The ‘other’ Italian dancing star is Giuseppe Picone. For many Italians, especially the ones who rarely go to the theatre, Roberto Bolle is the only ballerino in the world worth watching. Many buy tickets only because Bolle is in the cast, and their evening is ruined if he doesn’t take his shirt off at some point (an act sometimes accompanied by wolf-whistles) and above all if there is a sustitution. Bolle pulling out of Jewels at La Scala in May, resulted in a theatre full of bored young (and not so young) girls (and boys) playing with their iPhones and looking at their watches. A couple of years ago a couple of middle aged women in front of me at La Scala sighed saying “Unfortunately Bolle isn’t on tonight”… they had to make do with Denis Matvienko.
Giuseppe Picone is largely unknown to this audience, though at 21 he was the first male Italian dancer to become a soloist with the American Ballet Theatre, was part of the English National Ballet company in his late teens, and has guested all over the world, from the Bolshoi to the Royal Ballet.
This week he talked to Marina Cappa for the Italian Vanity Fair:
Was it at Teatro San Carlo in Naples that you first encountered Carla Fracci?
Yes, I was 12 years-old. She, and her husband Beppe Menegatti, came into the theatre’s ballet school. I was in my second year. They were looking for someone to play Nijinsky as a boy, the grown-up version was Vladimir Vassiliev. They chose me. Fracci was very sweet. When I was 21 our paths crossed again in Verona where we danced together. She was 60, but how she made us suffer.
What did she do?
It was Macbeth; she was the Lady and I was one of the witches. The ballet finished in a pyramid where we hoisted her aloft and arranged ourselves for the applause. I was in the vertical splits, thinking that I’d have to hold the position only for a few seconds. But coming from abroad I’d forgotten about her fame in Italy: the applause went on for ten minutes, I couldn’t stand it any longer, I called out but she said, “Don’t move!”. I was desperate. The Arena however is the most beautiful place I’ve ever danced.
But your career has developed more abroad. Is it true that in London you met Princess Diana?
It was 1995. She was patron of the English National Ballet and, being that my picture was all over the gadgets and souvenirs at the time, she wanted to meet me. I was called to dine with her; I was 19. I went in and she stood up in a sky-blue dress, the colour of her eyes, and said, “You are beautiful”. I was speechless, and I didn’t touch my food. She asked me why and I told her I wasn’t hungry. Later I would see her often at the rehearsals and shows.
Did you talk?
Yes. She told me about when she took ballet lessons as a child. She was very down to earth. She had charisma. We couldn’t believe how that idiot could be unfaithful to such a beautiful woman.
Did you watch William’s wedding?
Yes, because he reminds me a lot of his mother. It isn’t just coincidence that he chose Kate who is so similar to Diana.
Why did you have problems when you went to New York?
I suffered from anorexia, I was young and depressed being so far from Italy and my family. I weighed the half of what I do now. I stopped eating.
How did you manage to dance?
I lived on coffee, enormous cups of American coffee. I would do 8 consecutive hours of rehearsal after 1½ hours of class. I never stopped. The only advantage was that I got overtime.
How did you get out of it?
I came back home. For 4 months I lived with my parents, without dancing. I was considering giving it all up, but then there was an offer from Vienna for Spartacus and I started again.
I had always danced. At 16 I was already in France as a soloist, I lived by myself and had to do everything. When I went to New York I was also alone, but in a situation that became oppressive.
How were the Americans? In Black Swan it seemed a terrible environment.
That film made me remember many things, the icy atmosphere, the obsessive mothers, the insane competition between the dancers: that’s what it’s like in America. In other places I’ve not experienced those problems. But there there was a terrible malaise. When I arrived I was 21, good-looking and talented, already with experience of principal roles: they looked me over and tried to get rid of me.
The film emphasises the sexual charge of ballet dancers.
There are things on stage that, if you haven’t experienced them in real life, are difficult to make believable.
But are there choreographers, like Vincent Cassel’s character, who seduce the dancers?
It happened to me. I was told, “If you go through that door you’ll have the part, otherwise nothing!”. I said no, and I have no regrets. In fact, at Teatro San Carlo in Naples I finally danced in the Romeo and Juliet that they wouldn’t let me dance in New York.
And whose door was it?
A maitre who controlled the rights to the choreography.
Were you asked in an explicit way?
Very. But life is good: the year that I left the American Ballet Theatre, he tried with a 19 year old dancer. His mother got on to the lawyers, the scandal was in all the newspapers, and he was fired from ABT. The boy asked if I would testify and I accepted: with this face and experience, Romeo was my role, and it was stolen from me.
All this travelling must make a love life difficult.
I had two relationships in London, and one in New York. But it’s not easy. Now that I’m a freelance étoile, a month here, a month there, it’s not possible. On the other hand, dance doesn’t last long.
How long will you go on?
The age for getting a pension is now 45 for both men and women. But I might stop before. There is a limit physically. And it’s only right to leave room for new blood.
Photo: top by Gianni Brucculeri; bottom, at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.