Ballet Arizona Dancers Paola Hartley and Astrit Zejnati Talk Retirement

For many seasons, the spring lineup for Ballet Arizona has included a program of all George Balanchine works. It's a reflection of artistic director Ib Andersen's roots -- which include dancing under Balanchine as a principal with New York City Ballet during the 1980s.

This year's All Balanchine opened Thursday, April 30, and continues through Sunday, May 3, when four Ballet Arizona dancers retiring at the end of this season will dance for the last time on the Symphony Hall stage. They'll officially retire at the end of the season.

See also: Ballet Arizona's Raychel Diane Weiner Cast in Starz Dance Drama Flesh and Bone

Retiring dancers include Paola Hartley and Astrit Zejnati, who've been partnered in Ballet Arizona productions for more than a decade, as well as Ilir Shtylla and Tzu-Chia Huang. Sunday's performance includes an excerpt of Andersen's Mosaik, which is being performed by Huang and Zejnati. It's the first ballet that Zejnati, who joined Ballet Arizona in 2003, ever danced with Ballet Arizona.

Hartley joined Ballet Arizona in 1998, predating even Andersen, who was appointed artistic director in 2000. The company was founded in 1986, when three smaller Arizona dance companies merged. Both Andersen and Hartley have been with Ballet Arizona for just over half its lifetime.

After dancing for 17 years with Ballet Arizona, Hartley says it's the camaraderie between dancers that she'll miss most -- but also the stage, the audience, and the applause. Hartley, who grew up in Chile, counts the role of Kitri in Don Quixote among her favorites. It's "playful and flirtatious," she says. And its Latin flair allowed Hartley to imbue the role with her own personality.

Hartley has other favorites, too: Odette/Odile in Swan Lake for the challenge of portraying two vastly different characters; Juliet in Romeo and Juliet for the emotional challenges of moving a character from innocence to love and facing death; and Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty for its musicality and technical challenges.

The word "challenge" came up often as Jackalope Ranch talked with Hartley by phone during the company's lunch break on Wednesday, April 29. The best part of working with Andersen, she says, is the fact that his choreography is so challenging. Hartley says she's honored to have worked with Andersen, praising the insight he gained from years of dancing with Balanchine. Still, Hartley admits she won't miss having Andersen get mad because she didn't get the steps right.

Hartley expects to stay in Phoenix, where her father and fiancé also live, and she'll be working with Ballet Arizona in some new capacities. "I'll be teaching and mentoring," says Hartley. "And I'll be taking over the pointe shoes for the company." Ballet Arizona's new facility, which opened in 2013, has a whole room for storing pointe shoes. Hartley expects to be there for part of one or two days each week, helping to order and organize pointe shoes "for the girls."

Now 41, Hartley attributes her longevity as a dancer to genetics, noting that both her parents were dancers who danced until they were 45. Retiring is "bittersweet," she says, bringing mixed emotions from sadness to a sense of relief. "I've been really sad and had a few breakdowns in rehearsals," shares Hartley. "There will probably be a grieving time; I'm losing a lifestyle."

She's already envisioning the new lifestyle that will take its place -- looking forward to having more time for walking her three dogs (she's got one cat, too), gardening, and even cleaning the house. And she's clearly thrilled about getting to sleep in until 10 or 11 a.m. her first day without morning ballet classes and rehearsals. Most of all, Hartley is eager to spend holidays like Valentine's Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas with family, friends, and her fiancé. "Now I can go shopping!" she says.

Zejnati, also 41, has a different take on the retirement experience. "We're not dying," he says. "Paola gets emotional, but I don't want to do that," says Zejnati. "I just want to do my show." Still, he also talks of feeling somewhat "bittersweet" about dancing for his last season with Ballet Arizona. "I'm sure we'll dance again," Zejnati says of working with Hartley. "We have an agent."

Zejanti leaves for Uruguay later this month, where he'll spend three weeks teaching dance before heading to Taiwan for a month-long teaching gig. But for now it's all about keeping the routine he's long followed -- including attending ballet classes, which Zejnati says he's never missed. The routine, Zejnati tells us, is what he'll miss most after retiring from Ballet Arizona. "I'm kind of like a perfectionist," explains Zejnati. "I'm very anal about doing the same thing every day." Still, like Hartley, he looks forward those first few days he'll be able to sleep in rather than heading to the ballet studio in the morning for a full day's work.

Looking back on 12 years with Ballet Arizona, Zejnati insists he doesn't have a favorite role. Instead, he says every role is his favorite at the time he's rehearsing and "sweating to become the role." Zejnati has originated principal roles in several Andersen ballets, including Coppélia, Mosaik, Play, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Zejnati describes Andersen as passionate, yet notes that it's hard to know where you stand with Andersen because "he's a little bit closed."

Zejnati says the lack of any serious injuries has attributed to his longevity as a dancer, but counters the suggestion that such things are a matter of luck. Zejnati grew up in Albania, where he started dancing during fifth grade. "My teacher when I was a kid told me to always land like a cat." A cat thrown from a tree, he says, always lands on its feet. Following the advice, he says, has prevented wearing out his joints.

Zejnati says most people think dance careers can only last 10 to 12 years; he says they're wrong. His advice for young dancers: "If you want to dance a long time, never miss a ballet class."

Although four dancers are retiring, Zejnati notes that Ballet Arizona is actually losing 10 dancers at the end of the season -- which concludes with Innovations, a program featuring works by emerging choreographers. It's being performed at the Dorrance Theatre, located inside the Ballet Arizona building, May 14 to 24. It's possible retiring dancers will be part of the cast.

"There will be quite a few big changes in the company," according to Zejnati. "There will be a lot of younger dancers." Currently the company, which has earned acclaim for performances in Washington, D.C. and New York City, has 31 dancers. So one third of the company will be different when the 2015-16 season opens with Coppélia in late October.

All four retiring dancers are performing in this weekend's All Balanchine program, which includes Allegro Brilliante (1956), La Sonnambula (1946)), and Stravinsky Violin Concerto (1972). Hartley will dance this weekend with both Zejnati and Nayon Iovino. Zejnati dances not only with Hartley, but also with retiring dancer Huang. Shtylla is dancing with Natalia Magnicaballi.

Sunday's Mosaik excerpt is being danced by Huang and Zejnati. They're not only fellow retiring dancers, but girlfriend and boyfriend as well. Casting for the other works varies by performance, and is noted on the Ballet Arizona website for the benefit of those who want to see particular dancers on stage.

All Balanchine continues through Sunday, May 3 at Symphony Hall. Tickets are $25 to $158. Find more information on the Ballet Arizona website.

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