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Choreographer Nicolo Fonte in conversation with Otto Neubert

by Francis Timlin

March 9, 2004

On Tuesday, March 9, I attended a "Pacific Northwest Ballet Conversations" event featuring choreographer Nicolo Fonte interviewed by PNB Ballet Master Otto Neubert. Mr. Fonte is currently at PNB to choreograph and rehearse his new work, "Within/Without" for the March repertory program. This is his second work for PNB.

From Brooklyn, New York, Mr. Fonte described his training as an eclectic hodgepodge, including the Joffrey School, SAB and Ailey School. When his parents announced that they wanted to move to Florida, he refused to follow them away from New York. Instead, he decided to attend the State University of New York at Purchase and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. He returned to New York City and performed with a small company that ended its short life with an unsuccessful run at the Joyce Theater.

Rather than "hang out" and wait for another opportunity to emerge, he decided to audition for companies and was hired by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal. While at Les Grands, he had the opportunity to work with Nacho Duato, who became his ideal. After five years in the company and a promotion to soloist, he felt that he had gone as far as he could go within the classical hierarchy. He moved to Madrid to work with Nacho Duato's company, where he stayed for six and a half years, part of that time as "house" choreographer.

Asked to describe his preferred style, he referred to it as "contemporary ballet" -- that is, utilizing ballet training as a tool for the enhancement of expression. While the movement may seem "modern," it is really deconstructed classical movement and requires a high level of classically trained virtuosity to execute.

His previous work for PNB, "Almost Tango," was originally intended to be entirely for men. He was so impressed, however, with the performance level of the entire company that he felt compelled to revise his plan and include women. Ultimately, the piece is for ten men and four women. He will be setting the work on Australian Ballet later this year.

Since he has worked with PNB previously, Mr. Fonte now feels more confident in asking for movement that further extends the dancers' range. There is no pointe work involved. He has chosen three unrelated works by Estonian composer Arvo Part and shaped them around the theme of recurring dreams. In the first section, which is driving and energetic, six men and two women are moved in a seemingly arbitrary fashion to resemble the whirl of activity that is often associated with the dream state. Another section features a recurring dream of being chased and falling. The final version is set for nine men and five women. The work required between four and five weeks and was scheduled during daylight hours of the run of "Nutcracker" last December.

Mr. Fonte chooses dancers who most readily apprehend his desired movement quality and transmit it most readily. He is looking for particular expressive qualities and mentioned several times that he considers dance to be a metaphor for expression. He pays particular attention to how the dancers "get into and out of" the specific movement and looks for a high energy level.

This particular work has two complete casts (although he is unsure whether the second complete cast will get a performance). The dancers need to work to get his movement into their bodies; it is not straightforward and depends a great deal on the dancers' successful communication of nuance and texture. He likes duets -- two bodies moving as one -- as well as trios -- an added challenge of making three bodies move as one.

Otto Neubert mentioned that he has videotaped as much of Mr. Fonte's movement in rehearsal as possible in order to retain his particular movement qualities.

In response to a question about what he thinks and feels about openings, Mr. Fonte stated that it is torture to watch his own openings. He has too much heightened awareness of audience reactions.

Mr. Fonte subscribes to the dancer/choreographer collaboration favored by William Forsythe. He does not come to the studio with a scripted set of movements. Rather, he prefers to convey movement ideas to the dancers and observe their execution and finish. He gains inspiration from each dancer's particular movement qualities.

Asked whom he admires among contemporary choreographers, he immediately mentioned Nacho Duato, whom he describes as "not easy to work for" but "really gifted." He also mentioned Jiri Kylian, William Forsythe and Finnish choreographer Tero Saarinen, whose works he described as closer to "dance theatre" than works typically staged on North American ballet stages.

Regarding projects on the horizon, Mr. Fonte mentioned his continuing relationship with the Gothenburg (Sweden), where his choreography is one act of a full evening entitled "RE: Baroque" and shares billing with one act works by Nacho Duato and Jiri Kylian (see: This project was highly collaborate and international, utilizing both a baroque score (Vivaldi) and a modern score by Diego Dall'Osto, both of which utilize the popular baroque theme, La Follia. The stage set features a huge, ornate baroque ornament inspired by Bernini.

A new project will be choreographed to the Stravinsky Violin Concerto -- which he admits is an act of heresy -- for the Royal Ballet of Flanders in June. He is scheduled to produce another full-length work for Gothenburg based on Tchaikovsky correspondence and is now listening to and choosing music for this endeavor. Also ahead is a new work for Stuttgart, but he does not yet have a concept for this commission.

Mr. Fonte mentioned that it is not a propitious time for new, free-lance choreographers. He remains committed to the task because he believes that it is important to the dancers to have new work made on them and, consequently, to the life of the company.

In parting, Mr. Fonte praised the work of lighting designer Michael Mazzolo, whom he credits for making the dancers and his choreography look "spectacular."

Edited by Lori Ibay

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