Federico Bonelli 2021
- Alejandro Valera
- Anna Rose O'Sullivan
- Beatriz Stix-Brunell
- Calvin Richardson
- Christopher Saunders
- Federico Bonelli
- Francesca Hayward
- Fumi Kaneko
- Gary Avis
- Hannah Grennell
- Isabella Boyd
- Johan Kobborg
- Julie Petanova
- Lukas Braendsrod
- Marion Tait
- Matthew Ball
- Mayara Magri
- Meaghan Grace-Hinkis
- Mica Bradbury
- Téo Dubreuil
- Valentino Zucchetti
- Yuhui Choe
- Zhan Atymtayev
Principal, The Royal Ballet
Interviewed by David Bain
Zoom video conference, Thu 19th August, 2021
Following David’s welcome Federico began by telling us about his summer which had involved a lot of travelling, on 12 different planes. Beforehand it had seemed completely mad but now healthily returned to London, he feels very lucky. He danced quite a bit in Denmark with a group of dancers called World Ballet from all over the world, including Lauren Cuthbertson and Marcelino Sambé from the Royal, Stephen MacRae was artistic director, and Xander Parish and others were there. It was a lovely tour, and very tense with 11 performances in 11 different open-air locations. You can never be sure of the weather in Denmark, but all went well and, although tiring, it was good to be performing regularly again. Federico did After the Rain with Lauren and when the man makes a hand movement like leaves falling, Federico could see the trees swaying in the breeze which made it a magical experience. They also did adagio from Nutcrackerso he enjoyed lovely music and a great partner. These were Lauren’s first shows after the birth of her daughter who was with her and he got to know Peggy quite well as they travelled around. Lauren’s Mum was also there to help look after the baby. It was altogether a good experience which was all down to the nice people involved. There was new choreography by Kim Brandstrup for the other dancers, there were opera singers performing famous arias, and live music with a wonderful violinist and pianist. Because of being outdoors the sound had ˙to be amplified but it was great to be performing to live music with a live audience. It seemed strange that nobody was wearing masks in Denmark while at the time London was still under restrictions. Then Federico’s wife, Hikaru Kobayashi, produced a gala in Valencia where he went to help. They were putting on a mini festival which was very brave of them in current circumstances. There were lots of difficulties with testing etc, the dancers were all young people from the Royal – Isabella Gasparini, who’d been dancing wonderfully, was the most experienced - and lots of others were apprentices so the idea was to give them a chance to perform. The first part included Don Q, Coppelia, Corsaire, La Sylphide which the young dancers really enjoyed and did a great job. The second part was new choreography, including Ashley Dean’s piece from Draft Works, Stanislaw Wegrzyn made a solo for himself, and Ben Ella, who is the one to watch, choreographed a very good piece. Hikaru saw his piece in Draft Works and asked him to make something for a group of seven young dancers to piano music by Sibelius. Ben was perhaps inspired by Dances at a Gathering, as there were relationships between people without a real plot. Federico was so impressed and it was really wonderful, witty, sad and melancholic. Marco Masciari from Prix de Lausanne did a beautiful solo, also by Ben. Hikaru perhaps can put together something similar here because it would be worth seeing. Federico also visited his parents in Italy and went back to Copenhagen to support some friends who were organising an event in the new Opera House. Paul Lightfoot was choreographing, there was a live trio of musicians in a smaller space than the Linbury but it was a lovely experience. He also went back to Italy for a holiday.
Onegin. Federico did Onegin for the first time last season but he danced Lensky in the ballet in 2001/2 while still with Dutch National. They’re both great roles. You’re really telling a story with very different characters. Onegin has a difficult pas de deux but Lensky probably dances more and Cranko wants to portray his youth, expressing his poetry in beautiful solos and so the acting particularly in Act II is really enjoyable. Federico was sort of type cast as a young, romantic character, but coming later to Onegin he really loved it. It’s a work he enjoys watching as well as performing and being the character. The challenge of Onegin is possibly that he’s often played as black and white but having read the poem Federico realised he wanted to give it more nuance. He’s not a complete villain, but selfish and self-centred, and sometimes those subtleties are difficult to portray in ballet. As Balanchine famously said, ‘how can you indicate a mother-in-law without speech.’ He’s usually cast as the nice guy which is perhaps more natural to him on stage and people have said at the stage door ‘you’re just too nice to play Onegin’! It was a welcome change. Technically you’re more focussed on partnering, pas de deux are the narrative and emotional engine of the ballet and tell the story clearly with lots of emotion which is really enjoyable but hard. It’s quite a tough role and after the mirror pas de deux, when he disappears behind the mirror, Federico is not the only Onegin who collapses on the floor until after curtain down! The fitter he is the more Federico pushes so there’s no escape and oxygen levels low but it’s such a rewarding and iconic role to perform. Asked what Reid Anderson thought of his interpretation, Federico said he can be a wonderfully warm person but plays mind games and wants you to push and be focussed and of course commit and be true to the work. He recalled the first occasion when he and his partner had learned and rehearsed the role beforehand, Reid came in without saying a word or looking at them but just sat down and said ‘let’s go’ which was hardly a warm and welcoming way to start a first rehearsal. Famously he’ll say the day before a performance ‘you can’t do it’ so you have to please this important person but it doesn’t have to be perfect as he’s there to help and as long as you’re really trying and being true to the choreography that’s what he’ll do.
Onegin wasn’t the first ballet in which Federico did both lead roles. In Chris Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale he first danced Polyxenes. Before they started work on it, he researched it and knew it was he and Ed Watson playing the main characters but not which role they would each take. He said to Jackie Barrett that he thought, being Italian, he’d play the Sicilian Leontes, but that was not the case. Although Bavarian, Polyxenes is the very warm and loud one, having a good time. It was a good creative process, and a lot of fun. Federico had been wearing ballet gear during the creation but when he tried on the costume he had a sort of dress, with a skirt on top of that, and then a waistcoat below the knee and he wondered if anyone would see any of the leg and footwork he’d been working on. What to do with all these layers? He threw the skirt around, trying to make a big movement by tossing the skirt in the air and the choreography and costume came together to build the character. Ed was very intense and in the scene when he was starting to get jealous you really felt you didn’t want to upset him! After a few performances he took on the role of Leontes. It was in Brisbane, after a decent run and it was the end of season when they were looking forward to a break. After the last performance Chris told him, thank you, good show and next time you do Leontes. It’s really hard and very different from Polyxenes who dances in the first half hour like being shot from a cannon and then not a lot. Leontes is completely different. In the first act you’re completely drenched with not just the physical but emotional exertion of feeling the paranoia of everyone is against you and in order to go there requires a lot of mental, psychological and interpretative effort with changes to your state of mind. Federico only did a few performances, he worked on it with Chris for a shorter time than for the creative process of Polyxenes but he already had a good idea of the requirements of the role and gave it his all.
Of MacMillan’s works he’s danced des Grieux but what about Lescaut? Federico said Carlos Acosta and Bruce Sansom did it as last performances and he’s not far off that, so, perhaps yes. He didn’t always appreciate being pigeon-holed as the nice guy because as an actor you want to portray characters which don’t reflect your own personality. Lescaut is harsher and meaner but has a comical edge. Onegin is harsher too, and Rudolf is a pretty brutal character which he played fairly late on as Monica didn’t see him in the role at the time and she was probably right. Some people suit certain characters better than others but it’s more fun to explore differences from your own personality which require more skill and that’s what appeals. When he came to Rudolf it was really good, he learned it working a lot with the wonderful Jonny Cope who was so generous and present in the room and is much missed as a great collaborator. It was always about the dancers, never himself. Lescaut, yes, would be a fun role to play and he loves to watch it too.
Rudolf in Mayerling. When he joined the Company it was Jonny Cope’s last season. Federico’s big break was dancing Marguerite and Armand in place of Jonny who coached him in the role so he worked with him from the beginning of his coaching career and on through his development as a coach. He was always polite and respectful but Federico knew he had ideas and information which he needed to pull out from him. Jonny could still do whatever lift he wanted to demonstrate even after not dancing for some years. He developed as a coach and working on Rudolf he knew the ballet inside out, and the technicalities and triggers for reactions of the character. He had respect for the interpreter and never said you must play it this way, but he’d go back to the source in his story and say this is the trigger, what does it mean for you? Not everyone is like that. He gave you the reasons which caused reactions in the story and said what will you do with it? He was encouraging and helpful without telling you exactly what to do. To get to that point you need a good working relationship as it requires a lot of trust and because of mutual respect you can agree to disagree. Two years later your interpretation might have changed. Rudolf is probably the hardest male MacMillan role. Physically you need to prepare some months ahead, the first time you do it there’s a lot to learn, some lifts quite unusual. Physically you need a specific training which is probably true for most works. Sleeping Beauty you jump, Onegin you lift and partner. Most of the dancing is at the beginning – the first act is relentless added to the emotional and psychological journey. It’s like a pressure cooker and you feel as if you’ve spent years in that stuffy environment, starved of love with the terrible pas de deux at the end. Talking of his daughter, Federico said sometimes on Saturday she would come to ROH and waiting for them to finish rehearsing. He didn’t want her to see him rehearse that ballet with Laura Morera, a wonderful Mary, and said he needed to stop to ensure his daughter wasn’t watching.
Despite saying he has been pigeon-holed, Federico has the broadest rep of any male dancer currently in the Company. When he joined he was put in things which were more natural to him. He enjoys so many different roles now and doesn’t have to choose but can cross all the disciplines. You learn from everything and it’s a challenge as in the company you are constantly changing from one production to another. Sometimes doing more than two or three performances in one ballet you are working on something completely different in the studio. You could be in the right shape to do one ballet but not another as they require a different kind of fitness. But it’s fulfilling to play the various roles.
He’s done most Balanchine ballets in the Royal’s rep. As a kid he didn’t know who Mr B was but his work reflects what made Federico fall in love with ballet. He thought that was what ballet was, jumping and turning on the music, it was wonderful as he was a very active child who played football and climbed trees and with ballet he could do that to music which he loved. He has wonderful memories of Ballo de la Regina – the entrance is like a kid playing, great movement down and up the stage and the joy of being one with the music. He loves Apollo. The Company did it last year and Federico was sad not to do it again though two wonderful dancers got the opportunity do it. Sometimes it’s portrayed as too lyrical when there is an animalistic vibe in the choreography - there is more under the surface with Balanchine’s works. But Federico loves Balanchine’s quote about the violin concerto - “if you don’t like the dancing, close your eyes and listen to the music”. His works are very musical and regarding that we have to mention Ashton.
Ashton roles. There are so many favourites and some he’s never danced - The Dreamis a big favourite. When he first saw it, he didn’t like it – old-fashioned and unimpressive. When he joined the Company and watched it he realised it’s a gem of a ballet without one step too much or too little. He learned Marguerite and Armand with Jonny and Month in the Country, is what the Royal is all about, not so much of a ballet but playing with music. As a youngster he didn’t know you could tell a story with your body and that’s what he discovered later. It’s one of the characteristics of the Company who can really tell a story that way. He had to learn this and so much enjoyed the process. He loves Scenes de Ballet but not danced it. Ondine isn’t his favourite ballet but had a lot of fun dancing Palemon, some parts are wonderful and others not his favourites. It was a struggle at the beginning as it’s about the acting presence and he didn’t understand you could be that kind of dancer, using heels and stretching feet. It taught him a lot so he’s glad to have done it. Voices of Spring is a joyful, wonderful gem. Daphnis and Chloe – he loved it and the music. He listened to a concert of it but it’s such a long time ago but he remembers the beautiful colourful costumes and dancing with Miyako Yoshida and Alina Cojacaru and Thiago Soares as Bryaxis and they had wonderful times giggling during rehearsals.
Glen Tetley’s Pierrot - he loved it and performed it with Dutch National but it’s not easy to understand the music which is tricky. It’s a coming of age interpretation and working on the tower is quite tricky. He would love to have done it more. He also did Voluntaries – again a difficult process but it’s about opening the chest and running across the stage. The process can be really challenging but once on stage you get it and it’s fine and all worth it. It was the same for Dances at a Gathering when they did it ten years ago and that process was challenging. It was the year of celebration of Robbins and the teachers could only come at odd times to put it on and they had difficult times and didn’t click. But once on stage there were wonderful memories. Philip Gammon was playing piano and Tamara Rojo came in a number too early. Amazingly Philip looked up and started to play her solo. In the wings there was a buzz of excitement asking Johanna Adams, stage manager, saying what are we going to do? Carlos said he wanted to do his solo so he did it but out of order. The most recent time was with the same people from Robbins Trust and it was a lovely experience. Federico is happy to have done two different roles in the ballet.
He might not have been expected to do Wayne McGregor’s work but Wayne himself was a departure from the usual Royal Ballet choreographer. He’s an amazing person who’s not done a lot of ballet but isn’t phased by that and works through it so he chooses bodies who are seen as classical. There was also Federico’s willingness to play the game and see what happens. He enables your own creativity and be part of the process – he’s very much in control but encourages you to participate in the process. That is very rewarding but really exhausting. What you see on stage could be 40% of the steps you’ve worked on. He prunes and refines and changes as he goes. He prepares extremely well and that enables him to be creative in the studio where ‘no’ is not a word he uses. Everything is possible but it’s very exhausting. Dante Project isgoing on now and he’s playing Dante in second cast to Ed. Inferno was already made which Federico hasn’t seen, so lots to learn and a lot still to be created so they’re in for an intense period of work. One of the first memories of Wayne’s work was from Chroma, and he really likes it and remembers that they created their pieces individually and was in a number of other sections, but hadn’t seen the whole thing but then they got together and saw each other dance and he experience a tingling feeling at the back of the neck and know it was something special. People feed on each other and at the end there was a euphoric feeling which doesn’t always happen so he remembers it clearly. Yugen he really enjoyed and particularly the stage rehearsals leading up to performance when they had more time than usual and spent time watching other dancers dance and recalls Calvin and Joe’s pas de deux.
Chris Wheeldon’s work. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland isn’t his favourite role though he understands why it works and its place in the rep. Alice is a very nice role for the ballerina. It’s quite tough for the man with long breaks in between so difficult to gear up for each of the numbers. DGV was really nice and his first time dancing with Marianela Nunez. At the end four principal couples, Darcey Bussell, Leanne Benjamin, Marianela and Zenaida Yanowsky, wonderful women with personalities used to being the One and not used to being on a precise count and in line which is more common in the corps, there were some tricky rehearsals with timings out of step. A humorous situation but fun to see dynamics. Polyphonia was when he first met Chris and recalls the humility when introducing himself to Federico.
Federico created the role of Victor in Liam Scarlett’s Frankenstein. He worked quite a bit with Liam and some people were closer as a friend while his relationship was a close working one. It is difficult to talk about it. He remembers putting it together normally in big rehearsal room with mock-up of sets and seeing other bits coming together and the excitement of the process. Liam stayed on a long time after rehearsals, writing notes. His generosity when working with him and encouragement and determination to do a good job. We don’t know all that’s gone on. For some he was a great friend and for others not so much. From a personal point it was a tragedy and he will remember the time spent creating Victor and also Viscera, working on the pas de deux, watching Asphodel Meadows and seeing that beautiful ballet. These are partial memories and we need to respect everyone’s different recollections.
Federico started his dancing career in Zurich as did Valentino Zucchetti. Valentino when interviewed had said that he was surprised at the Royal that there wasn’t as much variety of choreography in the Company as in Zurich lots of choreographers came to work with them. Alice was the first new full length Royal production for many years so a fair comment but now every other season there is a big new production. When he went to Zurich Federico didn’t know what he was doing, what the ballet world was like, fresh from school with a Cuban teacher and had met Carlos Acosta. Classics were his thing and joined without knowing the rep. They mainly did the director, Heinz Spoerli’s choreography, and some others but fairly few performances. It was a wonderful learning opportunity, learned another language, met his future wife there, learned how to behave in a studio, to perform on stage, but got some early opportunities and did his first principal role Ben who taught them Dances at a Gathering,had left the company and he took his part. It was the same with Marguerite and Armand as Jonny had left. First he did Romeo with Spoerlis’s version aged 19 and was equally naive. He was very immature as a performer but learned a lot and has very good memories. Heinz is not the easiest director to work with.
He then moved to Dutch National where Wayne Eagling was director. Federico did his first Ashton – Cinderella and Symphonic Variations which he should have mentioned as a favourite Ashton work. Initially he wasn’t so convinced that it was a great ballet but Ashton ballets have really grown on Federico perhaps they required maturity of understanding on his part. Wendy Ellis came to work with them and it was his first taste of the Royal’s work. Wayne was a wonderful partner and he gave corrections and the same from Donald Macleary and later the same from Jonny Cope. The tradition of wonderful partners is strong and alive and he should listen more attentively! Now he’s learned more. The three are adamant on how to partner and where your thumb is at the back so Federico is now telling it a lot to some of the younger dancers in the company. He loves handing down the knowledge to the next generation.
Federico took a sabbatical and did the Clore Fellowship, nine months not just for dancers but all people in the arts so a broad spectrum. It’s geared towards future leaders in the arts, you make it your own, you are given a budget and you make a proposal for a project. He travelled a lot and shadowed directors around Europe and took courses on finance etc and qualified as a professional certified one-to-one business coach. The most valuable thing he learned was that it was time to stop the treadmill and look around and he learned a lot from the other fellows, an amazing cohort of diverse people. It gave him time to think about what he wants to do and knows he wants to stay in the ballet world when he retires and his ambition is to direct a company. It gave him an opportunity to reflect on his future. Big thanks due to Kevin for letting him go for a long break and he’s very grateful to him for that.
Prior to ending the meeting, members were delighted to meet Federico and Hikaru’s daughter. She spoke briefly about meeting the Princess of Denmark this Summer. In thanking Federico for this evening, David said it’s always a great pleasure to talk to him and all members have had many happy evenings watching his performances. In reply Federico said thank you so much to all BA - they love to perform and it’s good that people who share their passion come to watch so on behalf of himself and the whole company thank you for being there.
Report written by Liz Bouttell and edited by Federico Bonelli and David Bain.
© The Ballet Association 2021
Federico’s daughter Juna joined us here. She told us that this summer she’s been to Italy, Sardinia and Denmark. She practised her curtsey for when she met the Princess of Denmark who came to support the ballet and it was a wonderful evening. She has fun going to ballet classes and enjoys doing ballet steps. She’s watched her father perform a lot and likes how he does the movements. Sometimes she gets very affected by the emotion and although she knows it’s pretending it makes her sad and she cries watching. In Manon Act I when Lescaut is rough with des Grieux, although Federico has prepared her that it’s pretence, she says she knows it’s pretending but it still makes her sad.