05 Nov BFW Stories: A Heart-to-Heart with Petra Conti
BFW got the exquisite privilege of meeting Petra Conti, an iconic Italian ballerina, shaping the minds and hearts of a new generation of ballet lovers. BFW was moved by this amazing dancer’s story and her sincere spirit. Find out what makes this ballerina so inspirational.
BFW: When and how did you first fall in love with ballet?
PC: I think I loved ballet even in my mother’s womb! I come from a family of ballerinas, as my mom and my sister both graduated from the National Ballet Academy in Bytom, Poland. My mom kept on dancing: she danced all around Poland for a living until she moved to Italy with my father; but my sister (11 years older than me) had to quit ballet after graduating, because of a very serious spine injury. So I naturally wanted to follow their path, and thought that having a mom that sits in a frontal split while reading a book was quite normal! However, at home I was constantly told that being a ballerina is a very challenging and painful job; not enough money and too many tears. Everyone tried to warn me and change my mind. But I like to think that ballet has been a vocation for me since the day I was born.
BFW: Tell us a little bit about your story in the world of ballet
PC: I auditioned for the National Ballet Academy in Rome, Italy, when I was 11 years old. On the day of the audition, in the changing room, other girls screamed when they saw my pointed foot: this is when I discovered that having an extremely arched foot was a big deal! In the 8 years of intense training in Rome, I won many awards, became the pupil of legendary Maestro Zarko Prebil, and traveled a lot, danced in China, Africa, East Europe, and even performed in Los Angeles when I was 15. But the highlight of these years was an episode of “Dreams” on the Italian National TV dedicated to me: my dream was to dance with Roberto Bolle. They made my dream come true! I flew to Saint Petersburg to meet Roberto and dance with him a pas de deux! Yes, Roberto Bolle was my first partner, and I was 15 years old, and millions of Italian people saw that episode and still remember it, and it changed my life. In front of the camera, Roberto told me that we might dance together in the future. Exactly 10 years later we danced together again, and this time I was already a Principal Ballerina. I guess dreams do come true! Or maybe dreams are goals?
After I graduated I had the luck to be a trainee with the Mariinsky Theatre for one year. I moved to Saint Petersburg, learned Russian, and absorbed like a sponge as much as I could. That year was magical: I took class every day with the gods and goddesses of ballet, watched every single show, and worked daily with my personal coach, Principal Dancer Elvira Tarasova, on roles like Giselle. Then I moved to Germany and stayed for one year with the Bayerische Staatsballett. I got injured and wasn’t quite happy there, so the next season I went back to Italy to accept an invitation from director Mahar Vaziev (whom I knew from my year in Russia-he was directing the Mariinsky back then) to join La Scala ballet. I was 21 and performed Giselle with Eris Nezha (now my husband) literally 3 months after joining La Scala. We performed the night after Bolle and Zakharova. The next morning one of the main Italian newspapers had this title: “An unknown dancer performs the leading role at La Scala”. And yes, the critics were positive! At 23, during a tour in Russia with the company, I was promoted to Prima Ballerina of La Scala on the Bolshoi Stage. The best part of this memorable moment is that I was promoted together with Eris! (He asked me to marry him one week later). At 25, after performing most of the classical and neoclassical repertoire at La Scala, Eris and I decided to challenge ourselves again and moved to America.
“Ballet is like acting without words.” – Petra Conti
We joined the Boston Ballet as Principals. But at 28 my career had to be put on pause. I had been diagnosed with kidney cancer, underwent surgery, and stayed off the stage for many, many months. Once I recovered and realized I could dance at my highest level again, I decided that it was time to become a freelancer. During one of my guest performances with the Los Angeles Ballet I fell in love with the city and decided to move to LA with my husband.
BFW: What is your favorite thing about dancing ballet?
PC: I love becoming the character I have to play, embodying the role. I love ballets with complex characters that grow and change during every act. I love the process of transformation, I love finding the right emotions to convey. I love to leave my audience with the memory of a feeling. It’s not about the steps. It’s about how you use the steps to convey something deeper: Ballet is like acting without words.
BFW: What is your favorite classical ballet?
PC: I have many favorite ballets like Giselle, Onegin, Marguerite and Armand, Swan Lake, Manon. I love drama. I love to cry, love, and die on stage.
BFW: Who is your favorite dancer?
PC: I have many favorite dancers, and each one of them I believe excelled in a specific role.
BFW: What’s your favorite cross-training workout?
PC: Definitely floor barre! Floor barre is like magic for me. If I need to go back to the basics and clean my ballet technique and build strength, I do floor barre. During quarantine, I shared my floor barre exercises daily with my Instagram audience, and some of the workouts are on my YouTube channel for everyone to enjoy.
BFW: What advice would you give to adult dancers just starting out in ballet and who have never been exposed to it?
PC: I am working daily with adult dancers who just started ballet. I think it’s amazing because adults actually show results much faster than kids. It takes longer to get the flexibility, but the body’s conscience of an adult is much more developed. My advice is just to take things one step at a time, enjoy the progress, watch ballet, and learn from others in your spare time. Stretch daily. In ballet, you don’t “arrive”! There is always room for improvement, even for the most acclaimed principal dancers. You are just a few pages behind, but we are all reading the same infinite book called “How to become the best dancer I can be.”
BFW: What advice would you give to dancers returning after a long time who feel like they’re starting from square 1?
PC: I would say “welcome to the club”! I feel I have returned to square one many times: after injuries, after cancer, after this pandemic. My advice is don’t judge yourself. Embrace who you are today and work to be even better tomorrow. Don’t give up and always start from the basics. At the beginning go slower, go lower, stretch a lot, gradually intensifying the exercises. Don’t push on your body too much too soon. It takes about one month or so to start feeling like a “dancer” again.
BFW: What would you like to achieve next within the practice of ballet
PC: I want to get stronger in my upper body, and need to always work on my jumps and turns.
BFW: What do you think is next for ballet?
PC: This pandemic hit ballet extremely hard. These are sad times for ballet worldwide. I wish I had a positive and strong answer. I don’t at the moment, but I have faith. In times of hardship, creativity reaches the highest levels. The ballet community will come out of this stronger than before. People will always need Art. It is up to us to make sure that people will need Ballet. It is up to us to create new fans and ballet lovers, it is up to us to spread the joy and the magic of ballet.