Steel butterflies: Boston Ballet dancer Eris Nezha brings strength and grace to master classes in Amherst

  • Artist Rebecca Guay with her painting, “Magificent Creature.” Submitted photo

  • Madeline Poole, 14, of Leverett, is instructed by Nezha during a class at Amherst Ballet. Poole’s mother, Holly Lynton, looks on, at back left. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Rebecca Guay, president of Amherst Ballet’s board of directors, dances during a class taught by Boston Ballet principal dancer Eris Nezha. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBYRebecca Guay, president of Amherst Ballet’s board of directors, dances during a class taught by Boston Ballet principal dancer Eris Nezha.

  • Rebecca Guay, watching a young dancer. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBYRebecca Guay, watching a young dancer.

  • Boston Ballet principal dancer Eris Nezha demonstrates postures for Emily Cruz, 11, of South Hadley, and other dancers during a master class at Amherst Ballet. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBYBoston Ballet principal dancer Eris Nezha demonstrates postures for Emily Cruz, 11, of South Hadley, and other dancers during a master class at Amherst Ballet.

For the Bulletin
Thursday, September 28, 2017

When people think of ballet, they think of glitter and tutus. They think of pink-clad girls on stage, pointe shoes (what most non dancers call “toe shoes”) and princesses.

But for me (as a painter and dancer), the power of the art form is in its gravity, fierce strength and passion. 

Ballet dancers are steel butterflies. They have to be strong beyond belief yet are always in service to the beauty of the line of the art form. They must execute physical challenges that would make anyone else grimace with the effort — and do it with supreme serenity of expression. 

Ballet dancers are like a samurai sword: They are forged and layered through the kind of training that few artists or even professional athletes ever experience. 

I have loved ballet for as long as I can remember. For every childhood birthday, and every holiday for years, I would ask for a pair of pointe shoes. I would beg for them, begin dreaming of them for weeks prior to every special occasion. I even put cardboard into my soft ballet slippers to make them look like pointe shoes. (Note: It never worked.)

When I was a tween growing up on the rural north shore of Boston in the early 1980s, the Capezio store would not sell pointe shoes to dancers they deemed not trained enough to wear them (and rightly so!), but that didn’t stop me from hoping!

I remember feeling very annoyed with my ballerina Barbie because her legs were not “turned out,” and the tiny plastic shoes she wore looked like pink macaroni. Being the kid of a single working mom, I should have felt grateful just to get a Barbie, but such was the specific nature of my obsession — I was blind to reason. 

As an adult of 35, even knowing full well that I have deep conflict with the Barbie franchise, I bought the Swan Lake Barbie special edition and the Peppermint Candy Barbie special edition because the clever new toy designers got the legs and feet right. I know … I couldn’t help it. The heart wants what the heart wants.  

Dance has been a deep and constant center of my life and often my source of inspiration as a professional artist from back when I was an illustrator — I created the art for “Ballet Stories,” written by my good friends Jane Yolen and her daughter Heidi Stemple — to my current gallery work. Recent pieces from my New York City show last March were inspired by dancer Wendy Whelan.

This summer, I was looking online for some inspiration for a new painting. I work a great deal from my imagination with my paintings, leaning heavily on my own training as figurative painter, but often I leap from dance photography and video, among other things.

As usual, I was looking for for unique gesture and evocative moments when I found pictures of Boston Ballet principal dancer Eris Nehza. He was in a deep plié, cradling the head (and seemingly carrying the weight) of a female dancer: his wife, the amazing Petra Conti. Their forms together are full of the feeling that one gets when falling in love with another person — when one feels helpless yet supported by the strength of another heart. 

With a little more research, I found that the piece they were dancing so beautifully to was called “L’Altro Casanova,” by Gianluca Schiavoni. SO breathtaking: If this piece does not make your heart skip a beat, you don’t have a pulse!

As I had just come into my role at Amherst Ballet as the president of the board of directors, and was beginning to work with our new Artistic Director, Molly Stamell, I decided to reach out to Eris to see if he would come to teach a series of special master classes at our studios.

What he represents is everything I adore about ballet: the grace, passion, strength, the visceral grounded force of it. 

Miraculously, he agreed! 

Eris, who is originally from Albania, trained and danced with La Scala in Milan until he joined the Boston Ballet in 2013. He has danced in numerous principal roles, both in the United States and abroad, and has traveled around the would as a guest principal, recently returning from performing in Italy and Japan this summer just prior to coming to teach the master classes with us. To have this caliber of dancer coming to Amherst Ballet is really an absolute gift.

We wanted to open this class to everyone because our philosophy is that ballet is for all. As an adult dancer, I performed for the first time ever, en pointe, in 2015 at the age of 45, and I performed again in 2016 — opportunities for which I remain so thankful.

Eris came to teach the first classes earlier this month, and it was a delight: He gave nuanced instruction, with a focus on giving students the small details from his training at La Scala, and his own personal aesthetic. He worked generously with both the adult dancers as well as the teenagers. He will teach his next set of classes on September 30. It is my hope that he may return to Amherst Ballet for another special class in the future, if we are very lucky!

Avante-garde dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham once said, “Ballet gives you no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.”

Loving dance, studying dance, is greater than the sum of its parts. In striving for beauty within our muscles, within the music, the body becomes a vessel for the art form. While there is truth that ballet dancers are left without paintings or manuscripts, ballet, nonetheless, transforms us, and reminds us all of the possibility of seemingly impossible things. 

For more information, visit amherstballet.org.