Petit, you really need to be a very good classical dancer,” he says. “If you observe the solo of the ­toreador in Carmen, or the solo of L’Arlésienne, you really need a strong ­technique – otherwise you don’t survive.”

Carmen, created in 1949, “is still extremely modern, elegant and beautiful”, Ventriglia says. Petit broke new ground by having the dancers sing and clap during Don José’s solo in the taverna. “He created a fusion of opera and ballet in a 50-minute ballet. Now we are used to seeing ­dancers sing in works such as in [the work of Swedish choreographer Alexander] Ekman – but in 1949! This man was a genius.”

Francesco Ventriglia at 19, with Roland Petit at the Paris Opera.

In L’Arlésienne, the hero, Frederick, goes mad on his wedding day with visions of a former lover. “His famous last solo is so dramatic. The role is very demanding because you dance for a long time with an incredible feeling of passion.”

Ventriglia’s three-year tenure finishes in June, although the Italian is staying on as guest choreographer to create a new Romeo and Juliet. Last year’s seasons were box-office successes: the nationwide tour of The Wizard of Oz sold out and the company has increased dancer numbers from 32 to 36 to cover its performance and ­educational commitments. However, a number of dancers have left during his time at the top and there is talk of tensions within the company. After an ­independent investigation, the ballet company board has set up a facilitation process to address the concerns.

Ventriglia credits Petit, who died in 2011, with making his career. Coming to the end of a season of Carmen at La Scala, Petit noticed the 19-year-old Ventriglia in the back row of the corps. The maestro suggested he try out for the toreador role and his performances were rewarded with the promise of the lead in Notre Dame de Paris the following year. Ventriglia threw himself into preparation for the role by watching videos, and was ready when rehearsals began a year later. “After that, I started to perform full-length works, partnering ­ballerinas, and my career changed.”

Petit continued to nurture the young dancer. “Because I was young, I saw him like a god,” Ventriglia says, “so I am happy that I brought Roland Petit to New Zealand. When you give something you really care about – someone you love – I consider it a gift for New Zealand, honestly.”

The national tour of Carmen with L’Arlésienne runs from February 16-April 1.

This article was first published in the February 11, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter. 

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