The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Giselle – whether they come to us from an Israeli, Russian or Canadian dance company, these classical ballets share common narratives with which audience members are intimately familiar.
“Today’s canon of classical ballet repertoire only contains 12 rotating stories,” says Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. A trained classical ballerina from the Royal Ballet School Antwerp, she cannot help but feel baffled that there still aren’t more than a handful of universal ballet standards.
When Ivan Cavallari invited Ochoa to create a work for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, the Colombian-Belgian choreographer seized the opportunity to do something different. The result is a spectacular theatrical ballet that tells the uncanny tale of two competing mafia clans in Chicago in the 1950s.
“Vendetta – Storie di Mafia is more than a period piece about (a) feud,” Ochoa clarifies. “It is a story about families for families.” Les Grands Ballets Canadiens is bringing Vendetta to the Israeli Opera house until March 1.
“Israel is very family oriented,” she explains. In addition to appealing to Israeli families and their children, the Tel Aviv performances will feature nine Israeli kids. “What family is complete without children?” she jokes. Also joining the cast are two Israeli male dancers who will play the two godfathers.
At the heart of this script, though, is Ochoa’s drive as a female choreographer to present a different kind of woman on pointe shoes. “Ballet is evolving and not just by stretching the body out and kicking one’s legs higher and higher,” she says. “That’s already been done. I want to cast the woman in a stronger role – one that isn’t so frail and fragile. A badass boss.”
And that she did. Vendetta’s protagonist is Rosalia Carbone, the daughter of a mafia leader who is chosen over her brother to be her father’s successor. “I just saw the Ruth Bader Ginsburg movie last night,” Ochoa says. “At the end of the ’50s, she studies to be a lawyer and still is not accepted. I wanted to show the struggles of a woman in this same era, in this violent world where she has to make difficult decisions for the honour of the family.”
Ochoa drew on her own family history to paint Rosalia’s character with a stroke of authenticity. “Unfortunately, my mother only had two options. Her father told her, ‘You can either be a nurse or a nun.’ She didn’t want to be a nun, so she chose nurse. Those were the ’50s,” she sighs. “Nowadays, we (women) can study anything we want, but we are still fighting to be taken seriously. And we’re considered ‘mavericks’ if we make it.” According to the world-renowned choreographer, this essential growth begins with education. Ochoa thinks that we need to teach young girls that they can reach the top. “So the story of Vendetta is based on feeling what we can give our daughters in the future,” she adds.
As the story unravels, Rosalia’s movements gain more physicality, to follow her upward trajectory as a strong daughter and female leader, something that Ochoa feels will resonate with Israeli audiences who have come to love Israeli dancer Ohad Naharin’s very physical, boundary-stretching contemporary Gaga style (a fixture for the Batsheva Dance Company).
When asked if she thinks whether Vendetta could eventually earn a spot alongside the great classics, Ochoa responds: “It’s a big risk to present a new story to an audience, but the audience is hungry for new stories. They want them, it’s up to us to find the courage to present them. I’m sure this hunger will only grow. The second time that Vendetta comes to town, people will know its story – hopefully one day as well as The Nutcracker. It would be a huge honour to be able to introduce something new into the canon of ballet repertoire that empowers women. All I can do now is keep writing.”
Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal performs at the Israeli Opera until March 1. For more information, visit israel-opera.co.il.