Interview: Valentino Zucchetti: 'Some people will find it exciting, others a bit risky'

Thursday 30 November 2017 by Rachel Nouchi

Valentino Zucchetti

Sergio Polunin’s latest passion project Satori, a Japanese Buddhist term for ‘enlightenment’ through personal experience, mirrors his own journey to reconnect with his love of the arts by offering audiences ‘a ballet and a multi-media experience’.

Whether or not such passion will be transmitted to audiences remains to be seen but Royal Ballet soloist, and choreographer in his own right, Valentino Zucchetti, is well placed to discuss the nature of collaboration and how breaking free from the constraints of large-scale ballet company can regenerate ballet as an art form.

Zucchetti – Polunin’s friend, confidante and right-hand man in all things logistical for this production – will dance in Goleizovsky’s Scriabiniana , alongside fellow Royal Ballet soloist Akane Takada, Polunin and Natalie Osipova. Other names that will ring bells with UK audiences include Lauretta Summerscales and Yonah Acosta, formerly of English National Ballet, both now dancing in Munich.

For this production, Zucchetti has brought together ballet dancers from major ballet companies across Europe to perform in Scriabiniana. Resurrected by Polunin to mark the 125th anniversary of the Bolshoi choreographer’s death, the cast reads like a veritable Christmas wish list that most choreographers could but dream of collecting.

The rest of the line-up includes First Solo, a new seven-minute ballet created by choreographer Andrey Kaydanovskiy staring Polunin and finally Satori, choreographed by Polunin himself and renewing his collaboration with David LaChapelle following on from LaChapelle’s video of Polunin dancing to Hozier’s Take Me to Church (2015).

So what was his agenda for selecting from such a broad sweep of European talent? “To find the right dancers who can bring something new to a traditional piece of choreography,” Zucchetti explains. “_Scriabiniana_ has never been performed before in the West. It has a rigid Soviet style, so to make it fresh, we thought it would be important for each dancer to bring their own qualities to the piece.”

And did Zucchetti seek out dancers that feel comfortable with Russian style? “The selection process was based on finding dancers who suited the ballet and had an understanding of the foundation work of Goleizovsky. There requires a specific type of physique, but it’s exciting to have people from different backgrounds, otherwise you end up showing 12 dancers from Russia with a total Soviet pitch to the ballet. Sergei wanted something different.”

So has the Ballet been adapted to Western audiences? Zucchetti explains that due to the strictness of the foundation that protects the choreography, steps and costumes can’t be changed.

“This piece was made in the 1960’s, so the best way to revive it was to give it a fresh tone through the choice of dancers who bring their own mark to each piece. They never dance together at once because it’s a mix of pas de deaux and pas de quatre. We hope their interpretations will lend shades of depth that wouldn’t have happened with an all Russian cast.”

In terms of freedom of creativity working outside of a formal ballet company, Zucchetti is clear that while the collaboration allows for a flow and exchange of ideas, fundamentally Satori remains a platform for Polunin’s creative vision.

“It’s his way of creating an arena for his self-expression and all processes are overlooked by Sergei’s artistic decisions. Nevertheless, it’s still an environment where anyone can have input from producers to assistants. All ideas are listened to and many see the light of day,” Zucchetti explains.

And the constraints of a large-scale ballet company are obviously fierce for an artist who is questioning the medium and wants to put a significant stamp on their own work. “It’s not impossible, it’s just a much slower process,” says Zucchetti.

“Obviously, when you work for a big ballet company, you don’t have as much input as a dancer. I’m at the Royal Ballet, but it’s the same story everywhere. You are a dancer and therefore you are told what to dance, when to dance and who to dance with, so room for expression is quite limited.” This, he says, it what drives Polunin and his quest to form his own structure.

“Finding ways of being noticed is a subtle process and requires working on stagecraft and presence. Can you stand out by the way you interpret your role? You are totally dictated by the company. There is so little room for input and I think that’s what Sergei is doing with his project and battling against in his career choices.”

And battling has been very much part of his raison d’etre with Polunin’s herculean rise to fame as the youngest principle of Royal Ballet at 19 years of age, only to walk out in a storm of controversy in 2012, precipitated by the painful distance of his family and a mourning of a childhood that was swallowed up by the rigors of ballet training.

Since then, the Ukrainian dancer has lived his life under the spotlight of media scrutiny as ballet rebel with a self-destruct button. While the film Dancer, released earlier this year, demystified a troubled soul by offering a revealing portrait of a young person’s struggle with immense talent. Ballet is now only one of his exploratory art forms. Screen roles in Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, currently out on release, as well as modelling and setting-up a dancer’s management agency are, according to his critics, taking its toll on his dancing life.

Furthermore, following the tepid critical response to the first Polunin Project programme at Sadler’s Wells earlier this year, Zucchetti admits that the collaboration and certain aspects of the show didn’t work due to logistical difficulties that had nothing to do with the dancers or choreography.

This upcoming production, he says, benefitted from the last in many ways. Zucchetti, who helped choreograph sequences of dance in the last show, remained strictly outside of the creative process this time. “Too many choreographers working on one piece just doesn’t work,” he says.

So with anticipation high for next week’s opening of the second Project Polunin triple bill, is Zucchetti confident this time round of the production’s success?

“I think Polunin is taking a gamble in terms of his artistic exploration,” he admits. “Some people will find it exciting, others a bit risky. I’m hoping that those following his career closely will notice a learning process for him and the team.”

And how will Polunin rate success in terms of his production? “In Sergei’s eyes, Satori will prove successful if it comes off as a piece of theatre. Ballet is no longer his primary mode of expression. The score, sets, concepts behind his productions are an attempt to bring these forms together. This is a ballet going experience, but he also wants to transmit expression of emotion through the sets and the music too.”

Ultimately though, Zucchetti believes that the audience is the deal breaker. “As an artist you never know how audiences will react. You can show a million people the same ballet and only half will love it. Not every full-length ballet will be guaranteed the same impact. Sergei’s projects often attract a different type of audience to the regular ballet goer. They will either love it or hate it.”

Polunin Project, Satori
London Coliseum
5 – 10 December

Valentino Zucchetti spoke to Rachel Nouchi. Rachel is a writer/movement researcher from Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and contributes arts based features and reviews covering UK performance. You can find her on Twitter @NouchiR

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