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    Valentino Zucchetti 2021

    Valentino Zucchetti

    First Soloist, The Royal Ballet

    Interviewed by David Bain
    Zoom video conference, Wed 07th July, 2021 


    David welcomed Valentino who began by telling us about his recent bicycle accident. He was coming off the pavement with his bike when he was hit sideways on by another cyclist and landed on the tarmac resulting in bruising to his hip and a sore shoulder. It was just the day before the show, he needed three days recovery, then Monday he started exercising and today did his first rehearsal of Voices of Spring which was fine and so he will do tomorrow’s show. Cycling was something he really enjoyed during lock-down, getting to know different parts of London and piecing it all together. As he lives in Angel it’s much quicker to get to work than on public transport so the convenience outweighs the risks though he’ll be more careful in future.

    Talking of his choreographic work, Valentino said his first experience was when he arrived at the Royal Ballet School (RBS), aged 16. An Italian friend was making a piece for the Ursula Moreton Choreographic Award and asked his opinion. Valentino pointed out things that didn’t work and it made him think that surely he could do it himself. From a young age he’d always had a huge passion for classical music and he chose a Boccherini minuet, made his first piece, won the Ursula Moreton award, and realised it was something he was capable of. The School encourages you to be creative and he did the Jennifer Jackson and Kate Flatt choreographic course but believes you can’t teach someone to be a choreographer, either you have the intuition or you don’t. What he liked about the course was that it didn’t tell everyone the same thing, there were loose guidelines and lots of room for interpretation, unlike ballet with its very strict rules. First you choreograph on yourself, then on someone else and competition pushes the creative process forward with a performance which gives you a connection with an audience and helps perfect your craft at an early stage. After Ursula Moreton in 2005 he was very busy with ballet competitions. During his time at La Scala Ballet School (LSBS) you weren’t allowed to do competitions and Valentino did eight in his first two years here. He created his own solos and made pieces for himself and Sergei Polunin when they went to Youth America Grand Prix, Kiev and Berlin. After graduating from the Royal Ballet School he joined Zurich Ballet where the director wasn’t very open to the idea of dancers choreographing so for two years he had ideas but couldn’t develop them. When he moved to Oslo the director would have given him the opportunity but four months after arriving there, he was offered a contract with the Royal Ballet so it was almost three years before he made anything else.

    His earliest pieces were for Draft Works. The first was quite a success, a trio with Yasmine Naghdi, Sergei and Sander Blommaert to music by Cesar Frank.  Valentino likes intricacy and working with big groups but this was something for his friends and it went down well. Gailene Stock asked him to mount it on the School two years later with a bigger cast of six, and he then did Draft Works every year bar one for 11 years. For Draft Works they were notoriously very short of time, rehearsing in their own time at weekends and in the evenings so it was very tight. He continued working experimentally on some pieces just for men, some just for women, and some for bigger groups, sometimes using a more contemporary language.  For his last piece he was encouraged to stay within the classical vocabulary because so few people were doing it and he knew he had works for the Company, the School and for film coming up. Perhaps he should have been more daring but others were doing that and he went down the classical route. Again, he used Yasmine who was in his first Draft Works and again was there to celebrate his tenth. Alongside Draft Works Valentino began a collaboration with New English Ballet Theatre (NEBT) in 2013. They saw one of his Draft Works and helped him expand it, and he made his first Rachmaninov piece there, a little story ballet of 15 minutes. The films he made in collaboration with Alice Pennefather. He started choreographing for the camera and on location, very different from being in the theatre. You can’t use 10 metres of stage as the camera can’t follow you, and you have to work in a tiny space so it was all a learning curve. He used Sarah Lamb, Frankie Hayward and Matt Ball, and Natalia Osipova and Matt. Natasha should have been with Rupert Pennefather but he was injured a week beforehand so Matt learned the work in three days. His recent short film for NEBT which is on the film festival circuit has just been accepted for the Marina del Ray Film Festival in California. There’s a lot to be done in that branch of choreography at all levels and Valentino loves it. He also helped with White Crow, and says there’s a huge gap to fill in the knowledge of dance, and particularly ballet, on film. In the future he might move to dance film direction so he’s gathering experience for that.

    Before the pandemic Valentino was due to make another piece for the School and Kevin was helping to push his development in a classical way. The school then had a backlog of choreographers and when it came to his turn the brief was to make a piece for older men in the Upper School. He started some rehearsals which were featured in the BBC documentary, Men at the Bar,and he had really good men, and a Benjamin Britten score, but it couldn’t happen and when the school returned it wasn’t possible to do the same piece because of bubbles, so instead he was given the second year to work with. He decided to make something really new and it took some time to find the best thing for them. Valentino studied them carefully and found as a year they were less homogenous than other years - physically, technically and personality-wise they were very different. There were for example four very tall and five small guys. Valentino felt we’d been reflecting enough during lock-down so he went for something playful and happy and the piece is called Playfully So. There’s slightly twee cliché ballet humour but he’d observed the students closely and was trying to represent what the dancers do in the studio and class room, then break through to what happens behind the scenes when the teacher isn’t there, or in the rest room. He’s made little stories around the dynamics of the group. The humour is made specifically for the individuals: there’s one very elegant ballerina, a ditsy girl, an aloof guy and two other guys who are playing around. Men are normally playing to the women, but he hinted that these two happened to be gay. The Linbury shows went well and it remains to be seen what happens on the main stage. It’s technically challenging with everything in it and lots of humour. The students have had a rough ride but they’re enthusiastic and enjoyed the process. Valentino loves working with them and watching the end of year shows. It’s a very positive experience and he sees their enthusiasm and determination which is contagious while thinking ‘you don’t know how much hardship and disappointment is coming’!

    His most recent piece for the Company is Anemoi. (Two Greek ladies watching the Insight said in Greek it’s pronounced Anemee.) It’s an expansion of his Scherzo which was made for World Ballet Day and was live streamed in November when it was very well received.  It’s had a popular progression and this made Kevin think of putting it on the main stage and was convinced it should be expanded. Valentino didn’t expect this to happen so soon in his career as he’s a full-time dancing Company member but it was an amazing opportunity and he was very happy to work with the whole corps de ballet. It was difficult to expand and conceptualise it. It started as diverts which for ten minutes is digestible and leaves you wanting more but when you expand it there has to be a subtext and concept behind it which is important with a longer piece when the audience look for a meaning, especially when the music calls for passion or drama. This is a piece for the young dancers and it highlights the fact that they represent the future of the company and of a changing world in culture and theatre. Jean-Marc Puissant, the designer, suggested conceptualising it for Greek mythology. Anemois are four Greek gods of wind so Valentino has four principals representing the winds of change, the two lovers are the warm winds and the two men are cold winds who dislike each other and as the music changes they do the same so there’s a competition between them. He’s made an almost saccharine ending for the two winds who try to attract each other representing the blossoming into spring or summer love. To expand the work, he needed different Rachmaninov music. For World Ballet Day he had a list of several pieces which he thought would work. He chose Rachmaninov who was in the archive and could be done live but in the end there was so little time that that wasn’t possible. The expansion was also to be Rachmaninov, one of his favourite composers, who’s not subtle but voluptuous and tumultuous and mirrors Valentino as a person. With the expansion he found the music quite quickly. The last piece isn’t very famous but is a beautiful piano piece which screamed ballet to Valentino. He would have loved a piano version for the slow movement into the blossoming summer love, but because of Covid it wasn’t possible to have three pianists so it had to be orchestrated which in the end turned out for the best. Koen Kessels said the orchestration had never been done before, nor the piece used for ballet. Valentino uses very traditional classical vocabulary, while trying to make it a first or conceptually new as a way to bring that language into today. So many choreographers are abandoning it and making contemporary, off pointe, low light works which are great but he wishes those who are so creative in the contemporary field would have a go at creating for the benefit of the classical world. He feels lonely and for a while felt discouraged as people were saying classical is so conventional. He’s done some contemporary work himself and believes Crystal Pite is a genius while Jiri Kylian is one of his favourites, but there are fewer voices in the classical world. There’s Chris Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky but they’re of the last generation. It’s hard to achieve excellence in any form of choreography unless we have more people and Valentino is trying to enter that space, coming with a passion and desire to make it work and expand the experience of story ballets but he finds it a lonely world.

    Valentino has wanted to work with the designer Jean-Marc for a few years. He has made beautiful contemporary-looking designs which are still functional and balletic but is always so busy travelling around the world. Late last year he saw on Instagram that Jean-Marc was taking pictures on the Soho streets, looking bored. He’d been working for 2½ years on opera and at ABT, took a month off in February 2020 and then the whole world stopped and he had no work for over a year. Valentino approached him, he was available and proved a great person to work with, having experience of working with a lot of classical choreographers. They bounced ideas off each other and it was great to work with someone so experienced with lots of passion, experience and attention to detail, who was always willing to dive in whatever the hour - there was no 9-5 at this stage! They were both adamant the work should look more ‘today’. Dancers are not homogenous, although you see them in harmony, but they have different personalities, strengths and weaknesses which should show up in the design as well as the dance so he has made individual designs to highlight their individuality as people. Sometimes the dancers are difficult to identify as they can all look similar when dressed the same way, especially to those seated up in the gods (Valentino has himself always been confused with Tristan Dyer!), but now you see them as individuals.  They wear different layers of clothing for each of the three movements, slowly coming from the studio to a performance setting, beginning with stylised practice clothes adding more layers as they get into the movement until there is the final performance design. Normally you don’t see different costumes in a one act ballet, so there are lots of new experiences here, and you’re constantly stimulated in the design and choreography. Some people may find it too much but Valentino is doing this on purpose. People’s attention span these days is less and they need constant stimulus. Conceptually it isn’t that crazy. There’s a light on the backcloth from the beginning which travels slowly across from left to right during the 25 minutes. A special computerised system has been created as to move it slowly isn’t easy. This represents the passing of time and creates the other-worldly atmosphere he wanted. However great a set may be, you mentally move on from it after a few minutes and have to wait for the next act for a new set. In his piece he gives constant stimulus in designs and choreography, the tableau opens and you see the light, then you focus on the choreography, and can switch between one and the other which is a way of giving feedback and stimulus. It was laborious work but Simon (lighting) and Jean-Marc were both great and working with them and the whole machine of the Opera House meant Valentino learnt a lot. But his opening night was the most dramatic experience ever. Between pregnancies and injuries one third of the Company is currently off, that’s nearly 30 in the past few weeks. He had two casts of 16 each and could only use the corps. Out of his 32 dancers, he lost five as soon as he started. The week before opening night every day a dancer went off injured which made a huge amount of extra work for himself and Gary Avis, his ballet master, reshuffling, reworking, reteaching steps. They had been very lucky only to have one case of COVID prior to this Thursday night and that wasn’t in the studio but when one girl got it everyone in ‘close contact’ had to isolate. The ROH has erred on the side of caution, as the ‘close contact’ rule is very loosely defined. The young girl was crying for a couple of minutes and three friends hugged her just for a few seconds but they all had to go home. In his piece another girl held her waist for 8 counts so she had to go too. Valentino lost 10 dancers altogether, including seven in one day. They did so much reshuffling on the Friday for the general, had five minutes to get Joshua Junker into a different position and on Saturday morning they kept poaching dancers. He didn’t have a full cast, taught one girl a new place for two hours on the Saturday afternoon, then the last one had to go home and he was left with 15 dancers of whom seven or eight were in new places. This isn’t how he imagined his dream debut at the ROH!  There was no chance he would cancel but for the first night and a couple of shows after they had a reduced cast. It’s been a complete roller-coaster and everyone says he has done well and kept calm but for Valentino it was such a high degree of drama that either he would break down or go numb. He did the latter, was efficient with no emotion, and thought let’s just do it as well as we can. He had a vision of what his bow would feel like after his first piece and had savoured it in his dreams but enjoyed none of that! At beginners call, he went to his seat and found Mats Ek and Ana Laguna, both giants of dance whom he admires so much, were in the seats in front. Kevin came out and talked about COVID. It was a surreal experience and he wondered what Mats would think of his piece. He was so emotionally drained when he came on to take a bow that he could feel nothing and was completely numb. He wondered how many more things he could endure and then he had his bike accident. It was almost laughable, and it’s still not over as he lost another girl through injury a couple of days ago. Tomorrow is the first night with the original first cast as they have returned from isolation, and the original second cast will perform on Sunday. It seems funny now but was a lot to take in at the time. David asked how Valentino chose his dancers, and what he was looking for.  Kevin’s commission was to use only the corps who’d hardly had a chance to dance in the previous programme. He was glad he was allowed a choice – he was looking for technical ability and assurance, and confidence as classical ballet is so exposing. He tried not to go for any particular age or rank but chose from those young talented people - Hanna Park, Sumina Sasaki. Daichi Ikarashi. Unfortunately, after the Insight evening Hanna broke her foot so went off. Confidence is important - Daichi is 19 and Sumina is 20 but they have phenomenal talent and dance like First Soloists. They’ve not experienced waiting around to get promoted, struggling to maintain a certain level which can be frustrating and demoralising, so it was very nice that they were unaffected by the whole company dynamic and were willing to go for it. Valentino told them there’d never been a piece made for the corps de ballet, so it was an amazing opportunity for them and for himself. It’s unheard of that an apprentice gets a principal role so they were aware of the importance of the piece for their exposure as well as his, and they were excited in the same measure and he’s very grateful they managed to hold it together, despite all the dramas. Back stage was chaos on the first night with everything falling apart but he told them we can’t be like that - we must keep it together. They just carried on, doing exactly what they were good at, not completely unfazed, but keeping so cool with no sign of nerves. Sumina was chucked on at the last minute and held her nerve for the performance then cried for 15 minutes after curtain down. They did the best they could with the situation and they delivered. David said everyone he’d spoken to had enjoyed it and were very grateful to see a new work where the dancers were well lit and visible!

    Reverting to his young life in Northern Italy, Valentino said when he was three he saw Cynthia Harvey and Baryshnikov dancing Don Q on TV, something clicked and he knew he wanted to be a dancer. For six months he kept asking his Mum who looked into regional schools but no-one would take a three-year-old. Finally, when he was four he was allowed to join a relatively small but very successful RAD school in Italy, not only good teachers but Valentino was the only Italian not only to get a medal but to win the Genée. By the time he was 11 they started looking for a vocational school as he was already doing ballet six days a week. When he started training at LSBS he lived 90 minutes from Milan, so he stayed there all week until he went home to do RAD on Saturday night and Sunday morning. In five years, he never had a day off, and didn’t know what a Sunday was supposed to be. He was also a church helper so was used to getting up early. He was, and is, a workaholic and very work orientated. LSBS was very Russian and academic but it wasn’t enjoyable as there was just one show a year when you hoped you’d be lucky to be cast, and at 15 he said he didn’t want that any more. In 2003 they celebrated 190 years of LSBS with a beautiful gala and the first half involved students from some of the best ballet schools in the world. He was in Coppelia representing La Scala and Natasha, who is two years his senior and was already a star, came with her group from the Bolshoi. He was scouting for ladies and was trying to ask her out but they had no common language so had no conversation! Years later when they met here and became friends he reminded her of the occasion which they laugh about. In the second half there were principals from the big companies, amongst them Alina Cojacaru and Johan Kobborg danced Gisellewhich was so inspiring. Valentino was in the stalls with his teacher, everyone looked very technical and athletic, and then a couple from RBS came on and did the Concerto pas de deux, dancing beautifully and effortlessly, and the teacher said that is how it should be. It felt like a delicate drop of liquid and had a clarity and purity about it which the teacher said was the style audiences appreciate. Straight away Valentino looked up the RBS website, went to an open audition, got in and was initially in a class with Claire Calvert and Sergei Polunin but was moved up into the second year. When the time came to graduate he asked to stay on a further year because he’d had an injury and felt he needed more training. He went to the Genée and he and Sergei went to competitions all over the world. If your greatest dream is to join the Royal Ballet, and that’s what you’re trained for, it’s hard to see past that – for Valentino it was always the Royal, BRB or ENB. Monica Mason thought he was a bit reckless and all over the shop so he joined Zurich Ballet which was the best thing he could have done. It was a small company with a very tough director, Heinz Spoerli, the discipline was strong and it was a very hard-working environment. Valentino joined as a junior and improved and grew in his two years there, doing solos and principal roles and corps work in the main company. After two years, during which he sent videos and reminded Monica that he missed the Royal, she could see his improvement but there was no contract available. At the very last moment he resigned from Zurich, had no job, but a friend in Norway was about to resign and said they’d need a man so Valentino went to Oslo where was a very nice atmosphere and a beautiful theatre. Just four months later on 1 December 2009 out of the blue Jeanetta Lawrence contacted him to say they could offer him a contract for the next year. It was mind boggling because it was something he really thought would never happen. His brother come to Oslo to watch him perform Nutcracker Prince and he was so euphoric that he made a bet with his brother and ran naked into the streets! He joined the Royal Ballet in 2010.

    Highlights at the Royal Ballet: Valentino said his first season was amazing as he kept jumping in to cover others - he did Rhapsody, pas de deux and pas de trois, and Patineurs, but Puck in The Dream was a milestone and put him on the map. He was second cover but ended up in the first cast with Alina and Steven McRae which was amazing as he was such a fan of Alina. He also did Lensky, having a huge love for the role and Onegin as a ballet, and is a big fan of John Cranko. As well as these Lescaut and Mercutio were other highlights, and also Voices of Spring and Scenes de Ballet. He’s been obsessed with Rhapsody for so long and recalled his best ever moment waiting for the curtain to open when they were performing at the Bolshoi theatre which had a different dynamic and transported him to another place.

    Valentino has danced a lot of Ashton and David wondered what he had learned as a choreographer from performing all those works. He said he’d learned a lot about musical phrasing, creating atmosphere and admires how personalised is the choreography. The Dream is Anthony Dowell. Wayne Sleep’s and Michael Somes’ roles the same. Everything Ashton does is so personalised. Valentino has kept that with him constantly and wants to create things tailor-made. He doesn’t impose a style, he makes some precise and intricate musical phrasing as it’s interesting and a great way to show how Ashton wanted you to experience a particular phrase, and his relationship between the music and the steps is close so Valentino tries to do that too.

    He’s worked a lot with other choreographers and has learned so much from every one of them, be it good or bad. The process is very personal and varied. Being a dancer and choreographer helps him to try to help them work things out in their choreography. He studies their style and how they approach a step or phrase – it’s amazing to see what lies behind it. How dancers experience a work and how the audience see it is very different. Sometimes it means everything to them and they give their heart and soul but it receives a lukewarm reception, and vice versa.  As a dancer and especially as a choreographer you have to know what you are trying to do - it can be a tug of war between pleasing the audience or yourself and the dancers. In the three years he was away from the Royal Ballet he worked with more choreographers than all his time in the Royal.  The Company is lucky to have had three but now two resident choreographers so don’t see the need to invite others. In Zurich he worked with Kylian, Forsythe, Duato, Neumeier and he feels fortunate to have worked with a lot of European greats as well as those from the Royal Ballet. He has only been a professional for 14 years but it feels like thirty because of the amount of work we do. Compared with most other European companies who have five productions with 70 shows a year, we have 11/12 productions and 130 shows.

    David thanked Valentino so much for a fascinating evening listening to him talking about his choreography in detail which is something we don’t often have the chance to enjoy. Also big thanks for his support of the Association to which Valentino replied it’s nice to support people who love and are passionate about the ballet.

    Report written by Liz Bouttell and edited by Valentino Zucchetti and David Bain.

    © The Ballet Association 2021