Excelsior has returned to the stage at La Scala and what better choice for the Milan Expo period than this joyous ballet, which fills the stage with more than a hundred dancers waving national flags from all corners of the globe.
It is a ‘concept’ ballet – light triumphs over darkness – and it features dancers representing Peace, Invention, Perseverance, Courage, Concord and so on. Luigi Manzotti created the ballet in Milan in 1881 putting hundreds of dancers on stage, together with elephants, trumpeters, children, the works, accompanied by Romualdo Marenco’s bombastic score. It was a time when the Italian population was euphoric as they’d only recently become, well… Italians. Italian Unification had occurred only a decade or so earlier and it was a time to celebrate. And what better way than with a big, brash ballet extravaganza! It shows man’s progress, through science, towards a better future: transportation, electricity, engineering. Excelsior was extraordinarily successful in Milan and went on to tour the major Italian cities, followed by trips to London, Vienna and St Petersburg. The French loved it so much that it ran for months in Paris.
If the ballet took itself seriously at the time, the restaging from 1967, based on the original stage and choreographic designs, nods at irony, revels in kitsch, and – apart from cultural snobs, shaking their heads in despair – lets the audience have a thoroughly good time.
Circus strongmen, decked in leopard skin print and sporting Edwardian moustaches, link muscular arms for some cute little dance moves; polystyrene rocks bounce around the stage as pickaxe-wielding dancers create the Mont Cenis tunnel between France and Italy; ballerinas dressed as Grenadier Guards – with black bearskin hats but white tulle tutus – trot around the stage waving Union Jacks; there are lampshade tutus covered in lights, steamboats and electric trains, bellhops carrying fluorescent telegrams… it is fantastically silly and delightfully satisfying!
The fun would soon wear off, however, if it weren’t for the fact that beneath the light-hearted exterior is some serious dancing. In 1967, Carla Fracci created the role of Civilisation for Ugo Dell’Ara’s restaging, and it shows. He gave her every trick in the book – gargouillades, 32 fouettés, manèges sequences, balloné en pointe – and light-hearted moments that she excelled in, such as when she interacts with the variations of the Englishman, Spaniard, Chinese man and Turk at the entrance to the Suez Canal. In the cast I saw, this role was played with aplomb by the new star of the company, Nicoletta Manni. She has a glacial calm even during the most difficult passages, an animated smile, assured technique and she finishes complex sequences seemingly without a drop of sweat or shortness of breath. Apart from a dress rehearsal, this was her first and only performance of the role.
Over the years, the Eisenstein-esque posturing from the force of darkness, Obscurantism, has become diluted, which is a pity. He’s a boo-hiss pantomime character at heart, not a well-rounded psychological portrait of evil. Still, Massimo Garon had fun with the role, which must hold the record for the most chainé turns in all ballet, and again, like most of the cast, he was approaching the role for the first time.
Timofej Andrijashenko, as the Slave, appears in gold lamé Rocky Horror pants until civilised (what’s more civilised than gold lamé, you ask). When he reappears, he’s in white tights and a red military jacket (now that’s civilised!). Andrijashenko has a noble bearing and this 20-year-old corps de ballet extra shows exceptional promise. He’s not the most convincing Slave – lacking bite à la Spartacus – and doesn’t yet have the experience to dose out his energy, but he’s a handsome presence on stage and technically, he ticks all the right boxes.
Virna Toppi as Light is another strong dancer and she possesses a gorgeous pair of legs, though as an actress she conveyed little of her character’s battle against the force of darkness. Other notable performances included Andreas Lochmann as the Chinese man, Mick Zeni as the Spaniard, a poised Paola Giovenzana as Glory, and Adeline Souletie – with a face that lights up the stage – who played the Landlord’s Wife. The corps de ballet is excellent and works hard, tackling some fast choreography. The girls, especially, have some tricky logistics as they interleave and rotate around each other with their helmets, feathers and flagpoles. This corps is now getting well into its stride and keeps getting better. It is wonderful to look at: precise and elegant.
Expo visitors who want to have a magnificent evening at La Scala have until 25 July.
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.