Zalman Raffael is experiencing big changes. Having retired as a dancer with Raleigh’s Carolina Ballet in May, the 29-year-old is embarking on a new chapter as the company’s choreographer in residence.
Robert Weiss, Carolina Ballet’s artistic director, created the position for Raffael, a first for the 17-year-old company. Weiss is a fierce defender of classical ballet’s traditional techniques and thinks most contemporary ballet choreographers take too many liberties. In Raffael, he feels he’s found someone who can take ballet into the future while preserving tradition.
“Zali knows the history and why ballet can only innovate in certain ways,” Weiss said. “He also understands the musicality of choreography and the importance of collaboration with the dancers.”
Raffael, who has already made four ballets for the company, fulfills his new duties with three ballets this season. The first, set to a Johannes Brahms violin sonata, shares the program with a Weiss premiere and “Firebird,” beginning Thursday. Raffael was awarded two N.Y. Choreographic Institute fellowship grants, one allowing him to create a ballet to Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in a studio workshop.
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“Seeing that convinced me Zali was the right person,” Weiss said. “ It was very mature, a significant ballet that I think will take its place in the world.” Triangle audiences get their chance to see it on the season’s final program in May.
Raffael sat down during a break in rehearsals to talk about his background, how music informs his work and what effect dance has had on his life. Here are excerpts from that conversation:
Q: What is your background and training?
A: I was born and grew up in New York City. I trained there at The School of American Ballet, established by George Balanchine of the New York City Ballet.
Q: How did you come to Carolina Ballet?
A: After I graduated from the school, I was invited to join Carolina Ballet in 2005 as a member of the corps. I left after three seasons and went back to New York because I didn’t really think I wanted to keep dancing. But eventually I got back involved, working for some dance companies. When Ricky (Robert Weiss) asked me to return in 2008, I didn’t want to come back just as a corps member. I had been staging some ballets in New York (teaching dancers steps to an existing ballet), so Ricky asked me to stage one of his.”
Q: How did you get involved with choreography?
A: I had dabbled in it from about age 9, making little pieces in class. Later, I did some formal workshop choreography at school and also helped friends who were putting on some shows. But I had to get a job dancing because you can’t make a living just being a choreographer.
Q: What led to your first ballets for the company?
A: After I created a short piece in 2012, Ricky applied for a grant for me to choreograph “Rhapsody in Blue.” I didn’t get (the grant) but I raised the money myself to create it in the studio. Ricky liked it enough to program it in February 2013.
Q: How did you choose the Brahms piece for your new ballet?
A: When I was first here in 2005, I sat around one day with a friend just listening to music on iTunes. There were two movements of the Brahms Violin Sonata No. 3 that I liked, so I put it on her iPod. When I came back in 2008, she gave me that iPod. I listened to the Brahms at lot when I was working out or walking around. After being asked to do a new piece for this fall, I found the other movements of the sonata and decided to use it.
Q: Can you describe what the new piece is about?
A: When I choreograph, there’s always a subtext. For this one, there wasn’t a single story unfolding but little stories came to mind. I’m choreographing how the music speaks to what is going on in my life. The music has an overwhelming ferocity, and I think it speaks to the anxiety in all our lives.
Q: Do you think you’ll miss dancing?
A: No. The truth is, everyone has to stop dancing at some point. It’s a challenge to accept that we are all getting older. Things that made me feel comfortable I have to let go of in order to evolve.