The Italian at the wheel

by Francesca Horsley / 22 December, 2014
RNZB artistic director Francesco Ventriglia likens his Kiwi dance company to a Ferrari.
Francesco Ventriglia
Francesco Ventriglia. Photo/Simon Young

“They are young, talented and hungry,” says Francesco Ventriglia, who, freshly installed as Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB) artistic director, has been getting to know his troupe as they finish up A Christmas Carol in ­Auckland. “They are a great company, highly professional. They are hungry. They want to eat. If you give young dancers good food – good choreography, good titles, good teachers and training – they become stronger. If the dancers are strong, the company is strong. You can do every choreography, every creation. It’s like having a Ferrari under your feet. It is very simple, with just a little touch you can run very fast. This is the feeling I have in New Zealand and with this company.”

The 36-year-old headed off 58 candidates for the RNZB position. “The three-day interview in Wellington was an important process because I looked back and at what was in front of me. From Europe you feel that in New Zealand you have space to do something, you feel the energy from outside.”

Ventriglia says artists play the role of society’s curators of beauty. “The world needs beauty to be alive and to fight. That is why artists come into the world, to protect and save beauty. I tell my dancers they have a big responsibility. There is a lot of beauty in the world, but a small number of artists to protect it.”

Ventriglia had an illustrious career in Milan’s La Scala Theatre Ballet, performing the classics and a wide range of contemporary choreography. “My time on stage was amazing. I was very lucky because the 12 years were very strong for me.”

He retired from the stage at 31, and became director of MaggioDanza in Florence in 2010. In three years there he built up the company’s repertoire, garnered international success, introduced educational programmes and commissioned works from Italian choreographers.

Francesco Ventriglia, Vanity Fair
Religious experience: La Scala, where Ventriglia (seen here in Vanity Fair) began his dance career, is “like a church”.

The career change to director suited him. “I discovered I loved to stay back and support the dancers.” He likens the role to that of a shepherd. “When you are a dancer the focus is on yourself. When you are artistic director the focus is on the dancers. You have to be a strong guide; you have to be present, there to support the company, to push, to pay attention to all people.”

Despite creating a wealth of his own choreography, he has no immediate plans to devise complete works. “It is a pleasure to make choreography with talented dancers but it is not a priority. At the moment I want to give the dancers another kind of food; I don’t need to find personal success. The success of the company is my success.”

For a national company such as the RNZB, Ventriglia says a repertoire that includes tradition and innovation is important. He expresses delight with the 2015 programme set by former director Ethan Stiefel and is already planning ahead for the next two years. Classical works will be the staple, but he lists a number of international contemporary ballet choreographers he hopes to attract with repertoire or new commissions. He plans to “open windows” for local choreographers and develop others from inside the company.

Dance and theatre have long been at the centre of Ventriglia’s life. His mother remembers him dancing in front of televised ballet shows as a toddler, and when he was hospitalised as an eight-year-old he organised his fellow patients into ballet performances. Celebrating his recovery, his father asked what he would like as a homecoming present – Ventriglia said ballet classes.

His talent flourished and at 10 he left his small seaside hometown near Salerno in southern Italy and joined the National Dance Academy in Rome. When he was 11 he saw an audition notice for La Scala Theatre’s ballet school. “I called my mother and she said, ‘Absolutely not, it is too far from home.’” Undeterred, he filled out the application himself, auditioned and to his mother’s astonishment was offered a place. His family let him go “because in Italy, La Scala is like a church”. He joined the company on graduation and after one season was a soloist.

“I come from a simple southern Italian family: one sister, two brothers, a large extended family. For them it became a dream because a young boy in the family is in La Scala. They came and watched; my life changed, their life also changed. My career developed and they continue to support my choices.”

Ventriglia already loves it here. “I hope New Zealand can become my second country. Normally when I work out of Italy I want to come back, but here, and I don’t know why, the feeling is to stay. I feel it is my place, my project is long term.”

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