Legend goes that Bach wrote his Goldberg Variations for the Russian ambassador to the electoral court of Saxony, Count Kaiserling. The Count suffered from insomnia and had Johann Gottlieb Goldberg on hand to play for him during his sleepless nights. Bach wrote these pieces for the nocturnal recitals of the young Goldberg, a German virtuoso harpsichordist.
True or not, this music, used at La Scala during the performance of Heinz Spoerli’s ballet of the same name — Goldberg Variationen — seemed to have a soporific effect on several in the audience near where I was sitting. Maybe Bach’s variations actually did cure the Count’s insomnia and that’s why he was rewarded with “a golden goblet filled with 100 Louis-d’or”. There is, of course, no reason to sleep if you like baroque music and appreciate contemporary ballet, but for the casual punter who wandered in expecting to be blown away by 32 fouettés, a ballet based on an hour and a half of baroque keyboard music with no interval, no scenery, and only coloured leotards for costumes, must have been a trial.
The size of La Scala doesn’t help — it is not an intimate space, yet this is intimate music. Goldberg Variationen was created for the Ballett am Rhein at the Opernhaus Düsseldorf and has been performed many times by the company in Zurich (which Spoerli headed until 2012) but La Scala is as half as big again as those two houses. Not that it doesn’t work in this space, but it would be more magical in one of Italy’s many hundreds of smaller proscenium arch theatres.
For magic there is, conjured up by a mix of the music (played by Alexey Botvinov), some witty and some poetic choreography, and an excellent group of dancers.
Spoerli’s dances (he calls himself a dance maker, as opposed to choreographer) pass by pleasantly — amusing, beautiful, hypnotic, athletic — but they don’t grab you by the throat (though again, the theatre’s size did them no favours). The work is carefully lit, and the many changes of leotards provide ever-shifting colour combinations like a Pantone colour wheel. Spoerli has even adapted parts for the ballet’s new audience: a pas de trois now features a red, a white, and a green leotard, (the colours of the Italian flag), giving the variation a tomato, mozzarella and basil flavour.
The dancers excel. I have previously commented on the number of personalities there are among La Scala’s dancers, and for this work it is necessary. Goldberg Variationen isn’t a narrative ballet, but it contains many mini-stories; Spoerli gives the audience the dots and lets the spectators fill them in as they please. Are they lovers, friends, brothers? It doesn’t matter how you interpret it, but emotion comes from the interpersonal reactions on stage, not just from the physical shapes the dancers create. In his original programme note in 1993, Spoerli wrote,
For me, the Goldberg Variations are like the life that passes alongside us… As in life, new people come and then they go… I can perhaps attempt to narrate through the Variations how we pass each other by, and how we come together. A choreographic arc extending from the beginning to the end, from our beginning to our end.
Claudio Coviello stood out as the main dancer with his technical dexterity and purity, and his exquisite feet were often beautifully silhouetted against the backdrop. He was frequently joined by Antonino Sutera and Walter Madau who were both delightful. Nicoletta Manni is suited to this repertoire, looking stunning in a leotard, and Martina Arduino is fulfilling her early promise. Vittoria Valerio never lets the audience down and would be a necessary element in any company. Virna Toppi shone out both in her dancing and with her enchanting smile. Timofej Andrijashenko always guarantees class and he brought that to this work too. The other main parts should be named as they were all very fine indeed: Marco Agostino, Antonella Albano, Francesca Podini, Nicola Del Freo and Gioacchino Starace.
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.