It is almost a decade since I last spoke to dancer and choreographer Valentino Zucchetti. In that time there have been some major changes in his career, and now his one-act ballet Anemoi, commissioned by The Royal Ballet in 2021, returns to the main stage of The Royal Opera House.
Anemoi, together with Cathy Marston's The Cellist (2020), opens on 20 October 2023 and runs until 2 November.
Zucchetti – a Royal Ballet First Soloist – won The Royal Ballet School's Ursula Moreton Choreographic Award in 2005 and has created works for the company's Draft Works initiative – nine years ago he told me, “I would love for that side of my artistic development to grow.”
Well, it certainly has Valentino.
A lot has happened since we last spoke, and gladly so!
Fill me in a little…
Fortunately in the past few years I have been able to find more opportunities to create and refine my choreography. I created pieces for The Royal Ballet School, New English Ballet Theatre (where I have been associate choreographer since 2013), short films starring Royal Ballet Principal dancers, La Scala's ballet school and the National Ballet of Spain.
My path arriving to the Opera House Main Stage has been fairly gradual but ever-evolving, as I have been creating in-house for our Draft Works regularly and I guess I have been floating, awaiting an opportunity.
When did the big opportunity arrive?
It came during the pandemic with The World Ballet Day, when I created Scherzo for the corps de ballet, which was then performed a couple of months later for the re-opening gala of the Royal Opera House post pandemic.
Patience rewarded! You once told me that you wanted to choreograph from an early age.
I think the seed of creating really came from observing different choreographies and finding better way to do them in my head.
I clearly remember one night when I was at La Scala Ballet School – I was probably 12 or 13 – and I was watching a performance of Nureyev's Don Quixote. I was a pretty obsessive kid about watching and studying ballet, dance, theatre… When it came to the corps de ballet dance in first act, I was thinking to myself, “Mm, that doesn't work,” and in my head I redid it in a way I thought it would work better.
When did you first get the chance to show what you could do?
It was that feeling that prompted my very first work at The Royal Ballet School at 16. I only had the confidence to enter in the choreographic competition because I was assisting a friend of mine in the creation of her piece, and I could see so many things didn't work. I thought, “If I can see what does work, I can reverse engineer that, and use it to create what I think works.”
For Anemoi you have used music by Sergei Rachmaninoff. How do you arrive at your music choices?
This is actually the easiest part – I listen to a lot of classical music, and there are pieces which immediately spark what I call my choreographic “dynamo”.
When music is just nice to listen to and doesn't spark creation I tend to not use it, although now I feel I could create on any music… I have learned to create a path in my head for that.
How would you describe your choreographic style?
I have created primarily on pointe, neoclassical I would say with an inclination to a technical vocabulary.
I started creating in a more contemporary style for specific projects, whether it'd be advertising, fashion or film, but being one of the very few choreographers that still creates on pointe, I have been encouraged to pursue that more.
Can you say something about the curious genesis of Anemoi?
The way Anemoi came to be is unusual and probably won't happen this way again.
During the pandemic, director Kevin O'Hare wanted a piece for World Ballet Day to keep the corps de ballet dancing and motivated. He thought he would ask me as I think he knew I have been waiting for an opportunity to create for the company. I was excited to be creating at that particular time, but honestly didn't think it was going to turn up into what it has become.
It took me about 10 days to make Scherzo and when the dancers displayed the work online it was incredibly well received. The response was such that Kevin wanted to add it to the opening gala of The Royal Ballet after the pandemic, which was live-streamed, and that's when it took to the Main Stage.
Upon further positive feedback Kevin thought, as the season wasn't progressing as usual and the last programme of the season was still taking shape – something that in regular times would have never happened – to give me the opportunity to expand the piece from a 12-minute piece to a one-act ballet, which I did, and it premiered at the end of the same season. I was truly lucky to have been able to take advantage of this momentary disruption of a regularly planned season and create a piece and expand it in the same season.
You are modest. I'm sure it would have happened anyway, sooner or later.
What are you creating next?
I start working with the Royal Academy of Dance next week to create a piece for the Fonteyn Competition. This year, for the first time, the guest choreographer gets to create for all the candidates, so I am looking to create a piece for 80 dancers in six days, which will be a challenge but, once again, I'm grateful to be creating.
After that I have a few projects that I cannot yet disclose but I am looking at a relatively regular amount of creating time which I find essential to keep my choreographic muscle active and keep improving.
And, of course, you are still dancing.
Yes, it is challenging at times, but I love being able to do both simultaneously, they are two different ways of approaching the stage – dancing in first and choreographing in third person. I have been able to keep the two running together… it has been wonderful so far.
You are working with some of the best dancers in the world at The Royal Ballet… does that make your job easier or more challenging?
That's an interesting question… on one side it is absolutely incredible, I mean I have had the absolute privilege to work with who I consider some of the best dancers of today, and I try my hardest to use their gifts the best I can.
As we are finishing our conversation, Zucchetti interjects intriguingly:
I am still in search of my muse… or muses! I feel every choreographer finds muses in their lives and I would love to find mine – though I am close…
Valentino Zucchetti's Anemoi by The Royal Ballet
20 October – 2 November
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.