We met with Alessandra Tognoloni, soloist at the Monte-Carlo Ballet. She spoke to us about the “genius” that is the choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot, as well as what it is like to be an artist during a pandemic.

Born in Gubbio Italy, as a child she wanted to become an archaeologist. “I loved watching documentaries about ancient relics and the idea of working with ancient art seemed magical to me,” recalls the dancer. She fell into dance by accident, after trying out several different sports. “Straight away I felt at home,” she tells us. However, this wasn’t the birth of an immediate love story. “I don’t remember there ever being a moment when I said: ‘Mum, I want to be a dancer.’ It was definitely whilst growing up though that I realised I really loved dancing. I often had to miss out on school trips or going out with my friends so I could go to dance classes. I never felt like I was missing out though, I wanted to change my plans if it meant I could dance.”

I was in love with Jean-Christophe’s choreography

Self-motivated and committed, she has been the driving force behind all that she has pursued. Alessandra Tognoloni came to Monaco in 2013, after spending ten years at the Stuttgart Ballet. Once she left Germany, she had her sights on one place and one place only: the Monte-Carlo Ballet. “I didn’t want to dance anywhere else” she recalls, smiling. Over the last nine years she has performed some of the leading roles in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s ballets, including: Cinderella, the Taming of the Shrew, Lac, Core Meu and others.

What did you want to come to Monte-Carlo so badly?

The ballet here is so unique. They travel a lot and work with many other companies. Not only that, but the director is also a choreographer, so performances combine art with culture. I was in love with Jean-Christophe’s choreography way before I got here.

Alessandra Tognoloni and Francesco Mariottini practising for Cenerentola © Alice Blangero

Tell us about Jean-Christophe Maillot…

Jean-Christophe expects a lot, but at the same time he’s very understanding. If you have a problem, you can talk to him about it. In terms of choreography, I think he’s a genius. I learn something new from him every day. I remember playing Cinderella, it was my first main role with the ballet, and so the first time I got to work closely with Jean-Christophe. I learnt so much.

How did he change your understanding of dance?

Jean Christophe wants you to really feel the emotion when you dance. Usually, ballet dancers will study pantomime to help them understand when to be sad or when to be happy. It’s very theatrical. However, Jean-Christophe doesn’t do this, the emotion has to be real and genuine. In Germany, we would learn the steps first and then add in the emotion. Jean-Christophe taught us to do the exact opposite. We let the emotion guide the dance, learning the steps based on the feelings you wanted to convey. Emotion and choreography are very much intertwined.

Jean-Christophe Maillot taught me not to fake the emotion in a dance, because not only would you be lying to the audience, but to yourself and to your art

When you go on stage, you really have to believe in what you’re dancing. Jean-Christophe tells us that he’ll always laugh if we miss a step or if we fall out of a pirouette. These are technical things, it happens. What he doesn’t find funny is when dancers don’t commit to properly telling a story. He taught me not to fake the emotion in a dance, because not only would you be lying to the audience, but to yourself and to your art.

© Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo

This is perhaps not what you want to be asked, but how was 2020?

It was a very hard year, especially for dancers. We were unable to train at home: there wasn’t enough space and we needed people to dance with. The lack of practise took its toll on our bodies. You have highs and lows. We’re athletes, so we put in the work in order to achieve a goal. We rehearse over and over to then be able to perform on stage. Not knowing what the future held made training very difficult.

All the other companies released videos showing the public how their dancers were still training from home. Jean-Christophe called us one day and said: ‘Listen guys, we can’t let people believe that training from home is a solution.’ What we did was produce a different sort of video, showing how difficult it was for dancers to work from home. It just wasn’t practical; you’ve got the dog in your way or the furniture taking up too much space… That being said, we were very fortunate that Monaco didn’t forget the importance of the cultural sphere during the pandemic.

Those who don’t appreciate the work I do are people who unfortunately haven’t spent time getting to know the arts

Ah yes, the great debate about the necessity of art. After all, art isn’t useful, as they say…

Art isn’t useful, it’s crucial. If you removed art from everyday life, you’d be left with nothing. Life would be empty without it. If you take away the artistic elements from everyday life, be that the shirt you’re wearing or the frame around the paintings on the wall, then you’re left with nothing. Art may not be useful, but it’s certainly essential.

>> READ ALSO: Long read: Monaco shows France how and why culture can stay open during a pandemic

Do you feel appreciated as an artist?

Yes. I think everyone who knows the work I do appreciates it. If I’m not appreciated then it’s because that person doesn’t know how difficult it is being a dancer, or the emotions a ballet is capable of evoking in an audience. Those who don’t appreciate the work I do are people who unfortunately haven’t spent time getting to know the arts. The arts are not as well-known as they should be: we need to make an effort to change that. Only then will art be more appreciated, will people realise how crucial it is for all of us. Education has a big role to play here.

>> READ ALSO: Monte-Carlo Ballet launches a streaming platform…with a twist