The first live dance event in Italy took place at the Nervi International Festival of Ballet and Music, opening the two-week festival in Nervi's coastal park with a backdrop to the stage of palm trees and sea.
The idea for the evening of dance, called Duets and Solos, came from Daniele Cipriani, the Italian dance impresario, who, while watching couples sitting close together while eating in restaurants as Rome reopened after the lockdown, thought that the same would be possible for dancers – households can remain together. Silvia Azzoni and Alexander Ryabko from Hamburg Ballet, and Iana Salenko and Marian Walter from Berlin, are offstage couples and were therefore allowed to dance together. Salenko and Walter had their two children with them so, in theory, a pas de quatre would have been permitted. They were joined by Hugo Marchand from the Paris Opéra Ballet, Matteo Miccini from Stuttgart, and the Spanish dancer Sergio Bernal.
Music was provided by the brilliant 26-year-old Italian pianist Beatrice Rana – “Her playing was refined and soft-spoken in its brilliance throughout. She had the audience rapt,” said The New York Times reviewing a performance – and respected cellist, Mario Brunello, whose international career was launched after he won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1986.
They played for an audience of 1,000, which is the maximum capacity for open-air events in Italy at this time (600 indoors), and the seats were spaced out to leave an empty metre around each spectator. Everyone had their temperature taken before entering and consigned a form with their name and telephone number for eventual contact tracing. Masks were worn, at least until seated, and the programme was without an interval to avoid a chit-chat crush in the aisles.
Marchand and Bernal were dancing for the first time in front of an audience since the beginning of March. I imagine that it was the same for the other dancers, finally performing again after the enforced four-month pause. There was a tingle of tension in the air, both from the performers and the audience.
It was refreshing to see a gala without Tchaikovsky and Minkus! With a cello and piano, an obvious choice of music was Saint-Saëns' for The Dying Swan. Two versions became the bookends of the evening: Iana Salenko's willowy limbs were bewitchingly beautiful in Fokine's well-known choreography, while Ricardo Cue's version, called The Swan, saw a pliable but muscular Sergio Bernal as the suffering creature – the piece has rightly become his signature work.
Marchand jumped in at the deep end after his lockdown break with the stamina-testing A Suite of Dances, a work created by Jerome Robbins for Mikhail Baryshnikov to four movements from Bach's Six suites for unaccompanied cello. It contains everything imaginable that a choreographer would want to include if he had Baryshnikov in front of him in the rehearsal studio, and Marchand executed each passage with nonchalance. He didn't even appear to be out of breath as he sat impishly watching the cello during the final bars.
Young Italian dancer Matteo Miccini danced Edward Clug's Ssss, set to a Chopin nocturne. The Romanian choreographer created it for Stuttgart (Miccini's company) in 2012. Miccini is an impressive spinner and jumper, but here did neither of those things in this contemporary dance work. Ssss demands rapid and complex arm and leg movements contrasted with absolute stillness, moments upright mixed with floorwork sequences, soft port de bras alongside fast jabbing gestures. Miccini did it all beautifully, and it was perfect for a balmy Ligurian evening as was John Neumeier's Nocturnes to another Chopin, ahem, nocturne. Azzoni and Ryabko were enchanting and embraced its Chekhovian mood. She is dreamy and yearning while he's lost in a book, before they come together with all the push and pull of disorientating desire. They are both accomplished actors, and this scene was a mini-play for them to act out, with its beginning, middle and end – a little jewel.
Of course, two people can dance together while still respecting social distancing which is what Bernal and Miccini did in Folia de Caballeros, a piece choreographed by Bernal and Joaquin De Luz. It's a sort of ‘anything you can do I can do better' piece – if one jumps the other jumps, if one pirouettes the other won't be far behind. It uses the antique Folia Española (Follies of Spain) melody, and is a delightful five minutes of bravado. The piece was slightly adapted to avoid the few moments of physical contact in the original. Bernal also created a thrilling Zapateado for the occasion to Gaspar Cassadó's Suite for Cello Solo.
Uwe Scholz, who died when he was just 45, became director of the Zürich Ballet when he was 26. In 1987 he created Sonata for the company using Rachmaninov's Sonata in G minor for Cello and Piano. It gave Azzoni and Ryabko another opportunity for a dreamy pas de deux, though Sonata requires concealed strength as it is sustained throughout with each lift in slow-motion as though underwater, and the dancers are almost continually in perpetual motion.
Another perfect choice for a summer evening was Roland Petit's Méditation from Thaïs, performed by Salenko and Walter. They dance it with great intimacy and perfectly coordinated lines which are rarely seen, but often longed for. She was like a wisp of sea mist floating above the stage, and the effect was quite magical.
Apart from the cleverly chosen dance pieces were the apt musical interludes as both had ballet connections. Rana played Ravel's La valse – used by both Ashton and Balanchine – with breathtaking power, and Rodion Ščedrin – Maya Plisetskaya's husband – threw down the gauntlet to Brunello with the fiendishly tricky Quadrille from his opera Not Love Alone.
This was a delightful programme of dance that not only matched the mood of the evening but also gave a big thumbs-up to music and dance made in the now. Videos offered online by arts organisations throughout the world have been a blessing during the last few months, but as Duets and Solos eloquently showed: nothing can substitute live theatre.
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.