Soloist, The Royal Ballet
interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 12 July 2012.
DAVID BEGAN BY CONGRATULATING Valentino on his very recent promotion to Soloist with the Company and suggested he started by telling us about his childhood and how he got into ballet. Valentino said he comes from a small town in the countryside in Northern Italy, some two miles away from where Mara Galeazzi grew up. Although the two did not know each other and only met later on in the Company, Valentino’s brother and Mara’s sister were friendly and met regularly with other friends – he was probably trying to chat her up! – when they discovered their siblings were at the Royal Ballet.
Photo by Alex Paul
Valentino also proudly informed us that he was about to celebrate his twentieth anniversary in ballet as he began dancing classes in September 1992 at the tender age of four. Although he’d been pestering his mother daily since he was three to let him do ballet classes, the school would not accept him at such a young age. When his mother realized he wasn’t going to change his mind she finally enrolled him, aged four, in the local ballet school which was only about 10 minutes away from his home and which also happened to be the first RAD school to have Italian Solo Seal winners and the first Italian Genée winner (“which was me”). At first there were five boys in his class, he being the youngest, among a lot of little girls but by the time he was 10 or 11 he was the only boy left in his class
and he took the RAD exam together with his 12-13 year old class-mates, graduating as youngest student of the school. After this he moved to Milan where he’d been accepted as a student at the La Scala Ballet School. He kept taking RAD exams while at La Scala and completed them at the age of 17 in London with Mr Frank Freeman.
Valentino doesn’t know why he decided on his career at such an early age. Ballet just seemed like a calling for him. He recalled watching a lot of ballet, which was broadcast very regularly on Italian tv, throughout his childhood, and mentioned specifically one production of Don Quixote with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Cynthia Harvey which had touched him very deeply and how mesmerized he became with his chosen art form, so it was clear to him that he wanted to be a dancer.
Although occupied with three after-school ballet classes per week, Valentino also engaged in a variety of other activities including basketball, swimming, karate and piano lessons, which kept him very busy. He told us that his life-style remains as colourful and busy today as it was when he was five or six years old. Admitting to being hyperactive, Valentino said he likes to keep very busy every day of the week, all year around, immensely enjoying the thrill of a full day-to-day schedule. In fact, his worst nightmare would be going on a quiet, two-week beach holiday, lying in the sun ‘doing nothing’.
During holidays and performance breaks, Valentino therefore always enrolled in several summer schools around the globe. For example, he met Loipa Araujo teaching at one of them when he was 14 years old. One summer, after taking part in several such programmes, he got bored and went bungee jumping for a change! Although he feels he could go on with endless activity, Valentino acknowledges that his body sometimes requires a little break from physical work and he has to force himself to rest from time to time.
Auditioning for the La Scala Ballet School was tough and Valentino told us of his great surprise when he was accepted, especially without having had the benefit of any kind of personal ‘recommendation’, an advantage often enjoyed by his peers. Furthermore, the School had very strict criteria concerning physique, flexibility and proportions of its students, which Valentino said he did not fit at the time, describing himself as having been ‘chubby’. He spoke very passionately about his time at the School and the exceptionally good training he received there in the Vaganova method. He explained the great importance of good and pure balletic training, which now allows him to go back to these roots which are so necessary in times of injury or when teaching others. It allows him to recognize, understand and know each individual step and movement down to the smallest detail.
For the first two years he was taught by a former dancer at La Scala, who is now retired. She was very good and taught him the correct way to do the basic positions and the great relevance of good posture. Valentino very fondly remembers the enthusiastic and energetic teaching during the following three years of Paolo Podini, a current faculty member and Principal at La Scala Theatre Ballet, who trained at and graduated from The Bolshoi Ballet Academy, and who made the greatest impression on him as a young student. In those days, Valentino told us that there had been an exchange programme between The Bolshoi and La Scala – the Bolshoi singers used to come to La Scala to learn singing and the La Scala dancers went to Moscow to learn dancing. Paolo was therefore one of an exclusive set who had graduated from the Bolshoi Academy and then came back to Italy, trained to a high standard, as Principal. Indeed, all of the teaching staff at La Scala Theatre Ballet School had been very well trained at The Bolshoi Academy and spoke Russian.
During his five years at La Scala, Valentino and his fellow students were not permitted to take part in any competitions, auditions or public performances and the School only staged one performance of its students per year, dedicating the rest of the time to disciplined training. This is why one never sees La Scala students in any of the ballet competitions. La Scala Theatre Ballet School had the same director for 35 years, Anna Maria Prina, who only left two years ago, and rules concerning competitions were never changed during her reign. Having been a complete balletomane since a very young age – he could spend weeks watching ballet instead of TV – and having reached a certain stage of his training, this restriction sparked a desire to leave Milan as Valentino became increasingly frustrated by his inability to take part in international competitions, such as the Prix de Lausanne, and to be on stage in front of an audience as much as possible.
In his fifth year Valentino was one of only six boys in class, which was very good, because it meant that the teacher spent more time on him. In fact, Valentino and one other boy were ‘his teacher’s special pupils’ and got a lot of valuable training. In accordance with the very strict Russian class, every student had a designated space at the barre and did not simply go where they chose: the better students would stand at the middle bar, whilst the ones in need of more training would stand at the side bars. Valentino was very proud of the fact that he and his friend shared the middle centre bar. But he wanted more, and having seen Royal Ballet School students taking part in competitions and school performances as well as performing around the world, he and his closest friend decided they couldn’t miss the opportunity of realizing their dream and in great secrecy they went to London where the Royal Ballet School were holding public auditions during that school term, The trigger for this was La Scala Theatre Ballet School’s huge 190th anniversary celebration gala, including students from the Royal, Hamburg, Bolshoi and Paris ballet schools. His teacher had commented on a performance by students from the Royal, in particular the different aspects of their training, so when looking for another school Valentino thought of London.
At the audition, Valentino did everything in his power to fulfill his dream of being admitted to the Royal Ballet School, having no previous connection to it, or anyone connected with it. Being the last to perform each exercise – participants were allocated a number in alphabetical order according to surnames – Valentino, at number 87, realized he needed to grab the panel’s attention as this was his one and only chance to make his mark and stand out from the others. When asked to do one pirouette, he did four or five and danced each move or jump to the extreme, bringing his leg higher than he was asked to. He also repeated each exercise several times by simply slipping into the centre of all the groups, instead of just dancing in the group he was allocated! Laughingly, Valentino told us that he danced ‘like a lunatic’ on that day, reminiscing about how tough was the competition not only because of numbers but because other students at the time included top class dancers such as Sergei Polunin. Kevin Emerton and Claire Calvert were also auditioning. He remembers seeing a look of shock on Gailene Stock’s and Jay Jolley’s faces as the others were trying to be nice while he was dancing to impress as if his life depended on it!
Valentino’s talent did not go unnoticed and he was not only offered a place, but also a scholarship to go with it, so at the age of 16 Valentino was ready to start at the Royal Ballet Upper School. However, before accepting the offer, the School required the appointment of a legal guardian for him. This proved somewhat of a challenge, as the Zucchetti family knew no-one in England who could fill this role so they didn’t reply to the letter for a couple of weeks until Gailene phoned his mum, who doesn’t speak a word of English but was helped by his brother, asking what was happening. Determined not to allow anything to get in his way, the formalities were overcome by one of the teachers at White Lodge, who was half-Italian, agreeing to sign the necessary papers, and Valentino was off to London.
He went straight into year two, a year ahead of other students of the same age, where his class consisted of around 15 boys and 14-15 girls, a few from White Lodge and several UK students. However, before coming to the School he had broken his foot for the third time, so he arrived on crutches following surgery. He only made a brief entrance in the School’s performance but put his whole heart into it. It was a slow and gradual road which finally lead to full recovery and entry into the third year. Meantime, in addition to the daily school and training and with a keen interest in choreography as well as dancing, Valentino took part in an excellent choreography course at the Royal Ballet School. This allowed him, at the age of 16, to compete in a ballet competition, Tanzolymp, in Berlin, where he won “Best Choreographed Solo” and won the overall competition’s bronze medal.
Valentino also took part in the Genée International Ballet Competition in Hong Kong, which he described as a beautiful experience, and very interesting. You train for a week so it was not immediately competitive, and then have to qualify for semis and finals and have a solo choreographed on you. He was the first Italian national to win the gold in 80 years which was a big deal. He danced Don Q, and Blue Boy, as well as the solo. It was different from the Ukraine International Ballet Competition where you had to prepare seven variations. He regretfully never competed at the Prix de Lausanne although as a youngster he had been with his mother to watch it many times as it was held only an hour away from his family home.
Valentino graduated from the School with ‘highly commended’ and was offered a contract with Houston Ballet. The School encourages you to get a job but he was sorry to have missed the second year of training, wanted to do better than ‘highly commended’ and wasn’t so keen on the idea of Texas. He asked Gailene if he could do a further year as he felt he needed more training and it wasn’t always so good to be an apprentice as you were sometimes left on the sidelines. Staying on gave him the chance to do the Genée and he joined a year where the standard was very high (including Sergei), and they did amazing tours including to Dubai. David asked what his fellow students thought of him staying on. Valentino knew most of them well, and they remain best friends as they were about the same age so they understood his reasons. Happily this gave Valentino the thrill of graduating with honours. He didn’t do a lot in the school performance though he created a role in Christopher Hampson’s Three Dialogues, but to be part of the defilé was an unbelievable and overwhelming experience.
Besides feeling he needed more training, Valentino turned down Houston as he wanted to be in Europe where, like Russia, he felt that ballet is taken more seriously. He did a few auditions but found most European companies were very tall as the girls were getting taller. He wrote to tell Monica he would like to stay, saying he felt quite sentimental about the Company and loved the dancers, and was a particularly big fan of Alina, but there was no contract for him at the Royal. He was quite disappointed at the time but looking back on his three years away he realised it was a very fruitful time which gave him the opportunity of working with a variety of people and broadened his views. He got his contract through open competition rather than recommendations with Zurich Ballet, a company which initially he didn’t know very well. It’s quite a sensitive time to graduate into the first year in a company and even talented dancers can blow their chances. The director of Zurich, Heinz Spoerli, is notoriously hard and there wasn’t the slightest temptation to be lazy and if you were injured you got fired 90 percent of the time, so hardly anyone gets injured! It was a very strict regime and shocking stories circulated but for two years it gave Valentino the opportunity to work with Kylian, Duarto and Forsythe amongst others, as well as doing the classics. There weren’t so many performances as here which gave more time to absorb the choreographers’ ideas and work on new pieces with people you wouldn’t normally get the chance to work with. He joined the junior company doing every competition plus being in the main company’s own performances. It was great to make new and experimental pieces with different choreographers and be part of a collaborative process.
While he was in Zurich, Johan Kobborg came to mount his production of La Sylphide. Valentino confessed to an infatuation for Bournonville when he was younger and particularly loves Sylphide. Johan wanted Valentino as first cast though that wasn’t allowed but not knowing the company or its director was unaware that they would lie and say there would be two casts but then would use only the first cast. He phoned Johan and told him what had happened and following Johan’s call to the director Valentino’s name was suddenly down for two shows! He had some amusing incidents during the performance including dropping and breaking his glass after giving the other to the witch. He had to keep miming for the rest of the scene and then kneel down and clear it up as the glass was real. Everything was always filmed and afterwards he sent the video to Johan!
He sent some clips to Monica as he wanted to come back here and felt he could contribute to the Royal so he kept knocking on the door! She phoned after his second season suggesting he came to do class when she told him he’d changed as a dancer and was impressed with his progress but unfortunately no contracts were available. Valentino had decided to leave Zurich anyway as the next season wasn’t appealing and the director was getting on his nerves. Perversely he was promoted a week before he left Zurich. He then had six months with no contract but part of him was pleased as he was sure something would come up and then a friend, Paolo Arrais who is now principal with Boston Ballet, suggested he go to Oslo as they needed boys. Although it wasn’t quite what he was looking for the facilities and conditions were fantastic and the money incredible. But Valentino said he doesn’t dance for money – although you can earn twice as much in Zurich and Oslo, when you are working 15 hours a day you have to love it.
When he first joined Norwegian Ballet, Valentino didn’t know what to expect but their rep was very good and they danced all the classics giving him the opportunity of his first principal role, the Nutcracker prince. You join the company as a dancer and can do any role throughout your career regardless of your rank. They worked with John Neumeier and William Forsythe as well as less known choreographers. He danced Don Q every week in education performances. Meanwhile Monica said she’d look at a contract for the following season and in December, the day before his Nutcracker premier, he received an email from Jeanetta saying he’d got a contract which ‘blew him away’. He’d told his friends he’d strip in the street if he got a Royal Ballet contract but because it was winter he thought better of it! He ended the season with Cinderella and came back to London.
Valentino’s first season was amazing. It was a bit tough after three years away, when he’d enjoyed lots of different experiences, to join as an Artist but he was willing to do anything as he felt there was a place for him here. After the usual corps de ballet worked he started to be put down as cover. Dancers always seemed go off for him and indeed last season in 10 productions as cover he went on in eight! Squirrel Nutkin was his first role which everyone said was horrible thing to do but in two weeks three people went off until only James Hay and he were left so they did lots of shows of Beatrix Potter and Les Patineurs. Even José Martin at the age of 35 was called in at the last minute. Indeed it is an absolute nightmare to dance. You try to be cute for the kids but the costume looks like a teddy bear and the heat inside rises all the time so it’s exhausting and makes you very nauseous. Valentino has no complaints but hopes never to do it again! After that he was given an amazing Christmas present. He was second cover for Blue Boy with Steven as first cast but made sure he knew the role well. Again a lot of people went off, Steven couldn’t do it all and on 24 December he went to class and was told he was on in two hours, with neither costume fitting nor stage call. An unusual situation but it was fun.
In Swan Lake he was in the pas de trois with seven casts when five went off. For Alice he wasn’t even covering gardeners but seven people went off and he had to do first night. His CV credits him with creating the role when really he was shoved on at the last minute! Now people are nervous of him being their cover!
It’s hard to join the family which is the Royal Ballet Company, particularly when you’ve been away, but Valentino has his own ideas about what he should do and what he’s good at, though management often has different ideas. He’d been dying to do the role of Puck as he knew it would suit him and he was second cover when three people went off. He was scheduled with Steven McRae and Roberta Marquez but as he was about the same height as the former, he did the first night with Steven. In Sylphide Johan put him in the first cast as Gurn as he’d done it before in Zurich. Johan liked to choose people for what they could do, regardless of rank and had cast Dawid Trzensimiech in the lead. Had Valentino joined several years ago he’d not have got so many chances as things worked differently then. They may change again over the next few years which will make for sad but exciting times.
In Pagodas he was also cast as cover. There were three casts with four fools who auditioned for the role. Monica decided everyone was worthy of a show so he got one. Most people didn’t enjoy dancing it but he loved the Fool. It is three acts of tough physical energy with a character to be explored.
Titian comes at the end of a long, hard season and they are all tired. It’s an ambitious project and people have put a lot of effort into it. Wayne McGregor, Kim Brandstrup, Chris Wheeldon and Alastair Marriott started full on two months ago. In terms of the story lines it’s a bit tricky. The sets and designs are good and there are great scores but it remains to be seen whether it works or not. Sometimes you think it will flop and it’s a success.
Valentino doesn’t believe in holidays but acknowledges that even if the mind doesn’t need a rest, the body does. He was going to dance in Japan but that fell through so he might choreograph something. It’s dangerous for him to be bored. Once when that happened he went to Switzerland to do the highest bungee jump in Europe just for something to do.
Audio clip - choreographing:
Choreography: Since school, if he didn’t like something he used to think how he would improve it. Then he started to look at patterns and aesthetics and ideas came into his head. A14 year old wouldn’t be given the chance to choreograph but that’s silly as Chris and Kenneth MacMillan started early and were given the confidence to do so. His first attempt was assisting his friend though in reality he made 80 percent and she only 20 percent of the choreography! They didn’t win but ideas pop into his head and Valentino loves and listens constantly to classical music. He knew exactly what music to use and what he wanted to do next time when he won the prize. He also choreographed a solo for Sergei and got a mention. In Zurich the director wouldn’t allow them to choreograph but in Oslo Valentino was given the chance to make something with a designer but then he came here so abandoned the project. Straightaway he got onto First Drafts and did something for Sergei, Yasmine Naghdi and Sander Blommaert. It was very stressful. He did a piece in six hours at one hour per week which wasn’t ideal as he’s a perfectionist and it wasn’t as good as he’d hoped. He did another First Drafts this season which was a bit more ambitious but still there was insufficient time to do exactly as he wished and he’d like more opportunities. He would love to go back to the school to help. An ideal week would be to dance from Monday to Saturday and choreograph on Sunday.
David thanked Valentino for a wonderfully entertaining evening saying everyone had enjoyed watching him in the Company. Valentino said the first Ballet Association meeting he attended was in 2005 when, as a student, he came to hear Alina speak. He admires her greatly as an artist and his dream is to dance with her. David replied that we’d look forward to that and to watching him next season and beyond.
Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Valentino Zucchetti and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2012.