An unusual mixed bill at La Scala showcased the works of two choreographers: Hans van Manen and Roland Petit. Two of the van Manen pieces were new to the company, though his Adagio Hammerklavier, which opened the programme, was performed in Milan in 1985.
Adagio Hammerklavier was created in 1973 (the men wear leg-warmers and choker necklaces!) to the considered adagio of Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata. Though it is plotless, it suggests unexplained stories through glances and the manner of the dancers' exits and entrances. The three couples are as introspective as the music and they seem to be remembering the past, maybe something sad… something lost. Van Manen, searching for how slow a movement can be, delightfully describes the result as ‘a wheel that is still just moving after a push, just before it falls'.
Martina Arduino and Nicola Del Freo were especially captivating during the longest of the sustained and controlled duets, and the others in the first-night cast – Agnese di Clemente, Gioacchino Starace, Francesca Podini and Gabriele Corrado – were all first-rate, showing physical control while being totally immersed in the mood of the piece.
Roland Petit's Le combat des anges, taken from his full-length ballet Proust, ou les intermittences du cœur, certainly has a homoerotic element, but how much more interesting it is when the original context for this pas de deux for two men is not forgotten as they engage in a passionate yet destructive dance. The manipulative power of Morel (the black angel) was superbly conveyed by both Marco Agostino and Gabriele Corrado. He tries to corrupt Saint-Loup (the white angel) who is both captivated by him, mirroring his movements, and disturbed, turning his back and pulling away. Saint-Loup was touchingly played by Claudio Coviello and Domenico di Cristo. At one performance for young people, nervous giggles on the first touches between the two men soon gave way to silence as they were captivated by Petit's choreography and Gabriel Fauré's heart-wrenching Elegie for cello and piano. Both casts gave riveting performances.
Van Manen's Kammerballett was created for the Nederlands Dans Theater in 1995 and is set to the seemingly conflicting music of Kara Karayev, Domenico Scarlatti and John Cage, yet the score emerges seamlessly from the piano. There are four couples, with the men in leotards, the women in unitards, each pair with its colour – orange, bordeaux, yellow and black. The dancers enter with a stool and, as in Adagio Hammerklavier, van Manen evokes little stories and moods with the smallest of gestures and elegant simplicity, even by just moving a stool – maybe disdainfully, maybe humorously. There is great humanity in his work and great musicality too. Van Manen also makes way for virtuoso moments – Domenico di Cristo in yellow was impressive – and the whole piece is highly coordinated and demanding. Alessandra Vassallo was given the long, final solo as the others look on. Dressed in black, she was sultry, sexy and sad, playing with her moods as much as her movements.
The stocking-filler, van Manen's Sarcasmen, was delightful. Again it allowed the dancers to play off each other. Here a man is posturing (rather impressively, with a stamina-demanding section where he hops around the stage like a rabbit, and an idiosyncratic manège, among other wooing moves) in front of a very unimpressed woman. They tease each other and provoke each other – his disparaging finger pushing on her forehead, her hand grabbing his genitals. A wonderfully understated choreographic touch has him rotating her backwards and forwards on pointe, with her raised foot arrogantly flexed around her ankle. Nicoletta Manni was mischievously naughty, flashing her eyes or raising them to the sky, while Claudio Coviello accomplished the tricky steps with supercilious bravura. Another performance had the superb Martina Arduino and Gioacchino Starace as the sparring couple.
Petit's Le Jeune homme et la Mort closed the evening. This classic gem has been a favourite in Milan since the original young man, Jean Babilée, performed it in 1955. Luigi Bonino and Luciana Savignano danced it in the ‘80s, and more recently Mick Zeni and Ivan Vasiliev have hung from the noose. It has been popular with Roberto Bolle since 2006 when he danced it with Darcey Bussell, and again in the year of her retirement in 2007, as well as with Lucia Lacarra and Marta Romagna. Bolle, still looking like a ‘jeune homme' (Babilée danced it for the last time when he was 61) was muscley in his dungarees, accurate in his moves and he gave it all he has in passion. Another cast saw Coviello in the role and he was more agile in the garret and more complex emotionally. However, the most satisfying performance came from Nicola Del Freo who was not only physically ideal but emotionally raw with his eyes bursting out of their sockets as he stared death in the face; a man confused and desperate. It was a murkier and darker performance that that of his colleagues.
Marta Romagna played La Mort in Del Freo's performance. La Scala's principal dancer, now in her forties, has been seen most recently as the Lilac Fairy, which is a mimed role in Rudolf Nureyev's version, and Princess Bathilde in Giselle. Maybe this was her swan song, because she was more attuned to the needs of the role than the (very fine) Manni and Arduino, as her flirtiness was cruel, with sneering smiles stolen from Disney's Wicked Queen, and her quite beautiful legs and feet oozed seductiveness.
Le combat des anges – Claudio Coviello and Marco Agostino
Le combat des anges – Domenico Di Cristo and Gabriele Corrado
Le Jeune homme et la Mort – Roberto Bolle and Nicoletta Manni
Le Jeune homme et la Mort – Nicola Del Freo and Marta Romagna
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.