“That's brave!”, was my first thought on seeing the La Scala Ballet School's programme for its annual show: The Kingdom of the Shades act from La Bayadère together with In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. And in Milan's famous opera house too.
It was a brave choice, but not an ill-considered one. The girls of the school seem to be more prepared or gifted than the (numerous) boys, and La Bayadère gave them a chance to shine, which they did.
The 32 shades made their way down the ramp and then zigzagged across the stage with only minor tremors, though the fourth girl's tendency to raise her leg higher than everyone else was annoying. The girls formed lines that approached perfection even though there was an inevitable mixture of ages to arrive at the number of dancers required, and they made a precise and poised corps de ballet, something that most of them will join one day.
Solor was danced by Daniele Bonelli who is in his penultimate year at the school. He had something (which many of the boys on the stage lacked) which was correct work with his feet, so the energy during his jetés surged out from his toes. Although his landings in fifth were approximate, he's certainly a promising talent. Linda Giubelli, who graduates this summer, was secure and impressive as Nikiya. She whizzed around under the scarf as though it were child's play, when only a few months ago, with the visiting Bolshoi, Svetlana Zakharova come a cropper during the same passage.
The three soloists' variations were unhesitatingly danced by Giordana Granata, Federica Azzone and Matilde Colombo. To be picky, they lacked some grace which is easily forgiven considering Petipa's demands and the pressure the girls were under, performing on La Scala's daunting stage. Granata was especially confident technically, but maybe Colombo — who isn't yet in her final year — gave a more musical and expressive performance.
In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated is undoubtedly somewhat different, and Linda Giubelli, Daniele Bonelli and Federica Azzone all found themselves back onstage after the interval, wearing green leotards and dancing to Thom Willems' percussive score. They were joined by Carlotta Di Monte, Giorgia Pasini, Samuele Barzaghi and Sebastiano Marino from the school's final year, with Letizia Masini and Priscilla Volpe from the year below.
Interestingly, Bonelli was the leading man for both La Bayadère and In the Middle, therefore he's the strongest dancer the school has, I imagine, even though he's not one of the ten boys graduating this year. Giubelli and Di Monte were the two principal female dancers.
This is the first time that William Forsythe has given permission for his 1987 work to be performed by students. It was admirable how all of them went uninhibitedly against aspects of their training to execute some of Forsythe's steps, as well as understanding the concept of the insouciant shrugs and insolent walks offstage which characterise the piece, going against the smiles and sock-it-to-‘em attitude young dancers often need for competitions and auditions. Di Monte, Azzone and Bonelli were lithe and strong, and Giorgia Pasini and Samuele Barzaghi stood out in their duet.
In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated had shock value when it was first seen — the loud, amplified music, with Sylvie Guillem throwing her leg up way past the 180° mark before making a pouty exit — yet now it seems tame. An equivalent of seeing the first woman go up on pointe 200 years ago compared to Tamara Rojo's change-of-spot fouettés. To make In the Middle work, especially now, it isn't enough just to show off hyperextensions, but the dancers need to be communicative from the fingers right through to the tips of the toes. It was here that the young students sometimes didn't achieve the benchmark but it was a captivating performance overall.
The final piece was Présentation with choreography by La Scala's ballet director, Frédéric Olivieri, to Carl Czerny's études, chosen and orchestrated for Harald Lander's ballet. Like the Bolshoi's Class Concert, it begins with the first-year course, moving quickly through the ranks to give the older students an opportunity to demonstrate their strengths. As the piece concludes Olivieri has the stage suddenly awash with all 200-plus young dancers — it brings a tear to the eye every time.
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.