Alberto Testa was a walking encyclopedia of dance, always elegantly dressed with never a hair out of place, and was very much of another time recalling Frederick Ashton with his old-school ways. Although he could be childlike and impish in his humour, he commanded great deference from those who collaborated with him and those who could call him their friend.
Just as the young Ashton was drawn to dance after having seen Anna Pavlova dancing in Peru, so it was with Testa when Pavlova visited his home town, Turin, during her only Italian tour in 1928 – he was 5 years old.
Such long lives touch on great figures who are virtually fictional characters to younger generations. He studied dance with Grazioso Cecchetti, son of Enrico Cecchetti. Léonide Massine created a role on him in his ballet Laudes Evangelii. In his biography My Life in Ballet, Massine wrote,
When the time came to choose my cast I realised how difficult it was going to be to find dancers with the right combination of physical and spiritual qualities for the leading characters… I then discovered… a strange-looking lad called Alberto Testa who fitted my mental picture of Judas.
Though the directly worded phrase probably surprised Testa when Massine’s book came out in 1968, it was a compliment, as indeed was being chosen for the role, and in 1961 the ballet was filmed for television.
Testa founded the Positano Dance Prize in 1969, and when Massine died in 1979, Testa named the main prize after him. Every September on the stage on the beach at Positano on the Amalfi Coast, with the Li Galli islands in the distance – first owned by Massine, then Nureyev – the Prize saw many important names of dance pass across the sands: Fonteyn, Nureyev, Béjart, Vasiliev, Maximova, Makarova, Fracci, Savignano, Ferri, Legris, Bolle, Alonso, Lopatkina, Osipova, Grigorovich, Ek, and this year Svetlana Zakharova.
Although Testa choreographed works from the mid-sixties until the mid-nineties, including several ballets for operas, it was his work in cinema, especially with Franco Zeffirelli, that will be remembered. He created dances for Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1967), Jesus of Nazareth (1976), La traviata (1982), Otello (1986), and Young Toscanini (1988). Most famously, however, he taught Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale how to dance in Luchino Visconti’s Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), to the then-unknown waltz by Giuseppe Verdi. He was a regular guest for Christmas and Easter at the home of his dear friend Simonetta Allder until he left Rome to return to Turin for the last years of his life. After lunch the waltz from Gattopardo would always be put on, and they would dance around the room.
In 1963 he began teaching at Rome’s National Academy of Dance, a post he held for thirty years. He was also the dance critic for la Repubblica newspaper from the mid-seventies when the publication was founded, as well as contributing for many of Italy’s dance magazines, as well as writing books.
Carla Fracci, and her husband Beppe Menegatti, who had known Alberto Testa well over many years, spoke for many, saying,
Dearest Alberto, we will miss you so much, and we will never, ever forget you.
With much love, Carla and Beppe
Turin, 23 December 1922 – Turin, 4 October 2019
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.