By Mary Hierholzer
“Artist Profile” is a monthly feature highlighting a figure (or figures) in the ballet world.
Seventeen-year-old ballerina Petra Conti charged into her guest dressing room in Verona, Italy, to prepare for a rehearsal of Cinderella—only to find an Albanian male ballet dancer inside. She gasped, apologized and went somewhere else to prep. When she entered rehearsal, the director introduced them— “Petra, this is Eris, you’re going to be dancing together.”
11 years later, Petra and Eris Nezha are happily married with two cats and two parakeets, living in Boston as principal dancers with Boston Ballet. They still laugh about their awkward first encounter. It was, in fact, a pivotal moment for them—both guesting in Verona (a fatefully romantic city if there ever was one), this was the Italian ballerina’s first big role, and six years her elder, he was to be her guide. Fortunately for Petra, attentive partnering is one of her Albanian counterparts’ strengths as a dancer.
“He helped me so much, I was really like a child,” she says. “He was so supportive; we would stay late practicing lifts and variations and all the pas de deux.”
Their bond translated into a good friendship and strong performances together—Eris guested for her graduation performance from the Accademia Nazionale di Danza in Rome (Eris graduated from Accademia del teatro alla Scala), and two years later when Petra arrived at the La Scala Ballet Company, the two were partnered again.
Their first task together at La Scala was a significant one—21-year-old corps de ballet dancer Petra was to dance the lead in Giselle, in a traditional company where long-time patrons have witnessed the greatest names in ballet. “Everyone wrote about it because it was totally not normal for the La Scala audience,” she says. “I thought it was my unique chance to stand out. If that show failed, my career failed—that’s what I thought,” she says. “It was very risky.”
Once again, their relational work ethic paid off, and Petra was praised for her dramatic acting skills (her favorite part of any ballet). And the more they danced together, the more critics and friends noticed their chemistry as more than just acting.
“Even before we got together, people were saying there is a great feeling between us,” says Petra.
“There was something more,” says Eris.
“But we were like, ‘no, no, we’re just friends!’” Petra continues. “But they said there was something. They were right. We didn’t know it, but they were right.”
Eris and Petra were married in 2013; Audiences came to love “the couple” at La Scala, and the couple enjoyed a bright career at La Scala. Two years after joining the corps de ballet, Petra was promoted to soloist like Eris, and only one month after her promotion to soloist, they were both made principals while on tour at the Bolshoi. Two years after dancing as principals among the greats, they wanted to broaden their experiences as dancers, requesting a year of leave from their La Scala life contracts, to dance with Boston Ballet.
“We took a couple classes (with Boston Ballet), got to know everyone,” Eris says. “We loved the company and we love the city. We decided we would not get to have that experience any other time. La Scala didn’t take it nicely.” Eris and Petra were presented with an ultimatum: stay with La Scala or take leave, relinquishing their life contracts. It was a dramatic exchange, and finally La Scala allowed them to leave—the couple opted to accept principal contracts in Boston in 2013. “We gave up great benefits and the life there,” Petra says.
Dancing in Boston is different—the couple is rarely partnered because they are a couple. But on the occasion that they dance together, it is very well-received. “Even here,” Eris says, “(audiences) love things we do together; they say they can see a difference.”
That unshakable bond became more important than ever last April when Petra was diagnosed with kidney cancer—an unclassified type of renal cell carcinoma. She danced one final show before surgery—Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, with Eris as her Siegfried, in an indescribable experience. After the successful surgery, she needed two months off, and could not lift anything for three months. With determination, Petra slowly worked back her strength, and by late November, she was back onstage. Just days ago, on May 27, Petra celebrated the one-year anniversary of her surgery.
“Every day I feel blessed and fortunate to have had another chance at life,” she says. “I have learned to appreciate everything, and my priorities have changed. Most importantly, this experience has strengthened us even more as a couple. We have gone through this hard time together, and I could not have stayed so strong and positive without my husband's support and love.”
One of Petra’s priorities is her education—a bachelor of science in leadership from Northeastern University, and eventually a master’s.
“I’m excited to have this opportunity while I’m still dancing to think about my next career,
she says. “These classes I’m taking are really eye-openers for me because I am learning so much about the real world outside ballet… I can become a leader in the future like directing a company, or even something that isn’t related to ballet… I hope that I can bring my experiences and knowledge to another industry, or to ballet and help improving the things I don’t like. I feel that we need good leaders to do that.”
In the meantime, the couple plans to spend their summer keeping in shape and guesting. They hope to perform Norbert Vesak’s Belong, a dramatic and romantic pas de deux they danced together last season. “When we dance together, we are not nervous about each other because we take care of each other,” Petra says.
But when they are confined to the sidelines while the other performs, it’s another story— “I become nervous because I know how difficult it is,” Eris says, “I know she’s practiced that variation before. We know how hard it is to go onstage.”
When they manage to confine their nerves, they relish the time watching each other in their element. Eris, for instance, gets (harmlessly) jealous of Petra’s partners. He loves her romantic and dramatic roles. For Petra, it’s her husband’s princely roles that strike her fancy (only partially because of the tights)— “Every time I watch him, he’s always amazing,” she says. “It’s like the first time I’ve watched him. Every time I’m like, ‘I forgot how good he is… and how good looking he is with the tights!’”
“I like when he dances princely roles,” she concludes. “He is a prince, and that’s what I remember from the first thing we danced together, Cinderella. I was a child and he was really like a prince to me. He’s great at being a passionate partner and it’s so sweet.”