Ballet Arizona Principal Dancer Astrit Zejnati Reflects on His Career
by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin
May 2005 -- Ballet Arizona Studios, Phoenix
We caught up with Astrit Zejnati following a Saturday matinée show by Ballet Arizona, having seen ourselves their show the previous evening.
DS/FT: How did you get started in ballet?
AZ: My father was a violinist and introduced me to ballet. I studied at the National Ballet School in Albania. When they auditioned me, they tried my feet and flexibility, which weren’t all that great at the time, but liked my musical feeling and sense. So I went from my home town of Delvine to Tirana at the age of 9. The course of ballet study is 8 years and all of the teachers were from the Soviet system. We had classes in character, folk, world character, ballet, piano, and mandolin.
After I graduated from school I went to a competition in Bulgaria and won First Prize and was recruited for the National Ballet as First Soloist – straight from school. I came to the U.S. initially, frankly, to avoid having to serve in the army. The Kosovo War was happening – it was very scary – and I felt I had to escape.
I went to University of Oklahoma where they gave me a scholarship.
How did you come to Pacific Northwest Ballet?
Two of my teachers, Mary Margaret Holt and Don Edwards (who came from the Joffrey), knew both Kent and Francia and suggested I audition. I was offered a contract as a corps member and was eventually promoted to soloist and stayed at PNB for four years. I left for Miami Ballet for one year – I didn’t get along with the Ballet Mistress, Eve Larson – and came back to PNB for two seasons. Working with [Artistic Director] Villella was fine but he wasn’t around a lot and I felt that Ms. Larson was taking me out of too many ballets and parts.
And your journey here to Ballet Arizona?
I really appreciate Ib. He’s a little younger than most directors. He demonstrates and is one of the best role models. For example, I learned and rehearsed "Apollo" with Ib. Working for him has been a very good experience. I was mostly cast in contemporary roles at PNB and wanted more opportunities to do classical roles. I do like any kind of dancing.
Describe yourself as a dancer for us.
I like to be very intense on stage. It’s no good if I don’t get goose bumps. Once I’m on stage, I like to forget about technique.
Tell us about the pieces for which you’re cast during this repertory program.
I’ve always wanted to do "Sinatra Suite." I remember [Baryrishnikov] doing it – he was so incredible. I’ve wanted to duplicate that wonderful style as closely as possible. Elaine Kudo, one of the original cast members, came here to set the steps and coach us.
For Dwight Rhoden’s "Ave Maria," Dwight says it is the woman’s fantasy and that the man in an angel, protecting her. It’s full of religiously-charged poses and is very physical. There are about twice as many steps as usual in the amount of time.
In addition to performing, what else do you do in the dance field?
I like coaching and am currently working privately with two students who are working hard to enter some competitions.
What are your hobbies and interests?
I consider myself a daredevil on a motorcycle! It’s similar to flying in dance.
What’s in the future for you?
I feel that I’m dancing better than ever. I’d like to dance in Europe. I’ve appeared a couple of times in Italy – Rome and Calabria, but that’s been it. My family has never seen me perform and it’s difficult to get them videos. Next season our contracts are for forty weeks, so I’m excited to be dancing even more!
I like that I’m dancing more here, in all of the things that I’ve wanted to dance in! I like the weather here in Phoenix and I just bought a house two days ago!
Edited by Staff.
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