Salsa, merengue and mambo… that's how I started dancing.
So says Davide Dato, Principal Dancer at the Vienna State Ballet. Many classical dancers began in their living room imitating Michael Jackson's moonwalk, but the Caribbean dances for Dato were not just a phase.
I started when I was very young, with my sister Greta. Our parents enrolled us in a dancing school and we started entering dancing competitions. It became quite serious: we were the Italian salsa champions two years running.
There was also a little modern dance and hip-hop in the mix, as well as the occasional ballet class.
Modern dances were more fun when I was little. I just wanted to dance and classical dance gave me the impression that it was too serious and boring.
I started dancing because I love music, not because I saw Swan Lake. I adore the sensation of the theatre, the audience, the lights, and this is what inspired me when I was young.
So why the change from sensual Latin dancing to the severe and uncompromising demands of classical dance?
During a summer workshop, I met a teacher, Clarissa Mucci, who said that I really should think about classical training as my future wasn't with salsa and merengue. I was 13 or 14 years old when I started to concentrate on classical technique, dance at its most pure, and I soon realised how difficult it was.
Like all dancers who make it to the top, he had a strong drive that made him want to overcome difficulty; in fact, he thrived on it.
I think that the fact that it wasn't easy, made me fall in love with it. It was hard at first. I was used to being top of the class in smaller, private schools, but at the beginning with classical dance, I wasn't the best. It was very tough. But I liked the fact that I had to fight to get ahead.
Obviously, there are great difference between the positions and posture for Caribbean dancing and those for classical ballet.
I had great problems because I was together with those who had started out with classical ballet and had started training when they were nine or ten. From that moment, I have never danced the Latin American styles again, and I imagine that I wouldn't even be capable of doing it today.
I wondered if this had helped, or hindered, his dancing today.
I think it has helped my classical dancing, especially with the musicality. Also, I think that the freedom of dancing more modern styles is useful when I come to dance contemporary choreography. It's also helped me with speed. I'm capable of moving my body very fast and I think is partly due to my early dance experiences.
Dato comes from a small town, just outside Biella, about 100km west of Milan.
I'm from a very normal family: my mother worked in a factory my father in a bar. No one in my family has ever had anything to do with theatre or music. Any extra money was invested me, so we were always careful that every choice was the right one and worth it. It wasn't easy, but my family has always been fully behind me.
So he went to Milan to study more seriously.
I studied privately every day for two years with Ludmill Cakalli. Then I sent a videotape to the Vienna school and I also did an audition in London for the school of Maurice Béjart.
He chose the Vienna State Opera Ballet School, and at 15 he packed his bags and set off for Austria having won a full scholarship.
It was traumatic at the beginning living in the boarding school, where I found myself all alone as I had difficulty in communicating, having no German and little English… you know how Italians speak English! The boys were separated from the girls, and at 9 o'clock in the evening the lights were off. Ballet class started at 8 o'clock in the morning and morning dance lessons went on until one o'clock. Then from 2pm until 7pm we had regular school.
I found myself having to do my schoolwork in German. I didn't speak one word. I started out communicating in English and then added on German. Although I started in the third year of an Austrian high school, three years later I graduated.
He then entered the Vienna State Ballet, gradually climbing up the ranks.
The company is very international, and most of the teachers don't speak any German, so I use English every day now. In fact, there are only four Austrians in the company. I keep up my German though, and Austrians really appreciate it if you make an effort to speak their language.
In May last year, Davide Dato was made a Principal Dancer of the company.
I do feel the weight of responsibility of that title. Even though I was dancing principal roles before, now when I dance I feel that I have to justify my position in the company and show that I'm worthy of being called a principal. Now with casting, I always get more important roles which I feel is helping me to grow in an artistic sense.
As a good-looking man and with a dancer's body, he receives offers of work outside the world of classical dance, but he evaluates such proposals seriously with great respect for his profession and his long training to reach its heights.
I really enjoy doing other things but I've had offers which I've turned down.
The choice of projects outside my stage career shouldn't cheapen the image of me as a dancer or of my profession. Roberto Bolle has done many of these things but has always respected his identity as a classical dancer. Misty Copeland has recently done an advert for yoghurt, for example, which is great, but you just need to choose the right projects to be involved in, which is difficult because there are many opportunities.
Dato has recently been in Rome on the set of Eitan Pitigliani's latest film, Insane Love.
The director was looking for a dancer capable of acting, even though in the film I don't speak, but he was interested my face and what it could communicate. They auditioned several dancers for the project but they were looking for someone who was not just a good dancer but also a capable actor.
He dances with Clara Alonso, famous for the 240 episodes she has appeared in, of the hit Argentine series Violetta.
I'm fascinated by the world of film; it attracts me. The work for this film was very creative and I love the idea of doing something similar again.
I think that nowadays with social networks and so on the world of ballet is opening up. For example, I've done some advertising work. Just recently I did a Nespresso ad for a new aroma.
Of course, dancers have been doing publicity and films for years, and not only where they dance. Carla Fracci has appeared in adverts ranging from shoes to soap… her house in Venice is called Palmolive! She also played the non-dancing role of Verdi's wife, the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, for a TV mini-series and Alessandra Ferri was photographed for a whisky campaign. The list is long. Each generation has its own perspective, but it is certainly true that with Facebook (davidedato.page), Instagram (@davidedato) and Twitter (@davidedato) dancers have unprecedented daily contact with their audience, not just on rare occasions at the stage door. This too makes them more visible to those outside the ballet world who might just invite them to appear as a testimonial for Lancia cars, for example, as Dato was asked to do a couple of years ago.
Dato will be dancing in Rome on 18 and 19 March in Daniele Cipriani's annual Les étoiles gala.
In Rome I'm going to be dancing a solo by Patrick de Bana called Labyrinth of Solitude which was created for Ivan Vasiliev, who is also taking part in the gala. I'll also be dancing the Grand Pas Classique with Liudmila Konovaleva, who is a principal dancer with me, here in Vienna.
As a recent article on Gramilano blog outlined, it is increasingly difficult for Italian dancers to dance in their homeland.
Italy is always in my heart. Certainly one day I hope that I will be able to dance more in Italy. I'm Italian so it seems natural. At this time my base is here in Vienna, but not necessarily for all my life. Who knows.
And what about Mum and Dad, whose sacrifices have ended up keeping their son far away?
When my mother and father come to see me dance they are very happy, but of course they're sad because they don't see me that often. Usually when I return to Italy it's for some show, but I get to go home very rarely.
For them it's a great satisfaction because they know it's always been my dream and they are proud of what I've accomplished. If I'm happy then they're happy.
Daniele Cipriani presents
Auditorium Conciliazione di Roma, 18 and 19 March 2017
Telephone +39 6 93800262
Tickets €30 – €80 (reductions for dancing schools)
Call Center TicketOne +39 892 101
DAVIDE DATO Vienna State Ballet
MARLON DINO Bavarian State Ballet
GONZALO GARCIA New York City Ballet
LUCIA LACARRA Bavarian State Ballet
TILER PECK New York City Ballet
AMAR RAMASAR New York City Ballet
LIUDMILA KONOVALOVA Vienna State Ballet
IVAN VASILIEV Bolshoi Ballet
MARIA VINOGRADOVA Bolshoi Ballet
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.