Next steps: New Alberta Ballet artistic director says company needs to 'be brave'

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When Francesco Ventriglia was a young dancer in Milan, he performed in a ballet called The Angels.

It was more than 25 years ago and Ventriglia was performing with La Scala Theatre Ballet, where he began his career, and the piece was created by a choreographer from Quebec named Jean Grand-Maitre. In less than five years, Grand-Maitre would take the helm as artistic director of Alberta Ballet, a position he would hold for 20 years. Now, more than a quarter century later,  Ventriglia is in the same role.

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“It’s a beautiful circle,” said Ventriglia, in an interview with Postmedia at Alberta Ballet’s administrative offices in Calgary. “I was 19 when I danced in his ballet and today I’m the director of a company that he was director of for 20 years. It’s a beautiful thing.”

The Italian choreographer was announced as the new artistic director at the end of December following a global search. Ventriglia has an international reputation creating diverse repertoire for the Ballet School of La Scala, his own company Heliopolis and other freelance works. His work has been performed by companies such as Arena di Verona, Bolshoi Theatre, the Mariinsky Ballet, Grande Théâtre du Genève, Royal New Zealand Ballet, the National Ballet of Uruguay and at the Venice Biennale. 

Previous to starting at Alberta Ballet in early January, he was in Australia with the Sydney Choreographic Centre which he co-founded.

Alberta Ballet searched for a new artistic director after the sudden departure of Grand-Maitre’s successor Christopher Anderson, who left the company after only one year as artistic director. He had been with Alberta Ballet in various roles since 2015 and assumed the title for the 2022-23 season after a three-year transition from Grand-Maitre. Neither Alberta Ballet nor Anderson offered many details about the departure, other than they had “decided to part ways.”

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Anderson programmed the 2023-2024 season, which will include Hansel & Gretel, which opens March 7 in Calgary, and Der Wolf & The Rite of Spring, which opens May 2. Ventriglia, however, did curate the Winter Gala, which will be performed in Calgary on Feb. 15 and Edmonton on Feb. 24. It will feature both the Alberta Ballet’s company artists and students from the Alberta Ballet School and include excerpts from classics such as Swan LakePaquitaGiselle, and Flower Festival in Genzano.

“It is to give the Alberta Ballet and Alberta Ballet School to share the stage,” he said. “I come from this tradition, where the school and company are very much attached. I love this tradition. My dream is to create an annual gala, one night only, where the entire organization goes on stage and celebrates the beauty of this art form.”

Francesco Ventriglia
Alberta Ballet’s new artistic director Francesco Ventriglia works with soloists Alexandra Hughes and Aaron Anker at Alberta Ballet studios in downtown Calgary on Tuesday, January 23, 2024. Jim Wells/Postmedia Jim Wells/Postmedia

With Grand-Maitre at the helm, Alberta Ballet became known for his “portrait ballets.” These seven works were based on the music of Joni Mitchell, k.d. lang, Gordon Lightfoot, the Tragically Hip, Sara McLachlan, Elton John and David Bowie and received international acclaim.

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Ventriglia said he wants to create new works and commission new works specifically for the company.

“I want to create a unique repertoire that is branded Alberta Ballet,” he said. “I want to create our own assets, our own DNA. I think it’s time for Alberta Ballet to establish its brand in the community and around the world.”

Ventriglia said his vision for the company is to embrace the past and “the great things that this company has done in the last 20 years and use that strong pillar to build the next floor of the building.”

Still, as with all arts organizations, the future will depend on finding ways to connect with younger audiences.

“This is very much a big conversation at this moment all around the world,” he said. “My vision is that we must be brave and start to speak the same language of the new generation. To make the theatre relevant nowadays, we have to have the theatre engaging and talking with the same language. We can’t close ourselves in a golden tower and expect the public to come to us. We need to go out and go to them, we need to convince them we are cool because we actually are cool.”

The Winter Gala takes place Feb. 15 at the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary and Feb 24 at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton.

with files from Michele Jarvie.

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