When Petra Conti’s Snow Queen and Eris Nezha’s Snow King glide through the icy forests of Boston Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” this season, audiences may notice a little extra heat between the two. Boston Ballet’s newest principal dancers, who arrived from Italy’s Teatro alla Scala mid-October and make their company debut in the holiday favorite, just got married a few months ago. And the honeymoon is clearly not over — not between them, and not with their newly adopted city and artistic family.
“We fell in love with the city and the company. Boston Ballet is something special,” Nezha said in a recent joint interview, the words barely out of his mouth before Conti added her own thoughts. In conversation, their slightly broken, heavily accented sentences tumble over one another.
“We wanted a new experience and challenge, and we are so happy to be here,” Conti adds. “We hope to fit into the company and stay a long time. Every day is more like home.”
Conti, 25, who graduated from Rome’s Accademia Nazionale di Danza in 2006, further honed her technique with the famed Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. She spent a season dancing in Germany before returning to Italy in 2009 to join Teatro alla Scala’s corps de ballet, though she quickly began performing principal roles. She was promoted to prima ballerina in 2011 and was considered something of a “shooting star” in Italian dance.
Nezha, 31, who was born in Tirana, Albania, moved to Italy when he was 15, entering the Ballet School of Teatro alla Scala the next year. After graduation, he joined La Scala’s corps de ballet, then freelanced for three years before rejoining the Milan company. He was promoted to principal in 2011.
The two have been a couple for three years, and La Scala ballet director Makhar Vaziev, long a champion of Conti, had been grooming her and Nezha as partners for several seasons. They had lifetime principal contracts with La Scala, making their decision to leave surprising. However, they say Boston Ballet will offer them more opportunities to dance. “La Scala has lots of guests,” Nezha explains. “For every first performance, big guest names [perform] before our time onstage. Here is good repertoire, new work, big roles.”
Conti also cites a stressful work environment in Italy, perhaps due to jealousy and negativity arising from her swift ascension through the ranks. “It feels like a big family here, very welcoming. So many good dancers and such good teachers — they are not screaming all the time, but say ‘well done!’ when you do something good. I can learn from everyone here.”
Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen is impressed with the couple’s ethic. “I got wind that they were looking to leave La Scala and looking at different companies, and I said if they have interest, contact me. I thought they might be a match for us. What we ask here is to be able to move like contemporary dancers, have the attack of Balanchine, and do classical work academically well. These two dancers also have wonderful dramatic skills and are looking for new challenges. They have all the right ingredients, and I am eager to get cooking with them and see how it goes.”
So far, as evidenced during a rehearsal with Boston Ballet’s assistant artistic director Russell Kaiser, it seems to be going quite well. The two look beautifully matched in springy, well-timed lifts, buoyant leaps, and easy turns. Nezha exudes elegant strength and masculinity, while Conti moves with fluidity punctuated by crystalline articulation. At the heart of their partnership is total trust. And it doesn’t hurt that they share a delightful, sometimes self-deprecating sense of humor.
But Nissinen cautions, “I’m not trying to keep them together. Quite the opposite. My discovery process is to put them with different people, so they can grow and experience different chemistry.”
The pair agrees. “We are best friends, so sometimes it is good to change things and experience different partners, to learn, to help improve,” Conti says.
Boston Ballet’s version of “The Nutcracker” presents the pair with unfamiliar choreography — in addition to Snow Queen and King, Nezha is learning Cavalier, and Conti is preparing Sugar Plum Fairy and Arabian. But they are proving to be quick studies. Kaiser calls them “an extraordinarily talented couple,” adding that “they are so open, so generous, so willing to adapt and learn, very diligent and totally engaged in the process.”
Downtime at their South End apartment often is spent watching dance videos, reading books, or talking about the dramatic elements of their respective roles. Do they hold each other to higher standards? Nezha admits, “We push each other, only fight in the studio to improve ourselves, because we want perfection.”
Conti interrupts with a beatific smile. “Then we come home, and everything is nice.”