Italian-born choreographer and artistic director Francesco Ventriglia has made an exciting entré into the Sydney dance scene with the world premiere of GRIMM, the first of his works to be performed in Australia.

A former dancer with Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Ventriglia has created classical and contemporary ballets for companies around the world including La Scala, the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky, among others. He was Artistic Director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet from 2014 to 2017, and in 2018 was appointed adjunct Artistic Director of the National Ballet of Uruguay. Between 2010 and 2013 he was Artistic Director and principal choreographer of MaggioDanza at the Florence Opera House.

Ariella Casu and Victor Zarallo. Photograph © Daniel Asher Smith

Ventriglia settled in Sydney this year and has established the Sydney Choreographic Centre with Neil Christopher as Managing Director. Dedicated to nurturing the next generation of choreographers, the Centre opened in March. The Sydney Choreographic Ensemble is the Centre’s resident performing group and GRIMM, which is being presented in association with Riverside Theatres in Parramatta, marks the company’s debut.

GRIMM is a contemporary ballet that references characters and themes from four fairytales: Snow White, The Frog Prince, Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel. Seven striking vignettes, topped and tailed with a prologue and epilogue, take us into a dark, mysterious world, where imagination holds sway as we follow a path from darkness and danger to hope and understanding; a journey from youth to maturity. Hope for the future is embodied in a gleaming golden costume worn by the dancer (Ariella Casu) who has previously played the Witch, yet the lighting remains shadowy, subverting any sense of easy sweetness and light.

Ventriglia has gathered an exceptional group of six dancers to perform GRIMM: Alex Borg, Izzac Carroll, Ariella Casu, Holly Doyle and Victor Zarallo (all of whom have danced in recent years with Sydney Dance Company) and Brittany-Jayde Duwner (who returned to Australia from Germany, where she was dancing with the Leipzig Ballet when COVID closed the theatres). They make a superb ensemble and the dancing is stunning.

Brittany-Jayde Duwner and Victor Zarallo. Photograph © Daniel Asher Smith

The choreography is fast and sometimes furious, with movement that makes a bold contemporary statement, while based on classical technique. Initially it feels a bit busy, but we quickly settle into the groove and the dancers dazzle as they perform sharp, intricate steps that exude an exhilarating urgency and passion, along with some lovely, lilting lifts.

It is performed to a moving score, with Ventriglia choosing some familiar repertoire by Arvo Pärt, JS Bach, JC Bach and Henryk Gorecki, along with two instrumental versions of songs by EXEM. It’s all judiciously chosen and works beautifully.

Ventriglia has also gathered a fine creative team to create the dark imaginative world in which the work takes place. Alex Berlage’s lighting creates mysterious shadows and a painterly chiaroscuro effect, while the projections by Italian-based video designer Marco Giani include slivers of dark, swirling clouds, falling snow and a rippling pond.

The costumes were designed by Britain’s James Acheson, a three-time Academy Award winner (The Last Emperor, Dangerous Liaisons, Restoration) and are very striking. For much of the time, the dancers wear simple black outfits amongst which the costumes for featured characters have a heightened impact.

In one of the highlights of the evening, Casu dances a ferocious solo as the Witch in a long gown, slit up the front to reveal black underwear. Made from dark fabric with a metallic sheen, it is almost sculptural and has its own kinetic energy as she moves. Dazzling! The solo moves into an erotic duet as Casu is joined by Zarallo as the Huntsman.

Holly Doyle and male dancers. Photograph © Daniel Asher Smith

Doyle’s red cloak is like a flash of vivid blood as Little Red Riding Hood is surrounded by wolves (with dancers wearing masks) in another vibrant scene, while Hansel and Gretel wear earthy, homely brown.

In a change of pace, the duet between Zarallo and Duwner in The Frog Prince scene is quiet, gentle and very touching, while Doyle and Borg wear white as Snow White and her Prince.

Running 70 minutes, GRIMM is an exciting evening, at the end you are left feeling exhilarated but drained (and that’s just the audience!). Hopefully, it marks the beginning of a company that will survive into the future and continue to create new work.

GRIMM plays at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta on 17 April at 2.30pm and 8pm


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