Italian dancer Valentino Zucchetti is one of a large number of Italian dancers who go abroad to find work and realise their dreams.
Italy has few ballet companies, and La Scala is the only one with an international profile, the others – Rome, Palermo, San Carlo – have few permanent dancers, drafting in extras to do repertoire pieces. Italian dancers are virtually forced to leave home and find fortune elsewhere: Federico Bonelli at The Royal Ballet, Ambra Vallo at Birmingham Royal Ballet, Vito Mazzeo at San Francisco and now with the Dutch National Ballet, Eleonora Abbagnato and Alessio Carbone in Paris, Silvia Azzoni in Hamburg, Claudio Cangialosi in Dresden, and then there's Mara Galeazzi, Alen Bottaini and many others who have now left the stage. And of course Alessandra Ferri, who retired and is now enjoying a successful comeback.
Valentino Zucchetti started ballet lessons when he was just four-years-old in a private RAD school called Enjoy Dance in Sarnico, about 70km from Milan… he is now a soloist in London with The Royal Ballet.
When he was eleven he was accepted into the La Scala Ballet School in Milan, where he stayed for 5 years.
I really built the foundation of my technique that will remain with me always, also thanks to my charismatic teacher Paolo Podini.
He was an avid viewer of ballet videos – “I watched a ridiculous amount” – and discovered the great interpreters and choreography,
I was exposed to most of the great dancers of the previous generation: Baryshnikov, Bujones, Nureyev and Carlos Acosta all played a big part while at La Scala school. When I went to La Scala to watch performances, Massimo Murru's intelligent interpretations and Roberto Bolle's athleticism inspired me hugely.
When asked about the dancers who inspire him today, they are all Royal Ballet names,
I admire Sergei Polunin, also a close friend of mine and great artist; Johan Kobborg, probably the best dancer actor of our generation; and Carlos Acosta, who is a very inspiring dancer and shows the value of a great work ethic.
When he was sixteen, mirroring Alessandra Ferri, he left Milan and transferred to The Royal Ballet School in London.
They really taught me to dance beyond my academic capabilities. In The Royal Ballet School the use of your upper body and the apparent ease when executing difficult steps are a key feature to the training. This makes you see steps more as a way to express something rather than bravura tricks, therefore it feels more “dancy” than academic.
Zucchetti, like Ferri, left Italy when he was still a student, so he wasn't searching for a place in a company at that time, though his reasons for leaving are similar to many who flee after their training: to have the opportunity to dance and be seen.
I left La Scala Ballet School because at the time, as students, we performed only twice a year, as part of the end of the year show, and very little else. We weren't allowed to take part in big ballet competitions and as I got older it became frustrating as I felt that the whole school setting was very academic and wasn't building the performance side of the dancer in me.
He completed his studies with the Royal Ballet School in 2007 with the highest grades. Although he didn't immediately join the Royal Ballet – he entered the company in Zürich for two years, then the Norwegian National Ballet – he returned three years later to become a member of the company, a company he's especially proud to be a part of.
I appreciate being with such a prestigious and well-known ballet company. It's quite unique, composed of very individual dancers that make it diverse and vibrant, and so changes with each cast that you see.
The Royal Ballet plays a key role in the arts here in England. You often find the company on television and it's really well followed; we are always sold out and our cinema relays are very successful… it's nice to feel part of something people support and enjoy.
He also appreciates the importance that The Royal Ballet gives to drama, characterization and storytelling:
I love the freedom of interpretation when it comes to dramatic roles, the way they make you find your own way to interpret the roles and make every choreography say something, rather than being purely a technical execution of the steps.
Zucchetti is one of many foreign artists in the company; like him, some spent their final years of training at The Royal Ballet School – Marianela Núñez from Argentina, Ricardo Cervera from Spain, Steven McRae from Australia – but many haven't. With so many foreign artists, does The Royal Ballet have a house style anymore?
We live in a globalised world and a ballet company reflects what's happening all around. With the invention of YouTube and social networks it's now possible to see what other dancers, companies and choreographers are doing, and how they are doing it, so inevitably we all inspire each other. There's a big blend of techniques and styles.
Almost all ballet companies around the world present a huge variety of choreographers, with very different styles, so as dancers we have to adapt. Maybe in order to do that some things end up losing their edge. I believe it's hard to maintain the purity required for Giselle or Sleeping Beauty if you are also rehearsing and performing works by William Forsythe or Wayne McGregor; it's a totally different kind of use of your body. Inevitably Giselle will end up looking less pure and modern pieces more “classic” looking that they intend to be.
So what does The Royal Ballet have that makes it special?
I would say that companies are still very diverse and every major company has a trade mark. The biggest strength of The Royal Ballet, I believe, is our natural acting style and the ease in which we execute intricate steps: no matter how hard the legs are working there must be no struggle shown in the upper body.
On a practical level, he appreciates the contractual aspects of the company, and the security and care it has for its artists.
We are very well protected contract wise: the pay is balanced and the contracts run per year or more. There is a private pension scheme and the “Dancers' Career Development”.
The DCD has been supporting professional dance for 40 years, helping dancers make the often difficult transition from professional dancing to a new career by giving them the skills they need to keep working beyond dance.
They help you financially in retraining if you need to attend a course or, for example, by helping to buy equipment if you want to become a photographer… There is a sense of job security which enables you to focus more on the artistic side of the job.
A passion which will certainly continue after his dancing has stopped – in the distant future; Zucchetti is 25 – is his choreography. He won the The Royal Ballet School's Ursula Moreton Choreographic Award in 2005, and choreographed Sonata for Six for the School's 2013 matinee and regularly creates pieces featured in The Royal Ballet's Draft Works. In 2013 he choreographed Orbital Motion for the New English Ballet Theatre.
I would love for that side of my artistic development to grow as well. I've created pieces for the choreographic workshop here in the company and for the Royal Ballet School, and there are new projects which I hope will continue to arrive and grow in size.
After joining the company in 2010, Zucchetti was promoted to First Artist in 2011 and Soloist a year later.
I've always being treated as a virtuosic, flamboyant kind of dancer, so the repertoire I've been given reflects this: Rhapsody, Puck in The Dream, the Fool in The Prince of the Pagodas, the Bronze Idol in La Bayadère, Bluebird in The Sleeping Beauty and many, MANY, more! However lately I'm starting to tackle more dramatic roles such as Onegin‘s Lensky, and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, where you need to combine technical abilities with dramatic interpretation and knowledge of the character.
Zucchetti is an excellent Bluebird, as cinema viewers of The Royal Ballet's recent The Sleeping Beauty can attest to. But if his future has less Bluebirds and more emoting he won't mind,
I love to think that I'm a versatile kind of dancer and I hope to be able to show this versatility more and more as I progress. I have no difficulty in expressing emotions on stage, as I don't when I'm off stage, so I believe that portraying a character is one of my strengths.
So what roles would he like to see entering his repertoire?
It's hard for me to judge what roles are “right” for me, but I can say which roles I think I can interpret in an individual way and would like to do. I would love to dance Basilio [Don Quixote] and Colas [La Fille mal gardée] which are roles where I can inject both technique and personality, but I'd like to dance Romeo to show my romantic side and to really create an all around interpretation. And I'd love to dance Onegin and Mayerling which are multidimensional roles which you can immerse yourself in entirely.
Ballerinas are getting taller and taller. Although it's nothing when compared to the modelling industry where Kate Moss is considered tiny at 5'7″ and Naomi Campbell is average at 5'10”. Sylvie Guillem at 5'8″ was considered a giant, which she was if we remember that Margot Fonteyn was a petite 5'4″; that's an inch shorter than Tamara Rojo who is considered to be a short dancer nowadays. The problem, of course, is the three inches or more that pointe shoes add, meaning that a normal boy like Zucchetti partnered by a normal girl is suddenly dwarfed when she goes on pointe, making those promenades a bit awkward, and some pairings comic.
I did have some difficulties when I was auditioning for jobs coming from the school. I'm not what you would call a tall dancer and in many companies that is a problem. Female ballet dancers are getting taller so these women require tall dancers to partner them.
Taller male dancers are in high demand so it's easier for them to join companies to start with, and to go up the ranks quicker, as they can rely on their partnering, which is something you can acquire.
So he's in one of the most prestigious companies in the world and getting more challenging roles. Does he see London being his base forever?
It's hard to predict; a dancer's life is as unpredictable as you can get… just imagine injuries or management change. At the moment I'm enjoying being here at The Royal Ballet where I'm doing well and I am artistically challenged. I can't hide the hope of progressing to the rank of principal dancer where the artistic development really occurs in all aspects.
What about Italy, one of the most glorious countries in the world: the climate, the art, the wine, the food…
Yes, definitely the food! No where else in the world does food have such importance in people's lives as in Italy! I admire the passion Italians, such as myself, have for food !
So doesn't he miss his homeland?
Unfortunately I'm getting busier and busier every year so I don't get to go back very often, only in the summer, but my family comes to visit me when they can so it's fine like that; being homesick only makes life harder for dancer.
Frankly I cannot imagine myself living in Italy as things are now, especially regarding ballet and the arts in general. I'm not meaning to be political, but big changes are required and these changes will take time, especially in a complicated country like Italy.
I am firmly convinced that Italy is the most beautiful country in the world with greatness in its blood. I'm proud to be Italian and I will return to discover the many marvels the country has to offer whenever I can. However as a dancer and artist it is not an appealing place to be right now, especially to find a stable position in a company. I would love to perform in Italy; it has been in the pipeline for some years but somehow it has never come to fruition.
So how's life in London?
I have lived in London for 7 years now, though not consecutively, and I have adapted here really well. It is overcrowded at times, and very expensive, however it is vibrant like no other city I know. The huge variety of entertainment makes all the hustle and bustle worth it!
Martha Graham's famous maxim, “Dance is the hidden language of the soul”, is surely the reason that most dancers dance. The desire to communicate something, something that goes beyond words, yet something which can be said with the universal language of dance. What does Zucchetti feel when he's dancing?
It's hard to explain… I just feel right, that's probably the best way of putting it. I have a mixture of feelings – joy, satisfaction and freedom – which makes all the hard work and sacrifice worthwhile.
I dance because it's the way I most comfortably express myself; I started ballet so young that I wouldn't know any other way. I guess I learned to channel my feelings through the art of dance and I find a momentary state of absolute freedom when I am on stage. That freedom reminds me why I do this.
I hope I can leave the audience with a piece of me, a reflection or a thought that stays with them for long after they have left the theatre.
Follow Valentino Zucchetti on Twitter.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.