After ‘Nutcracker,’ new L.A. ballet company has big dreams


Back in August, Eris Nezha and Petra Conti stepped in front of a crowd at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre. They looked at each other. Nezha nodded at Conti, who smiled in return. Then, they danced.

Through the lifts, twists and turns, the two caught each other’s eyes through each moment. The crowd gathered that evening watched in awe at the loving connection that emanated from the stage. As the pair’s limbs created breathtaking shapes throughout the piece based on the 1990 film “Ghost,” people leaned forward and froze. The audience started applauding before Nezha and Conti stopped moving. In the short piece, we saw their love story come to life.

Months later, they are preparing for their holiday performances of “The Nutcracker” and “Hollywood Holidays” with Hollywood Ballet, which the pair co-founded alongside Daniel Suk. The rehearsal room of Pasadena Civic Ballet — where the couple hold faculty positions — was buzzing with energy. The two were choreographing the party scene in “The Nutcracker” with members of the company and actors from Improv for the People.

Nezha went from group to group, assigning roles of an upset couple, a rich bachelor and rambunctious kids. The chaotic family dynamics emerged throughout the rehearsal. Dancers were laughing, practicing portions of movement in the corner or turning to Nezha and Conti for help on their character.

“They see us as parents,” Nezha said.

People gathered together to look at a computer in a rehearsal room.

Petra Conti, Eris Nezha and the performers of Hollywood Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker” gathered to brainstorm the entrance scene of the holiday tradition.

(Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)

Nezha and Conti had every dancer’s dream: a lifetime contract as principal dancers of a leading company in Italy. But they left it all to make their mark in the U.S. and grow as dancers and partners. While it’s easy to see their romantic connection both on and off stage, their story is the kind meant for the big screen.

Conti was 17 when she met Nezha. Conti, who is Italian and Polish, was still a student of the National Academy of Dance in Rome when the Arena di Verona Ballet invited her as a guest performer for her first full-length ballet, “Cinderella.” Nezha, who is Albanian, was part of La Scala Ballet Company in Italy and was invited to join the production. He was the prince to her Cinderella.

At the time, she simply admired him and respected him as a performer. Their first kiss was on stage at the end of “Cinderella.”

After the show, the two didn’t see each other for a couple of years. Conti went on to join the Mariinsky Ballet Theatre in St. Petersburg as a trainee and Nezha returned to La Scala. After a year with the Bavarian State Ballet Company in Germany, Conti saw an audition notice for La Scala and took a chance.

She joined the company in August 2009 and made waves as one of the youngest dancers to perform the titular role in “Giselle” in Italy, a position typically reserved for dancers who were at least 30, Conti said. Once again, she danced alongside Nezha as Duke Albrecht.

“The critics were saying that there is such a strong complicity, fire and connection between us that it feels like we are together,” Conti said. They weren’t … yet.

A woman posing in front of a red brick wall.

Petra Conti poses for a portrait before dance rehearsals for Hollywood Ballet, which is starting its inaugural season with the Nutcracker this December, at Pasadena Civic Ballet on Friday, Nov. 17, 2023.

(Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)

They continued to be placed together in roles, especially because they knew each other’s technique so deeply, Nezha said. Conti, who wanted to keep her love for Nezha platonic once she began at La Scala, avoided him at all costs.

“I’m going to see Eris and I’m going to pretend that I don’t like him and I’m like this,” she said while crossing her arms and looking away. “I even invented a fake boyfriend.”

Their next pairing was in La Scala’s “Don Quixote.” While preparing for the performance, the two had company rehearsals during the day with little time left to work in a lead role.

As a result, Nezha and Conti got together after hours in the rehearsal room dancing. “It was the only time we could try to work on the details,” Nezha said.

Conti couldn’t ignore him any longer. They had to work.

“The more we started rehearsing in the studio, the more everything came back,” Conti said. “It was hard to restrain myself.”

Meanwhile, Nezha had competition.

“Everyone was flirting with her, so I got uh…”

“Jealous,” Conti interrupted Nezha with a smile. They laughed.

Dancers gathered in a rehearsal room, practicing and discussing a scene.

Natalie Palmgren pats Julianna Hatton, 16, on the face during dance rehearsals for Hollywood Ballet, preparing the details of the entrance scene to the company’s production of “The Nutcracker.”

(Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)

Their bond evolved. Conti acknowledged that she was still incredibly reserved, but that changed one evening when they decided to go to the thermal baths to heal their legs after a long day of rehearsal. It was cold with snow all around while the baths steamed with heat. There, they had their first kiss (offstage).

For them, ballet and romance are not separate. “We never stop,” Conti said. “We eat and then I’m like, ‘Oh, Eris. This step was like this or like this?’”

They became each other’s personal coaches. Others around them questioned how they could spend so much time together. People wondered whether they’d fight or if they’d get tired of each other.

“Even after work, being with her all day, she’s my best friend,” Nezha said. “She’s the person I don’t get tired of.”

Nezha and Conti got married five times, each with its own significance. First in Segrate, Italy, on March 8, 2013. They married under the Catholic Church on Aug. 10, 2013, in Poland. Others were sentimental locations, including Albania (Nezha’s birthplace) and the Italian cities of Frosinone and Rome.

Conti stretched out her hand and showed her ring at Pasadena Civic Ballet. “Look what he had to do because my fingers are so small,” she said, pointing to extra bits of metal on the inside of the hoop. Otherwise, making the circle smaller would make the stones fall out, Nezha said.

Marriage changed the dynamics within the rehearsal room at La Scala. “Everybody would have to look at me with more respect because I was always seen as the young one that was doing all the roles,” Conti said.

The two were both promoted to principal dancers of La Scala with lifetime contracts (Conti earning the title of prima ballerina, the highest rank), they were married, and had grown to become renowned performers. But they wanted a change.

At the time, Conti was 23 years old and started to question her future.

“Is this my life from now on?” she said. “This is it. I reached the highest thing we could reach in Italy.”

“We decided to challenge ourselves and try America,” she added.

A dancer on pointe in pink pointe shoes

A ballet dancer prepares for direction during dance rehearsals for Hollywood Ballet, going on pointe and practicing steps.

(Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)

Conti and Nezha were 25 and 31, respectively, and embarked on a new life. They visited Boston Ballet and met the artistic director Mikko Nissinen who, after a single class, offered the couple contracts to join the company as principal dancers. Conti and Nezha initially hoped to take a year hiatus from La Scala to try it out, but the Italian company refused the proposal. They gave up their contracts at La Scala instead.

“I wanted to learn,” Nezha said. “I know everything about ballet here [in Italy]. I wanted to learn that mentality [in America]. I wanted to be there.”

They were principal dancers at Boston Ballet from 2013 to 2017, but in 2016, Conti had to put her career on pause when she was diagnosed with kidney cancer.

“That made us even stronger because Eris was by my side,” Conti said. “He was the one cleaning the wounds and helping me.” Nezha was humble as she explained everything he did for her. For him, it was the very least he could do for his wife. He tried to change the subject but she quickly threw up her hands, joking, “The Italian is coming out.”

“I want to say that we’ve been together through the highest of our lives and career, and also the lowest moments of our life and career,” Conti said. “It’s not like you’re only together when the good things happen. Most importantly, you’re together and you’re helping each other, especially in those hardest moments.”

In 2017, she was back to dancing and joined Los Angeles Ballet as a guest artist. Nezha joined her in L.A. and fell in love with the city. It took him back to 1997, during Albania’s civil unrest. During that time, he stayed indoors and found an escape in movies and TV. He was fascinated by the palm trees and glamour. While visiting L.A., he was reminded of the cinema he consumed during that time and how beautiful it was.

Nezha convinced L.A. Ballet to bring Conti and himself on as principal dancers for the 2017-2018 season. Nezha stopped dancing with LAB at the start of the pandemic while Conti stayed with the company and performed her last show in June 2023 with “Lady of the Camellias.”

L.A. Ballet went rankless under the direction of Melissa Barak, meaning there were no more designated principal dancers and soloists. Conti and Nezha, who valued the traditional ballet company structure, mutually agreed with the company to leave.

“Being a principal dancer is our identity,” Conti said.

Right after her last show with L.A. Ballet, she signed the founding papers of Hollywood Ballet.

“Since we left La Scala, we did a crazy thing for a lot of Italians,” Conti said. “They still don’t understand why we left such a great job.”

A woman posing in front of a rack of costumes in a rehearsal room.

Petra Conti wants to foster a new generation of ballet dancers in Los Angeles with Hollywood Ballet.

(Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)

The new chapter of their relationship already proved to be challenging. Their August launch party was postponed due to furious storms across L.A. They’re putting together a series of shows and seeking funders to keep the momentum going.

What keeps the two going is a dedication to bringing something new to the ballet world of L.A.

“Here there is potential with the movies,” Nezha said. “We can actually redo the ballet.”

For example, “Hollywood Holidays” is a program filled with new works inspired by cinema and film scores. Nezha even hopes to create a full-length ballet of “Ghost” in the future.

Nezha and Conti acknowledge that they’ve cemented their names in the ballet world. Now they’re looking to foster the next principal dancers, putting forward every effort possible to give them space to grow.

“We want to create stars,” Conti said. “I don’t want to be the star. I don’t want it to just be me. It’s not about us. Now, it’s about the new generation.”

Being an artistic director is her “new thing.” She is running Hollywood Ballet differently from other companies. Conti and Nezha have a particular focus on the artistry of dance itself. They put a majority of funding toward paying dancers. As a result, they’re able to rehearse longer, perfect the details of dance and allow the movement to shine in the final show.

A man posing against a red brick wall.

Eris Nezha poses for a portrait before dance rehearsals for Hollywood Ballet, laughing and joking between photos with Petra Conti.

(Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)

2023 has been a big year for Conti and Nezha. They celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary, launched a dance company and are presenting two shows in L.A.

“We care about L.A. and the dance environment here,” Conti said. “We want to bring all our knowledge and all our expertise and experience here to make something better for the ballet industry.”

More importantly, they are excited to do it together.

“There are so many roles that are connecting us together, not just husband and wife,” Conti said.

Outside of the Pasadena Civic Ballet building, the two were taking photos for this story. The photographer snapped pictures of Nezha against the wall. Conti stepped behind the camera and watched as he moved from pose to pose.

“Amore sei bellissimo,” she jeered.

Nezha looked past the camera and at Conti with a large smile, one that he hadn’t shared with the camera before. His eyes lit up. So did hers.

‘Hollywood Holidays’

Date: Dec. 28
Time: 7:30 p.m.
Location: The Orpheum Theatre (842 S Broadway, Los Angeles, CA)
Details: hollywoodballet.org

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