First of all, this article is about getting more people to sign a petition to raise awareness among Italy’s political class about the damage they are doing in allowing so many ballet companies to close. If you’d like to sign – whether you live in Italy, visit Italy, or care about culture – you can do so here… if you’d like to be convinced to do so, then read on!
Dance in Italy has had a hard time of late. Companies are being downsized or closed. The ever-shrinking company in Verona, which a decade or so ago was capable of staging the classical repertory, was closed last month; the company in Florence (MaggioDanza) was forced to close in 2015; Turin, Venice, Bologna, Trieste, Genoa, Catania, and so on, have all lost their ballet companies, while the opera companies stay on. There were thirteen such companies… now there are four.
The Ballet Company of the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples survives with 30 or so permanent dancers, and the Teatro Massimo in Palermo doesn’t even have 20 dancers on a full contract, though a further fifteen are engaged for the season. This effectively leaves only Rome and Milan with companies big enough to stage Giselles and Bayadères.
Yet this is the country that gave the world ballet – even the name was taken by the French from the Italian word ‘balletto’. This new form of dancing arrived in France when the Florentine Caterina de’ Medici became the French queen.
Italy has also given the world some of the most inspiring ballerinas: Carlotta Brianza was Marius Petipa’s choice to create Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty (and the Italian virtuoso dancer and teacher, Enrico Cecchetti, stunned audiences with his Bluebird); Giuseppina Bozzacchi was the original Coppélia; Pierina Legnani, the first dancer to give the world 32 fouettés, was the lead in Petipa’s Cinderella, Raymonda, Carmargo, and the 1895 St Petersburg Swan Lake; Carlotta Grisi was the first Giselle, and she was also one of Jules Perrot’s three Italian dancers in his Pas de Quatre, the other two being the half-Italian Maria Taglioni (daughter of Filippo, the dancer and choreographer) and Fanny Cerrito (who also choreographed several ballets with Perrot); and Virginia Zucchi was the dancer for whom Petipa created La Esmeralda pas de six.
In an age where the most famous dancers were women, the Italian men became some of the world’s finest teachers: Taglioni taught his legendary daughter and was also the original choreographer of La Sylphide; Filippo Beccari was the founder of the Moscow Ballet School; Cecchetti’s Method – still used today – formed Imperial Ballet stars, such as Anna Pavlova, Léonide Massine, and Vaslav Nijinsky; and Carlo Blasis (who trained Carlotta Brianza and Fanny Cerrito) taught all Cecchetti’s teachers.
Apart from the many famous Italian ballet names of the latter part of the 20th Century, today there are hundreds of Italian dancers scattered all over the world – corps, soloists, principals. Dance, which like music is embedded in the Italian DNA, continues to be something Italians excel at even if, in their homeland, they are offered fewer and fewer opportunities.
Luciano Cannito, the choreographer and director, and former head of the companies in Palermo and Naples, has become the spokesman for the Italian dance community and a Change.org petition is underway. The motives for signing the petition our outlined in an open letter to the Italian President, Sergio Mattarella.
Provocatively, Cannito states,
We are scandalised by the destruction of Palmira, so maybe we should also be scandalised by the destruction of dance in Italy. In Palmira, they destroyed theatres of stone, here they are destroying artists who create live theatre.
A conservative estimate says that 1.4m young people do some sort of dance training. To put that in perspective, 1m have signed up for football. Cannito asks why their dreams to dance on stage are not given the same consideration as those who study music and singing. Ballet companies and opera companies come under the same umbrella organisation, the ‘Ente’; they share the same theatre, and sometimes collaborate on the same productions. The ballet companies have been closed, but the opera companies – orchestra and chorus – have been left untouched, though certainly many have experienced some high-wire financial escapades.
Why eliminate the ballet? Who has decided this? When, where and with what authority?
Closing these companies means taking away the motivation and smothering the passion of so many young people.
He claims that the cost of having ten ballet companies with 50 dancers in each, would be €20m, that’s including the director, assistants, teachers and so on. Half of that would then return to the State in taxes.
I suggested to him that €10m was an important sum when Italy’s finances are not exactly buoyant.
But you are also stimulating the costumiers, set builders, dancewear companies, pianists, choreographers, which all encourages growth and new jobs.
Though this would have to be paid for by the ballet company, commissioning a new work or mounting a new title in the repertory?
An American study pointed out that even the petrol that people buy to get them to the theatre for a performance is all helping the economy. The joint study by 50 American universities, one in each state, viewed the situation over a period of ten years to gauge how much was brought in by cultural activities. They found that for every dollar spent, nine dollars come back through restaurants, hotels, travel, and so on.
Apart from the cost of a company, there is also the social cost of taking away the motivation of more than a million kids because there’ll be nowhere for them to dance if they complete their studies. For €10m, it’s ridiculous. This art is of both the body and spirit which helps children to grow up healthy, lively and confident.
If there are ten ballet companies, would there be an audience?
Yes, because the theatres that don’t have their own company, hire in companies from abroad. The public exists for dance. Imagine what the reaction would be if the opera companies were to close and visiting companies from Russia or Poland where brought in? Yet the logic is the same: it would cost less on paper, but what would the real price be.
In Cannito’s petition, he also points out that the Germans – “excellent in planning and budgeting” – have more than 50 opera theatres with chorus, orchestra and dancers.
They have obviously understood that to have many centres to propel cultural and creative initiatives spread throughout the country, even if there is a constant need to give them public grants, it enriches those areas with positive consequences: economic, cultural and social.
I asked him why he’d decided to head the campaign and push for change.
I feel humiliated by my choice of life and work. I don’t want to accept this situation anymore because there is obviously some political design behind it.
You, Gramilano, are lucky, living in Milan, where you can go to La Scala. But what about those in Turin where they have taken away the ballet company? The young kids go and see a visiting company, which is great, but they only see foreign dancers and don’t realise that once it was possible to see the company of their own city, in whose productions they might eventually participate in. They are kids, passionate about dance, happy to see the Bolshoi or some visiting company, and they don’t imagine that they, too, could be up there dancing, so they don’t rebel that some politicians have taken away that possibility.
This isn’t a country for young people. That’s why I wanted to do something. I feel at this time in my life that I must use my experience; I must share the knowledge I have accumulated.
A 1967 law states that there will be “a fund to be disbursed in grants for performances of opera, concerts, choral music and ballet.” Many are asking why ballet is being obliterated from that list.
Cuts continue, and in the meantime, the young dancers who continued with their studies, sometimes going abroad to do so, are now working in the world’s major companies, in London, Paris, San Francisco, Vienna, Amsterdam and Boston.