Italian ballet dancer Francesco Gabriele Frola has been promoted to Principal Dancer of the National Ballet of Canada and at the same time becomes a Principal at English National Ballet.
Dance is in his DNA. His parents, both former dancers, run a dancing school, Professione Danza, in Parma, the city where Gabriele spent the first 16 years of his life. He is the eldest of four — his youngest brother, Alessandro, was Italy's first Billy Elliot — and all four studied at their parents' school.
I started ballet when I was three years old. I began mostly because I have known it all my life; my mother performed while she was carrying me. She was still dancing until her bulge began to show and then she taught for the rest of the pregnancy.
But mamma Lucia was no mama Rose.
My parents have always encouraged me to do ballet, but they never imposed it on me. I also played soccer until I was 15 years old, then I decided to focus more on ballet.
Having dancer parents helped me a lot outside of ballet too — it's so much easier when your parents understand your world, they know what you have to do in this discipline and they give me a lot of support.
At 15, he took part in the Prix de Lausanne competition and was offered a scholarship to train at The School of the Hamburg Ballet.
My parents and I made the decision after a lot of thinking and now we know it was the right one.
After a lifetime in the Italian city which gave the world Parma ham and parmesan cheese, he transferred to the city which, via America, gave the world the hamburger. A significant cultural change.
I was living in the dorms with other teenagers, including 15 other Italians, so it was super fun. I also had to start doing little things that usually my parents would do for me. It was the beginning of my independence and a year that I will never forget.
But mostly Hamburg was my first city outside of Italy without any family.
The school started putting the finishing touches on the work that his parents had started.
The Hamburg Ballet School gave me a lot in different ways and I learned new things from new teachers. In particular, Christian Schoen had a big impact on me. He was a classical ballet teacher and was very demanding. I remember doing his class and being exhausted at the end!
After his year in Hamburg, he went to study in Mexico at the Fomento Artistico Cordobés. An odd choice?
I went so I could learn from the same Cuban teacher that my parents had studied under when they were students in Torino — Adria Velazquez.
I always enjoyed dancing classical ballets and that's why after Hamburg I decided to join Adria in Mexico. She is an amazing teacher and is very well known in the Cuban ballet community. I lived in Mexico for eight months, but I felt like I had been there all my life.
During my time there, I lived with the family of my ballet partner and they became my second family in no time — all my friends know that family as my “Mexican family”. I go back to Mexico every two years to visit my family and my many friends that I still have there.
Mexico was so important for my growth, both as a dancer and as a person.
After giving him the opportunity to study in Hamburg, Lausanne was also central to him joining the National Ballet of Canada.
After Mexico I went again to Lausanne and this time was approached by Lindsay Fisher, the Artistic Director of The National Ballet of Canada's apprentice programme, YOU dance. He became another important teacher in my career, and from the first moment we spoke, Lindsay made me feel like he really believed in me.
After talking with Lindsay, my parents and I had no doubts on what my next adventure was going to be.
So, in 2010, came a move to Toronto and he faced another cultural shift.
Toronto was very hard at first. I arrived after having the best year of my life in Mexico and barely knew any English. It was also the first time when I was completely alone and so far from home – it was the first time where the new location was actually very difficult to adapt to.
As I had been constantly moving each year to a new location, I thought at the time I was only going to be in Toronto a short while and that the city was just going to be another small stop in my life.
But now I've been here for seven years.
Before Frola left his teens, he'd lived in Italy, Germany, Mexico and Canada…
Four different countries on two different continents by the time I was 18 years old — it was a wonderful experience and I don't think I could have been luckier!
While it was difficult, as unfortunately I had to do this alone without my family, the experiences and the lessons learned have been tremendously important in my life.
While I did miss my family and my country a lot, I met new, extraordinary people who became my extended family and I learned new languages, as well as how to be self-sufficient.
With time he adapted to his new surroundings and settled in to his new life.
Now Toronto is beautiful to me. It's never going to be like Italy or Mexico, but it's the place where I became an adult. Toronto is where I grew up the most and where I'm still growing. I have met so many people in these years and learned so many lessons from each of them.
Being invited to become an apprentice at the National Ballet of Canada he considers his great fortune, and he's full of praise for the company's programme.
It is, in my opinion, one of the best in the world! I was able to learn a different style of ballet with Lindsay Fisher, while also being able to dance quite a bit with the main National Ballet company dancers.
The programme is very good and smart, because apprentices get to keep training as if they are still in school, while also at the same time are able to gain an idea of how working in a ballet company is going to be.
As Frola neared the end of his anticipated single season in Canada, he convinced National Ballet's Artistic Director Karen Kain and the company to let him stay on. After a second year he joined the company's corps de ballet.
My first year was really enjoyable. In addition to dancing my corps work, I was given the opportunity to perform some soloist roles such as Stanislav Nijinsky, the brother, in Nijinsky and the pas de quatre in Giselle.
I loved my second year in the corps too, when I was able to perform more principal roles, including Lescaut in Manon, Nijinsky in Nijinsky, and Prince Florimond in The Sleeping Beauty.
John Neumeier's Nijinsky was a critical success and also a part he loved to play.
Nijinsky is definitely both my favourite role and also my favourite ballet – there is nothing like it in my opinion. You have to fully give all of yourself in the show, both emotionally and physically. The choreography is simple yet so demanding at the same time.
I would love to dance more of John Neumeier's ballets – they are really challenging yet provide opportunities to be myself on stage and enjoy every moment of my performances.
Playing Nijinsky requires the dancer to have a naked torso. In some of the photographs accompanying this article, Frola's skin art can be seen. The famously tattooed Sergei Polunin said, back in 2013, that he regretted having had so many tattoos done as he sometimes had to spend a great deal of time covering them in makeup for certain roles and he had even tried removing one from his hand with acid.
I do have tattoos which have different meanings and memories of the people in my life. Sometimes I do have to cover them with makeup if the choreography or the choreographer requires.
Covering them takes a little bit of time, however the tattoos that I have do mean a lot to me and make it worth the time covering them up.
Some of the tattoos refer to his brothers and sister — it's a close-knit family.
After two years, the rising star was promoted, though his first season as First Soloist was plagued by injury. However, with that season out of the way he continued to be given many important roles until, a few weeks ago, he was promoted to Principal Dancer.
Hearing the news was a dream come true and filled me with a sense of satisfaction. I'm really excited about what is to come in this next chapter of my career!
Frola is fortunate to be working under one of Canada's greatest ballet dancers, Karen Kain, who became a Principal Dancer with the company in 1971. Although a frequent guest with the world's most prestigious companies, the National Ballet of Canada has been her home from her time training at its school throughout her performing career, and she stayed on — first, as Artistic Associate before becoming its Artistic Director in 2005.
I was able to work very closely with Karen for The Sleeping Beauty and it was a great experience. It was nice to understand her deep connection and love for this ballet and I very much enjoyed hearing her stories of her performances with Rudolf Nureyev. Karen is bringing a lot of exciting ballets into the company's repertoire!
I think the National Ballet is amazing — the support you receive from your fellow dancers and co-workers is indescribable.
He's about to start working under a second ballerina/Director when he joins Tamara Rojo at English National Ballet.
Dancers are far less tied to a single company these days. There are some concerns about how useful this is and there's a presumed danger that individual company styles will get blurred with so called ‘cross-breeding', but I don't think that is ever going to happen. Instead, I think it is more probable that companies will develop and benefit from having more dancers with diverse styles.
Frola is one of scores of Italian dancers who find themselves in leading positions in dance companies the world over – Italians make good dancers. Yet the position of dance in Italy is precarious, with fewer and fewer companies, and meagre opportunities for those who remain.
I believe it is not up to the artists, but instead the responsibility is mostly to the people in power. Today, children are getting more involved with ballet and they are not afraid to try it. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like country leaders are providing support to build its popularity or make it part of the culture, like it has been in the past.
No one is trying to break the stigma of what Italians think of ballet and instead they are slowly killing the art.
Like his fellow Italian Jacopo Tissi, who will be returning to La Scala dancing Solor when his company, the Bolshoi, visits in September, Francesco Gabriele Frola's first opportunity to dance in his homeland may be when one of his two companies visits Italy on tour. Until then, Italy's loss. But wherever he is, for Francesco Gabriele Frola, the essential thing is to be dancing.
I'm not very good at talking, I don't really like to talk about myself or show my emotions, but with ballet I get to express myself and show people who I am. I get to know myself in a different way. It's almost like I learn things I didn't know about myself onstage. It probably sounds really weird and crazy, but that's why I love ballet. It's my way of talking, my way of understanding myself and most of all my freedom.
When I'm on stage I'm free… from everything… even myself.
See more of Karolina Kuras' photos of Francesco Gabriele Frola and an interview from 2016 at Fjord Review
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.