Don Quixote. It has been a fantastic start to the season. Emerg' />
The Royal NZ Ballet’s production of Don Quixote is a pointe perfect display. Bernadette Rae talks to its leading lady and its charismatic new artistic director

It is the morning after opening night in Wellington of the Royal New Zealand Ballet's Don Quixote. It has been a fantastic start to the season. Emerging stars Kohei Iwamoto and Mayu Tanigaito, as young lovers Basilio and Kitri, have turned on a pointe perfect display and shown a palpable and promising chemistry as the leading couple in this zany, sunkissed interpretation of Miguel de Cervantes' iconic Spanish tale.

The first audience has clapped and whooped and stamped their warm approval, their excited post-show chatter spilling out into the night, and dancing Spanish images will surely have tickled their eyelids open to the new day.

This morning tiny Tanigaito looks pale but is jubilant that her first opening night in a big role has gone so well. "So happy," she says. "So relieved. Straight after I just thought, 'This is why I am here'."

Then she went home and tried to sleep. It was difficult but the excitement was "a good feeling".

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Tanigaito joined the New Zealand company four years ago and is now 28. She started dancing as a 6-year-old in Japan and at 17 moved to Belgium and the Antwerp Royal Ballet School. Two years later she moved to the Rock School for Dance Education in the United States. "Lots of training," she says. "Lots of auditions."

New Zealand, she says, has never seemed too far away from home. For a dancer it is "same, same wherever you go, what you have to do - train hard and make a good performance - is all the same". She feels settled here now and lives with fellow dancer Paul Matthews, who played wideboy Gamache brilliantly in the opening night show, dispelling any notion that the romantic energy portrayed with Iwamoto goes beyond the stage. "We are both Japanese, which does make us special friends," she says.

Don Quixote is one of Tanigaito's favourite ballets and she frequently performed its solo pieces during her years of competitions in Japan. "It is a great story, it is fun and has some comedy and the second act is so different to the rest, it is like a completely different culture in the same ballet."

The second act is all white tutus as the corps de ballet turn into dreamy, nymph-like dryads, in sharp contrast to the vibrancy of the rest of the work. It is one of the sections that new artistic director Francesco Ventriglia has concentrated on during rehearsals.

The morning after opening night he is looking perky and seems pleased with the company's performance. But he indicates there will still be plenty to talk about in "notes" - the review session that takes place after every performance.

It will be next year before Ventriglia's influence will be realised in the company's repertoire. His American predecessor, Ethan Stiefel, set this year's programme. Ventriglia comes from Italy. Charismatic and intelligent, articulate and very charming, Ventriglia was born to dance.

At 7, after a lengthy illness, his family asked him what he would like as a special present. "I want to be a dancer," he said.

He had never been to a live ballet performance and had never even been inside a theatre. But seeing ballet on television had a profound effect and he couldn't stop dancing.

"I didn't choose to be a dancer," he says. "Dance chose me - and I just follow her."

The clarity and determination of his "vision" at first confounded his large Italian family. He has two older brothers and one older sister, who soon acknowledged the strength of the young Francesco's passion and encouraged him to follow his dream.

At 11, he left home to train at the Ballet School of La Scala in Milan and, he says, the theatre became his second home, his family and his "heart".

He became a member of the company immediately after graduating in 1997, and made his debut as a soloist in 1998. At just 36 his career has encompassed many of the greatest roles in works by the greatest choreographers on international stages. He has had an extensive and successful choreographic career, which also began at La Scala. He established the Heliopolis Company in 2007 and was appointed director of MaggioDanza in Florence, in 2010.

In 2012 Dance and Ballet magazine named him best director of the year for his work at MaggioDanza.

"In coming to New Zealand I have completely changed my life," he says with relish. "I always follow what I feel in my heart. I need to follow my dream. I arrived in New Zealand alone, with just two suitcases, but completely open for another life, another future. I have this great opportunity here, with a fantastic company. I am not here temporarily. This is my big dream, long-term, to understand and to build.

"New Zealand has the reputation in Europe as being a place where there is the space to build something, with beautiful nature and a well-organised infrastructure. The ballet world is small - and the RNZB also has a reputation, as a company with high standards and very committed dancers, generous, open to ideas and able to deliver.

"People want to come here for the country and for the company. I saw this incredible thing at Te Papa. It said, 'Embrace the past and prepare now to step into the future'."

The RNZB is a national company with a responsibility to save and protect the classical ballet and scores, to preserve the classical repertoire, he says. "But it is important also to improve on that classical vocabulary, to go into the future, to reflect what the world is now."

His vision for the RNZB includes bringing to New Zealand the best choreographers in the world, to make new works for the company here, to create a unique repertoire that "exquisitely" mixes the two elements of contemporary and classical dance. "Dancers need to eat good food - that is, the best choreography and the best music served up on the stage."

Performance

What:

Don Quixote

, with the Royal New Zealand Ballet

Where and when:

Aotea Centre, March 26-29