Valentino Zucchetti Dancemaker

The Royal Ballet dancer and choreographer Valentino Zucchetti talks to Ballet Position about his present career and his future plans

Valentino Zucchetti is well launched into his second career, even while his first is still in full bloom. At just 33-years-old, he’s reached the Royal Ballet’s second highest rank for dancers, First Soloist; and he is fast developing a reputation as a choreographer of note.

Zucchetti’s latest work, Anemoi, opened The Royal Ballet’s final programme of the 2021 Spring season to general critical acclaim. Not even last minute changes imposed by COVID-19 strictures dimmed Anemoi’s engaging quality.

The Times described it as “his breezy, felicitous creation,” while The Arts Desk saw it as a “crafty, confident and polished piece of work’, with The Guardian highlighting its “elegant geometry.”

Dancers of the Royal Ballet in Anemoi © ROH 2021 Alice Pennefather

ANEMOI – THE GENESIS

The ballet’s title, Anemoi, refers to the four winds of Ancient Greece, a concept from which Zucchetti drew the inspiration to create a longer piece using Scherzo, a divertissement he’d created during lockdown for the company’s corps de ballet, as a starting point.

As he told Ballet Position, “I thought the piece should be about the fact that these people are young, they represent the future of the company, and they represent the future in general, they represent the wind of change. But I couldn’t use the phrase ‘the wind of change’ because it was a famous song, so I thought I’d conceptualise it.

“It’s always good to go back to Greek mythology, because the Greek gods personify everything, whether it’s the sun, the moon, wisdom, mischief… the ‘anemoi’ were the Greek gods of the four winds, and the ballet has four principal dancers that represent the four ‘anemoi’, and everybody is their afterwind.”

Anemoi is Valentino Zucchetti’s first work for the company on the Royal Opera House main stage; but he’s been honing his choreographic skills since his school days: in 2005 he won the Royal Ballet School’s Ursula Moreton choreographic award.

Since then he has choreographed regularly for the Royal Ballet School, as well as the ROH Draft Works programme.

Artists of the Royal Ballet in Summer Draft Works © ROH 2015 Andrei Uspenski

VALENTINO ZUCCHETTI – THE DANCER

Valentino Zucchetti combines his growing choreographic commitments with a busy career as a full time dancer, something he says he set his mind on aged three in his native northern Italian town of Calcinate.

“I think it was a bit of a calling, because none of my family had anything to do with ballet, nobody I knew, but I saw [Mikhail] Baryshnikov on TV when I was three and something just clicked.

“When I see kids today and I see a three-year-old, I realise they’re just incapable of making that kind of decision unless it comes from somewhere. I used to watch superheroes, I used to watch cartoons, firefighters, spacemen, whatever, but nothing clicked like that. So, in a way it’s probably a calling, or something that’s within us.”

So, at four-years-old he started ballet class locally. He progressed to the School of La Scala in Milan, from where at 16 he joined the Royal Ballet School on a scholarship. As a student he distinguished himself, winning the Genée International Ballet Competition in 2016 and the Royal Academy of Dance Solo Seal Award the following year.

After graduation, Zucchetti spent some time at Zürich Ballet and Norwegian National Ballet, before joining The Royal Ballet in London in 2010.

This made for an international outlook.

“If you work your whole life in one system, the longer you stay in that system, the more close-minded, the more rigid you become. It’s a globalised world, a globalised repertoire all over the world, so versatility is important.

“Usually this exploration of different styles transfers to your own way of dancing, so you’ll find that certain dancers, who excel in contemporary work, have a much freer way of moving in the classical, so they can bring something less rigid to classical ballet.”

Valentino himself is a versatile dancer, who has put his exacting technique to the service of very many demanding roles over the years.

Valentino Zucchetti in Scènes de Ballet © ROH 2014 Tristram Kenton

He’s been a thrilling, impeccably classic ‘Blue Bird’ in The Sleeping Beauty, a reckless, irrepressible Mercutio in MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, a mischievous Puck in Ashton’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to mention but a few of his many notable roles; not forgetting a strong turn as the heroine’s dissolute, drunken brother and pimp, Lescaut, in MacMillan’s Manon.

Valentino Zucchetti as Lescaut in Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon ©ROH 2019 Alice Pennefather

All things being equal, Valentino Zucchetti has many years of dancing ahead of him; so I asked which roles he still aspired to dancing.

“There are so many that I would like to tackle! The decision isn’t just on me… You could say Romeo; or one of my absolute all time favourite roles is [Crown Prince Rudolf in MacMillan’s] Mayerling.  For any male dancer that’s a goal.

“I’ve been known to be a demi-character, happy dancer, I can say confidently that I’ve mastered that. I can be a buffoon, but there is a much deeper, darker side that I haven’t been able to express.”

VALENTINO ZUCCHETTI – COSMOPOLITAN ITALIAN

He’s been abroad a long time, but a question about his relationship with his native Italy reveals conflicted feelings: pride in seeing his achievements recognised by his country of birth, mixed with a refusal to be pigeonholed as “an Italian abroad” or “a local boy done good.”

“Every time a new milestone happens here, it makes news in Italy. For example, last summer I organised this festival of [open air] dancing on the Regent’s Canal – out of the blue it became a worldwide success and I was on the main [TV] channel in Italy.

“And this time, after I received this commission [for Anemoi] I realised I was the first Italian choreographer ever to choreograph for The Royal Ballet.

“But I find nationalism a form of tribalism. For me, I only belong where I feel that my personality can fit. That’s probably the reason why I try to sound English as much as possible” (and yes, there is but the merest trace of an accent in his speech), “ because it’s not about me coming to another country and trying to maintain what I used to be until the death, it’s about adapting.”

VALENTINO ZUCCHETTI – THE FUTURE

For the time being, Valentino Zucchetti remains a dancer and choreographer. In the medium term, as his dancing slows down, so choreography will take more of his time and talent; but what are his long-term ambitions?

“I’m aspiring potentially to becoming an artistic director, because on top of choreography, which is my greatest passion, I just love the idea of organising a season, so, taking an audience on a whole journey, through a season, or through two or three seasons; or to organise ballet festivals, where you can gather together great artists.

“I don’t necessarily want to have a whole career based entirely on myself; I also like the idea of using my expertise to develop dancers’ careers.”

Brainy, uncompromising, strong-willed and very talented, Valentino Zucchetti will doubtless achieve his aims.  After all, not even COVID-19 has been able to stop him in his tracks…

by Teresa Guerreiro

Laura Morera: Being "The Best Possible Version of Myself"

Frankenstein, Federico Bonelli as Victor, Laura Morera as Elizabeth (c) ROH 2016 Bill Cooper

Royal Ballet Principal Dancer Laura Morera talks to Ballet Position about the ups and downs of her life in ballet 

You can tell when Laura Morera really cares about something (or someone) because her speech, normally soft and thoughtful, gains a certain urgency.

Her dancing. Even as a small child “every breath I took was ballet.”

Her late father: “My Dad loved me dancing so much (…) I think he gave me that pride in myself.”

Her husband, former Royal Ballet dancer Justin Meissner: “He’s the love of my life”

Her favourite choreographers: “Ashton, MacMillan, Scarlett.” No hesitation.

There is palpable passion in Laura Morera. Not a loud, histrionic, tempestuous sort of passion; rather an un-showy, slow-burning, internalised passion that brings an intense charge to all her dramatic roles.

Mayerling, Laura Morera as Maria Vetsera (c) ROH 2017 Alice Pennefather

LAURA MORERA: FROM MADRID TO LONDON

Laura Morera joined the Royal Ballet in 1995 straight out of the Royal Ballet School, and has been with the company ever since.

Born in Madrid, she fell in love with ballet very early on: “I remember I was really sick one week and wrote my Mum a little letter to say, I know I’m really sick and you’re not going to let me go to ballet, but please, please, if you just let me go to a class!”

Her parents’ support was important: “My Dad was super supportive and he would take me [to class] on his bike, and then my Mum and Dad would wait and we’d walk back.”

Her talent earned her an invitation to apply for the Royal Ballet School aged 11; and she has lived the best part of her life in the UK, as witnessed by her barely-accented spoken English.

In her first year at the RBS, while suffering from almost unbearable home sickness, she was picked by the then Royal Ballet Director Anthony Dowell for a small part in Swan Lake. That was an important moment in her development as a dancer:

‘I’d never seen the Royal Ballet (…) and I just remember arriving in this theatre, and the smell of the theatre, sometimes even now it takes me right back to that moment…

“And then in Act I just watching the dancing (…) and they were such amazing dancers at the time, and there were these beautiful costumes – I’d never seen anything like it! And watching their footwork, it was so beautiful (…) I was mesmerised, and I just remember thinking, ‘OK I want to be part of this!’”

And a part of it she became, her rare and exquisite musicality, intelligence, versatility and unstinting professionalism making her an asset for the company.

LAURA MORERA: LIFE IN THE ROYAL BALLET

For a while her progress was smooth: promoted to First Artist three years after joining the company, Soloist the year after, and First Soloist in 2002.

And then her career stalled.

The brief Ross Stretton directorship of the Royal Ballet (2001-2002) was traumatic for the company as a whole and for Laura, too, even though she felt he appreciated her talent. His successor, Monica Mason, did eventually promote her to Principal in 2007.

The seed of doubt, though, had been sown.

“I will always be grateful to Monica, she didn’t have to do it (…) but I felt like what sometimes was being said of the type of dancer that I was wasn’t quite reflected in the casting, and one thing I never wanted was to be a Principal that people don’t understand why they’re Principals because they’re not doing any roles.”

The frustration and uncertainly, the sense that the powers that be at the company felt the way she looked was a hindrance, led to a catastrophic loss of self-worth.

“I just felt inadequate and small, I felt like I didn’t belong in this ballet world, but I knew I had something in me that went beyond how you’re meant to look as a ballet dancer (…)

“I made myself quite ill from feeling so sad and frustrated and miserable, and I went to a healing retreat in Thailand. I went there for 10 days, then I came back, and then went there for 10 days again. They helped me give myself back [self] worth.

“One of the people there said, ‘when you first arrived, you looked dead in the eyes.’

“And then I came back and suddenly I didn’t hate myself, I didn’t feel inadequate, I knew my value, and all I could be was the best version of myself.”

That switch inside her head made a difference; as did the arrival of Kevin O’Hare as company director:

“He gave me Mayerling, and Giselle, [Midsummer Night’s] Dream, roles that I wanted to tackle but never had the chance. And he gave me a few first nights, I did Fille with Vadim [Muntagirov] in a first night.”

La Fille Mal Gardée, Laura Morera as Lise, Vadim Muntagirov as Colas (c) ROH 2015 Tristram Kenton

Her interpretation of the sassy Lise in Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardée earned her Outstanding Female Performance (Classical) in the 2015 Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards.

Some roles never came her way, though: she regrets not having been given Juliet; and still hopes against all hope to be cast as Natalia Petrovna in Ashton’s A Month In The Country, a complex, passionate role in which I strongly feel she would excel.

On the plus side, Laura Morera became first choice interpreter for the choreographer Liam Scarlett, Royal Ballet Artist in Residence, creating roles for him in, for example, Sweet Violets, and Hansel and Gretel and the central female character in The Age of Anxiety.

The Age of Anxiety, Laura Morera and Steven McRae (c) ROH 2014 Bill Cooper

She talks of Scarlett with fierce admiration.

“We [dancers] definitely have input [in his work] and I love that about Liam, his trust; and you just keep growing in those roles (…) Age of Anxiety was such a difficult piece for him because [WH Auden’s poem] is not a perfect piece of literature (…).

“I think he opens himself up sometimes to extreme criticism, but you’ve got to admire the fact that he doesn’t take the easy route. For me, I’ve never had an experience that I haven’t been proud to be part of with him.”

LAURA MORERA: BEYOND THE ROYAL BALLET

Laura Morera’s next project is a little left-field and she’s excited about it: she’ll be the dancing Anna, alongside the irrepressible cabaret artist Meow Meow as the singing Anna, in a revival of Kenneth MacMillan’s long forgotten Seven Deadly Sins, the choreographer’s take on the Brecht/Weill ballet chanté (ballet with songs).

It will be performed at Wilton’s Music Hall:

“I love the venue, it’s one of my favourite venues in London, I think it suits the piece really well. So, I’m excited about that; and then the content, the fact that it hasn’t been done much; and also working with Meow Meow.”

Away from The Royal Ballet, Laura Morera and her husband run Dance Tours, providing workshops and short training courses to aspiring dancers in Britain and abroad, ‘because I find as an art form ballet has so much that it can give you.”

I was curious to find out more about how Laura and Justin came together at The Royal Ballet – was it love as first sight? She laughs:

“Well, no, because I was in a squirrel outfit for Tales of Beatrix Potter and he was also a squirrel!”

The squirrels didn’t talk to each other, because she was new to the company, and he was a Soloist and at that time “it was very hierarchical”; but from unpromising beginnings love grew:

“He’s just amazing. We’ve been together for 23 years now and the love definitely grows each day… Justin is the love of my life.”

Laura Morera appears to inspire younger colleagues in the company: the young Principal Matthew Ball recently quoted her by name in an interview with The Times. Another young colleague, William Bracewell, told Ballet Position one of the attractions of joining the Royal Ballet was the opportunity to share the stage with dancers he deeply admired, like Laura Morera.

At 41-years-old she is enjoying her life and her dancing to the full. “I feel I’m having a second wind.”

Long may it last.

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by Teresa Guerreiro

William Bracewell: First Year Report Card

William Bracewell, photo Dani Bower

Approaching the end of his first Royal Ballet season, William Bracewell helps Ballet Position write his First Year Report Card

Modesty is a profoundly endearing quality, and Royal Ballet soloist William Bracewell possesses it in spades.

A beautiful dancer, technically assured, supremely elegant with a fine classical line, he is widely predicted ‘to go far’; but as he approaches the end of his first year at Covent Garden, he still has the slightly dazed look of someone who can’t quite believe his luck.

Like a kid in a toy shop.

“On a professional level, the level of commitment that goes on every single day just blows me away, and it’s massively inspiring.”

William spoke to Ballet Position in a small meeting room somewhere in the vast warren that is the Royal Opera House, where he admits to still losing his way sometimes.

“I had a general expectation of what I might find in the building, but in all honesty what goes on has totally surpassed what I’d hoped for (…) I have felt so welcome! The other day I had somebody say, ‘I can’t believe you’ve been here for just a season; it feels like you’ve been here for so long!'” 

Looking much younger than his 27-years, William smiles easily, his clear brown eyes widening as he describes his enjoyment of his new life, his speech punctuated by pauses where he takes a deep breath and searches for the precise words to convey his meaning.

William Bracewell: The Road to London

William Bracewell joined the Royal Ballet as a soloist at the beginning of the 2017/18 season, after seven years with Birmingham Royal Ballet. His work at BRB had attracted critical attention, with one dance writer describing his portrayal of the young Louis XIV in David Bintley’s Sun King as,

‘…stepping high on his arched feet like Rudolf Nureyev, and turning slowly in classical arabesque as if to summon up that paragon of British classicism Anthony Dowell.’

Praise doesn’t come much fuller than that; and is backed up by distinctions such as Young British Dancer of the Year in 2007, Youth America Grand Prix in 2010, and Outstanding Male Performer (Classical) in the 2015 Critics Circle National Dance Awards.

William Bracewell as Dancing Gentleman in Manon (c) ROH 2018 photo Bill Cooper

He found a huge difference in the demands posed by the Royal Ballet when compared with what he was used to at BRB, particularly in the scheduling of the repertoire.

“In Birmingham you’d have a rehearsal period and then tour a production of a full-length [ballet] and a triple bill for maybe six weeks, or four weeks. So, you had the low times where you could rehearse and really push your body, and then you’d have the more stamina [demanding periods] when you’d be on tour performing.

“Here you’ll do an opening night for a triple bill, the next day you might be rehearsing a full- length ballet, the coming triple bill and creating a new work at the same time. There’s a lot of overlap, so I think mentally that was kind of different to get my head around.”

He’s had to get his head around a lot of work, as he has been in almost every production in the Royal Ballet’s current season ranging from that staple of the Christmas repertoire, The Nutcracker, to Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale, where he took on one of the principal roles, that of Polixenes, King of Bohemia.

William Bracewell as Polixenes in The Winter’s Tale (c) ROH 2018, photo Tristram Kenton

William relishes the variety. He loves acting roles – “it’s when I felt most free on stage, when I’ve been able to completely live someone else’s life” – but loves, too, the specific technical demands of different choreographers.

“It was amazing to do Hofesh [Shechter]’s Untouchables – that was incredible! And then working with Wayne [McGregor] for the first time was amazing! I absolutely loved it and Chris [Wheeldon] as well, at the same time, that was fantastic!”

He created roles in McGregor’s and Wheeldon’s new works this season, respectively Yugen and Corybantic Games.

William Bracewell with Matthew Ball in Corybantic Games (c) ROH 2018 photo Andrej Uspenski

When we spoke, William was preparing to dance in another Wayne McGregor work: his 2016 Obsidian Tear, part of the current season’s final Triple Bill. But whereas Christopher Wheeldon’s choreographic language is firmly rooted in the classical ballet vocabulary, McGregor’s is quite something else, with its hyper-extensions and jerky, contemporary inflections.

Did he find it easy to adapt to the specific demands of Wayne McGregor’s works?

“What I loved about working with Wayne was the amount of freedom he gave you. You train all the time to get things really perfect in a very classical sense and then for someone to just give you a phrase and say, ‘make of that what you will’ … it’s really liberating, to just completely launch yourself in something.”

Another reason for William Bracewell’s pleasure in his current job is that he gets to share the stage with people whom he’s idolised ever since he entered the Royal Ballet School as a shy 10-year-old from Swansea.

Dancers like Laura Morera and Federico Bonelli in The Nutcracker, “who I’ve looked up to since I was tiny.”

Laura Morera and Federico Bonelli in The Nutcracker (c) ROH 2013 photo Tristram Kenton

“I think Federico is one of the most stunning dancers I’ve ever ever seen! and Laura, who I’ve known since I was at school is just such a beautiful dancer, and such a wonderful woman…. being on stage with people that you’ve looked up to has brought a new life to productions that I’ve worked on before.”

William Bracewell: Beyond the Stage

Another reason why William Bracewell loves his London life is being able to explore all that the capital has to offer, even if he’s had to forego some of perks of smaller Birmingham.

“I had a house in Birmingham with a garden, which I suppose is possible here, but it’s difficult… but there’s just so much going on, so many more pieces of live theatre, and art. You know, you finish work at 6.30 and it’s not too late to go to the theatre or go to a gallery before it shuts.

“I love art, I love music and all different types of theatre!”

William Bracewell is a long way from his Swansea home, where we suspect he may be a bit of a local celebrity but is too modest to admit it, saying only he “supposes” his Mum’s friends know about his success…

And so we come to the point where we fill in the First Year Report Card. On a range of 1 – 5, he hits a 5* on Attendance, Proficiency, Work-Rate, Artistry and sheer Likability.

As for future prospects, why, Glowing, of course!

by Teresa Guerreiro

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William Bracewell is dancing in the Royal Ballet’s Obsidian Tear Triple Bill in rep until 11th May 2018.

He’ll dance the Principal Role of Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake on 19th, 31st May and 15th, 21st June.  Swan Lake is in rep 17th May – 21st June 2018