From the Opera House stage to the silver screen
Interview with Giulia Tonelli
Born in France and growing up in Italy, Giulia Tonelli, principal dancer at the Zurich Opera House, took an unconventional route to the very top of the ballet profession. Before the premiere of "Becoming Giulia" at the Zurich Film Festival, she shares some details on how she masters the demanding balancing act between motherhood and professional dancing while challenging old-fashioned stereotypes.
Working with renowned director Heinz Spoerli, she has been a dancer at the Zurich Ballet since 2009 – first as a soloist and as a principal from 2016. In recent years, she's started a family and is due to have her second child in September 2022. But this hasn't stopped her performing. And as a result of Giulia's determination to balance motherhood with her love of the stage, her comeback between 2019 and 2021 has been documented as part of a feature film 'Becoming Giulia', set for release at the Zurich Film Festival in 2022. We recently spoke to Giulia to find out more about her unusual journey to becoming a professional, how the world of ballet is changing to embrace motherhood, and her plans to return to the stage after having her second child...
When did you start dancing and when did you realise you could become a professional?
I started very young, at three and a half years old. But what is unusual is that I continued as a hobby until I was 15, which is very late for professional ballet dancers. I was always against going professional until I was 15, that’s when I started to regret that I didn’t make this choice before. I realised I wanted to take this seriously but that it might be too late to actually become a professional. I tried an audition for a ballet academy in Firenze and won a scholarship. At 17, I moved from Pisa to Firenze, living alone and going to a high school there. I had ballet every day, doing different disciplines such as ballet, jazz and modern. This was a great first step but it showed that I was further behind than all the other students in my class.
Next, I attended a three-day workshop at the State Ballet School in Vienna. I stayed with all these young girls who were very good and I felt quite miserable. At the end of the three days, the director asked me my name and how old I was. He said he saw something in me, even though I lacked technique. So, at 18 I went to the ballet school in Vienna and stayed there for two years. I’ll thank the director forever. He saw what I wasn’t even sure I had, and gave me the chance to change my life. During that time, I would take classes with girls who were my age but also with some who were nine years old to catch up on point work. I needed a lot of determination, which is something I have, and the luck of meeting people who believed in me. I saw a lot of friends of mine, who were in the academy very, very young, were burned out by the time they were 16 or 17. They lacked a normal life, which I had. I thought this was a minus for me, but I can tell you now I think this was my strength - the fact that I had a normal childhood and also seeing more than just ballet. Entering the ballet world with a mature head helped me to reach my goals.
After two years in Vienna, I got a contract with the Royal Ballet of Flanders in Antwerp, Belgium. That was great because the company wasn’t so big, so it gave me the opportunity to show myself. My director gave me nice roles and as I grew I kept on learning. Let’s say I used the professional years to keep on learning what I lacked in school.
The transition for every dancer is hard, but even more if you have to face the difficulty of motherhood plus the difficulty of finishing what has been your life for over 20 years.
Giulia Tonelli, Professional Ballet Dancer
How long will you continue performing before going on maternity leave to have your second child?
I’m training in the morning - just very light barre. I’m 35 weeks now, so in my last month of pregnancy. With my first, I trained until three weeks before birth and I guess I’ll do the same this time. For me, it’s like meditation, just moving a little bit, it’s a nice start to the day. It would be ridiculous to try and be ambitious right now – I obviously don’t put on pointe shoes or jump. I train the legs and the feet lightly, to have a routine, which I think is very good.
How has the second pregnancy been different to the first?
First of all, it’s been more difficult mentally. As a dancer, when you have one child you know people will be looking at you, wondering whether you’ll come back even if they wouldn’t explicitly say it. But then when you have two, people are more likely to think ‘that’s it’. There’s pressure with my age - I’m not a young ballerina any more. I never had any intentions to finish this career once I became a mother, not with the first child or now with the second. The transition for every dancer is hard, but even more if you have to face the difficulty of motherhood plus the difficulty of finishing what has been your life for over 20 years. Physically, I’m just more tired because there’s a toddler at home who I have to take care of.
What does your average working day look like at the moment?
I wake up around 8am, then take my son to nursery. I go to work and warm up for the 10am class. Training lasts for one hour and 15 minutes. Then we have rehearsals all day until 6pm with a one hour break, so it’s intense. On the days of the shows, we finish around 2pm and then need to be back at the theatre for around 5.30pm. We can’t decide to work 20% or 30%. For us, it’s either you’re in or you’re out. When it’s a full schedule, I have had difficulties with that. You always feel guilty for leaving your son, and it’s something that I think mothers more than fathers feel. But as much as I love my child, I need my job too.
Can you describe the experience of creating the documentary film ‘Becoming Giulia’ about your return to dancing from maternity leave?
The camera crew followed me for two years. It wasn’t an easy process. You have to imagine, in ballet we’re very much in a bubble. We don’t let people from outside in easily. Not many people know exactly how our days run and suddenly there’s a crew with cameras on me – I felt uneasy towards my colleagues.
I didn’t want to attract jealousy. I wanted to feel part of the company and not be the one that has a documentary about her. I always tried to be humble. The creator of the film was also new to the field. They had to try not to be too invasive and respect the space of the director, the choreographers - it was stressful. The opera wanted to support the movie but there were times when the general stress of a big production collided with the needs of the movie. It was also challenging at home. When you come home, you want to leave everything outside and to have a camera crew around was tough. My boy would cry and they would be there recording and you’re like ‘oh my God, this is not right’. I just wanted to take care of him and not deal with somebody recording in those moments.
But now seeing the results, I think this film could be useful for women. When I was pregnant with my first child, I was searching for something like this, something to calm me down about the fact that you can be both a mother and a professional. So maybe it can send a good message for young women approaching their professional careers in any field, it doesn’t have to be artistic.
I think it was stressful for everyone to have the crew around all the time, but I didn't feel resentment towards me.
Giulia Tonelli, Professional Ballet Dancer
How did it affect the other dancers in the company, were they open to the film project?
They’re good colleagues! Honestly, there are surely other companies that are more competitive but here in Zurich we’re a big family. I think it was stressful for everyone to have the crew around all the time, but I didn’t feel resentment towards me. They completely understood that the idea for the movie had not come from me.
How difficult was the journey to return to dancing after having your first child and how did the Covid-19 pandemic impact you?
I came back after two months and ten days. I probably put too much pressure on myself, but I absolutely wanted to dance the role of Juliet and so I shortened my maternity leave. Physically, it was hard. I had a big baby and I’m a tiny person. I felt I had no control over my belly muscles any more. It all needed to be reconstructed. The core muscles are the most needed for dancers - from there, you do everything. The legs, they function because the core is strong, so that was the most difficult part to rebuild. My boy was born in December, I came back in March. I had March, April, May, and June before the vacation break. That was good, I had four months performing and then time with my child.
What was really hard was the season afterwards, when it all becomes real. I had a full schedule with a full set of performances. I put pressure on myself, I was completely into it and when I finally understood the rhythm and how to look after my child, Covid began and we were at home. It was devastating in a way as just when I started to feel I can do this, I can handle it, I was home. At the same time, it was fantastic to spend time with my child, when I think back to seeing him grow, but I missed the stage. So I created a little event online with some colleagues, because I needed to express myself. I couldn’t just stay at home and wait, it wasn’t possible.
What is your favourite ballet role?
I performed Giselle when I was very young. My dream would be to perform that with the maturity I have now - I don’t think at 22 you realise the incredible beauty of this role. Romeo and Juliet is another favourite. I love narrative and emotional roles, this is why I chose to do this job. I love modern dance, and we do a lot of contemporary work here, but I enjoy being able to tell a story from beginning to end and keep the public’s attention throughout the story.
What is your favourite part of performing on stage and what do you get from the audience?
On stage I feel a sense of freedom that I don’t experience anywhere else. I can be a very stressed person. The stage is the only place where I feel completely in the present and it's something I can't do in my daily life. When you’re dancing, there’s a constant conversation you’re having with the audience but it doesn’t happen all the time. There are performances that are magical when you feel you’re connected to them, and others where this magic click doesn’t happen. When I’m on stage, I’m at peace with myself and the audience feel that.
It’s not just about the applause. The aim is to achieve a balance between what you’re creating and what their eyes are seeing. It’s communication, not just ‘look at me, how beautiful’. The most powerful thing of all is connecting with the audience, and their eyes in the dark, and knowing you’re giving them an emotion and they’re giving an emotion back.
Because I followed an unconventional path to get where I am, there’s a part of me that still dreams of a more normal job.
Giulia Tonelli, Professional Ballet Dancer
What has changed in ballet since you started at Zurich in 2009?
A lot. For instance, motherhood. It was not so common that you could become a mother before. Things are changing, there are a lot more subjects that are being touched - the ballet world is opening more to concerns with things like body weight. This was always a big issue for me. We’re basically athletes and we’re not followed by any medical body. Ballet is a sport. Yes, it’s artistic but we’re training eight hours a day, it’s really physical and I feel we should be followed also by nutritionists to help all the young dancers have a healthy diet and a good relationship with their bodies. These things are starting to become a subject of discussion, which I think is very good.
What would your job be if you weren’t a professional dancer?
I had initially thought I would go to university and study philosophy or literature, but what to do after is still a big question mark. My father is a physicist - he was convinced I had a brain for physics, but that was never my ambition. Because I followed an unconventional path to get where I am, there’s a part of me that still dreams of a more normal job. Not because I don’t love what I do, but in ballet you can find yourself in a bubble - it’s not reflective of what’s going on out there. Sometimes it’s a good thing, sometimes it’s a bad thing. So there is part of me that would love to do something different - I speak a lot of languages, maybe I could use that?
On the other hand, I know the passion I have for this job and I enjoy seeing the young generation grow. I love giving them directions, that’s a huge part of me as well. I can’t deny it would be nice to use the experience I’ve gathered for the future. I am 50/50 at the moment on whether to stay in the artistic field or change completely, I hope life will tell me. Suddenly my life took this path, I believe in that. I believe in staying open and the answer isn’t there yet, which means I’m not ready to make the decision.
Next year, there will be a new choreographer at the Zurich ballet after 10 years, how do you feel about this?
We will have a woman with two children, it’s very nice to have a change in this sense. I spoke before about how things are changing - more and more this is happening in ballet, women are becoming directors and taking high positions.
What are your hopes, dreams and goals for the future after your dancing career?
It’s difficult. In ballet, it’s a system where you grow older but you still have a boss above you who decides your every step. In a way, you feel like a child forever, you never really grow up. It’s a bit of an old cliche, but it is like that. I know from my husband and my family that this doesn’t only happen in ballet. Any job can be difficult. I do hope to become my own boss in the future - learning to become a pilates teacher, having my own studio, choosing my own hours. This is definitely a dream after twenty years of being told what to do. But there is some safety in being told what to do. There’s a certain cocoon - I come in, I check the schedule, I don’t have to think. I don’t know where I’m going to go yet, I have to be patient, it’s not the time to decide yet.