An odd evening at La Scala saw Balanchine's pure, sparkling choreography for Symphony in C sandwiched between two new contemporary creations on music which has already had phenomenally successful choreographies set to it: Ravel's La Valse (Nijinska, Lifar, Balanchine, Ashton) and Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade (Fokine).
This new La Valse was choreographed by Stefania Ballone and Marco Messina, who are in La Scala's corps de ballet, and Matteo Gavazzi from the Mario Bigonzetti stable (who was director of the company when he put forward this programme). Three choreographers? Bizarre, as La Valse is a single work of 12 or so minutes, not a symphony with distinct movements. Therefore, it is impossible to know who to blame for this ineffective and slightly irritating creation which was, thankfully, saved by the orchestra playing gloriously under the baton of Paavo Järvi.
Ravel's large swathes of sound are decadent not perverse, yet most of the choreography was dark and unnerving. Certainly, dark currents lie beneath La Valse, which is why Stephen Sondheim stole from it ingeniously for his musical A Little Night Music, where the waltz underpins the extravagant lifestyle and sexual intrigues of the characters. In this new choreography, the grand sweeps of the orchestra were not echoed in movement, rather there were many small, urgent gestures which could have been set to some other music altogether. The poor cast were humiliated with unflattering costumes, wearing headdresses that lay somewhere between a bathing cap and a crash helmet… Irene Monti's costume designs looked so good on paper.
One of those pretentious programme notes, that contemporary dance seems to excel in, states,
The music materializes through bodies that move and take on shapes of various emotive tensions and dynamics, either alone, in pairs or as a group.
A pointless phrase that could be applied to most dance pieces ever created.
Mariafrancesca Garritano and Christian Fagetti gamely – and bravely – gave it everything they had, with psychological support from Giulia Schembri and Gioacchino Starace! [Note to management: Fagetti dances consistently well in the many roles he is assigned… shouldn't he be a soloist by now?]
Eugenio Scigliano's Scheherazade, was something else altogether. He has a choreographic voice, even if he got unstuck during the long pas de deux – the piece ran out of steam and each time it appeared to get going again it would newly grind to a halt. However, the opening and ending were interesting choreographically, with sleek sets and dramatic lighting from Carlo Cerri. Kristopher Millar and Lois Swandale's costumes were simple and effective.
Alessandra Vassallo was impressive and expressive in the very long and physically demanding role of Zobeide, and Nicola Del Freo was a strong presence as the Golden Slave. The love making between the two – so shockingly evident in Fokine's version from over a century ago – was tame here, yet Zobeide's violent treatment at the hands of the Sultan and his brother (Fagetti as the Sultan, Shahryar, with Walter Madau as his brother; both bad-temperedly macho) was quite extreme and drawn out. That's the 21st century for you.
The four couples leading each movement of Symphony in C were Nicoletta Manni and Nicola Del Freo, Maria Celeste Losa and Marco Agostino, Antonella Albano and Antonino Sutera, and Martina Arduino and Massimo Garon. Not every dancer can be a Balanchine dancer, and not everyone in this cast had the physique du role or right style for this piece, but as the filling in this triple-bill sandwich, it was certainly the richest and most satisfying part of what was on offer… if I were returning I would be tempted to lick out the filling and throw away the bread. Manni was sure and noble, Losa had some difficulty but is a delightful dancer to watch, Albano has a face that bristles with pleasure, and Arduino was secure and luminous. Their four partners were mostly clean and precise, as was the corps, especially in the heady, final frenetic moments.
Thank goodness for Balanchine.
All photos by Marco Brescia and Rudy Amisano – Teatro alla Scala (if not otherwise credited).
Symphony in C, Choreography by George Balanchine © School of American Ballet
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.