Italy's Got Talent. Lots of it. Sometimes that talent finds it difficult to emerge – it's not always what you know but who you know – and sometimes there's not enough room for everyone to show what they can do, but talent there is.
Italy bursts at the seams with paintings and monuments – a reminder that Italy Had Talent – and still today, in all creative fields, there are many remarkable artists to be found in this remarkable country.
Ballet has a peculiar position in Italian culture: it is opera's poor relation, and recent drastic cuts in state subsidy have led to the closure of many dance groups, and those that remain have been stripped to the bone. It is not a good time for Italian ballet.
The companies of La Scala and the Rome Opera Ballet are the only ones who can produce a full ballet season, though the number of performances in comparison with similar companies elsewhere in the world is risible. Nureyev's highly popular Don Quixote at La Scala in September with Osipova, Rojo, Vasiliev and Sarafanov, boasts eleven performances (the Royal Ballet will do 18 Don Qs in its upcoming autumn season), but take away the six performances with guest artists and it leaves just five for the locals. And there's the rub, without those thirty back-breaking Nutrackers at Christmas, without putting on one show while rehearsing another (rarely needed at La Scala where, this season, there were just six different programmes to prepare plus one ballet for a tour), and without doing long runs of each ballet, there is little opportunity to dance, to dance on stage, and to dance in front of an audience.
This year sees another two ballerini leave La Scala, at least for now: Carlo di Lanno is off to San Francisco as a soloist, and Jacopo Tissi will join the Vienna State Ballet. This season di Lanno has been Polina Semionova's Siegfried, and was Svetlana Zakharova's partner in Concerto DSCH. He's had many wonderful opportunities but, at 21, wants to spread his wings:
I decided to leave La Scala because I believe that the only way to grow as a dancer is to go onstage and dance as much as possible. Obviously it wasn't an easy decision because, even though I only had a seasonal contract for the corps de ballet, I think I had carved out a good position, and was being given wonderful roles with international stars.
Unfortunately, at La Scala, though I love its repertoire, the number of shows is small compared with many foreign companies, and this determined my choice in the end.
Jacopo Tissi, 19, who was the star pupil when he graduated from the La Scala ballet school last year, emphasises that his choice is more about opening up new horizons:
I'm going to Vienna to have new professional experiences and to live life outside Italy. La Scala has been good to me, but I decided to do this while I can so that I can have the opportunity to know and work with new teachers and choreographers, and the possibility to dance in many performances.
La Scala's Ballet Director, Makhar Vaziev, may fight, like all previous directors, for more performances, but in the end the situation is mostly stagnant, though there was a small increase in performance numbers last season. So what of those who got away?
Well, the two La Scala Principals Petra Conti and Eris Nezha – now husband and wife – who left in 2013 for a year with the Boston Ballet, are, for the moment, staying on. They are enjoying life in the company and in the city itself: “We're very happy here and we're able to work more,” says Petra. Both are currently touring with Roberto Bolle in his annual Friends show.
Vito Mazzeo, who left immediately for the Royal Ballet after his La Scala training, then joined the Rome Opera Ballet, going on to become a Principal in San Francisco and now with the Dutch National Ballet, has, at 27, had many years away from his homeland, and experienced life in several countries. The disadvantages?
There's only one, to be far away from your country, your habits, and all those little things that you do at home which abroad maybe aren't possible. Incidental things like drinking a good coffee prepared by the local barman who knows just how you like it, or the kindness of the wardrobe department at the Rome Opera who are always ready to help you out, no matter what!
But the advantages are many!
More performances; theatres and rehearsal rooms designed and equipped to help a dancer improve; choreographers who create new works for the company each year, something essential for a dancer's growth… but above all living in different cities gives you the possibility to see and learn many things that you wouldn't experience otherwise, and I don't just mean as a dancer.
Davide Dato, who is a soloist with the Vienna State Ballet, finished his training in Vienna, so it is less surprising that he ended up staying in the city, and, as he points out,
Italy has exported dance for centuries, and it's normal in this globalised era that there should be exchanges on the world stage… in fact, the idea that someone should remain at home is maybe narrow-minded.
Of course, there is a great difference between choosing to leave and having to leave. Dato admits that the situation in Italy is ‘dramatic' with ever decreasing possibilities for dancers.
In Vienna there are 21 different programmes offered each season, and an enviable repertoire which is impossible to find in Italy, and rare elsewhere.
Mara Galeazzi – now in semi-retirement – left the school at La Scala in 1992, and was immediately snapped up by the Royal Ballet:
I left La Scala not because I didn't like it but because I wanted to experience another country and to learn a new language. But, of course, when the Royal Ballet offered me a contract I couldn't say no!
she says laughing.
It was such a great opportunity and I felt that it was the right thing for me to do. I do not regret it and I feel very lucky. I had a fantastic career in London and I thank the Royal Ballet for all of it.
Mara retired last year, after 21 years with the company, and now lives with her family in Muscat, but her pointe shoes still come out every now and then, and she'll be briefly back as a Principal Guest Artist with the Royal Ballet during the next season. Although she toyed with the idea of returning in Italy at one point, she ended up staying in London. Dato says he'd like to return home one day,
Naturally it would be great to go back sometime and be able to share the experiences that have enriched me while working abroad… I see it as something very positive.
Even though there was a desire to leave, all the expats express appreciation for what Italy gave them. Valentino Zucchetti, recently promoted to First Soloist at the Royal Ballet, says of the La Scala Ballet School,
I really built the foundation of my technique there and that will always remain with me.
Carlo di Lanno, who is making that bold intercontinental leap, says,
I'm very sorry to leave the theatre where I grew up, and Maestro Vaziev, together with the staff of the company, who have supported me in a season full of important débuts… I don't deny that I owe much to this theatre and its personnel. However, I think that at my age it's right to travel and experiment as much as possible.
Mazzeo is especially grateful for his time in Rome,
I have been very fortunate both abroad and in Italy: at the Rome Opera Ballet with a company director like Carla Fracci and Beppe Menegatti I had the opportunity first and foremost to develop my mind and my ideas, and with a maître like Gillian Whittingham I received support every day and in every way imaginable… yes, I must say that I've been fortunate, or maybe it was I who searched out and found my own good fortune.
Here's hoping that the new expatriates Carlo di Lanno and Jacopo Tissi find their own good fortune too, as have the many dancers who have said arrivederci before them.
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.