Wednesday 9 June was something of a celebration at La Scala with its ballet company returning to perform before a live audience. The current regulations only allow for 500 spectators but being that the orchestra was spread out on a platform covering the stalls, and the first tier of boxes was not useable because the view of the stage was blocked by the musicians, the theatre didn't seem empty. Certainly, the enthusiastic applause by those who were present made up for the missing 1,500 pairs of hands.
Company director Manuel Legris put together a programme of four choreographers with no interval and curtain up an hour earlier than the normal 8pm, so the audience left the theatre in daylight… enthusiastic and delighted.
Manuel Legris' own piece, Verdi Suite, which was conceived for the starry “…a riveder le stelle” event on 7 December last – the traditional date to open the opera and ballet season in Milan – was first on the programme. Legris used selections from the dances Giuseppe Verdi wrote for his operas I vespri siciliani, Jérusalem and the French version of Il trovatore. To this, he has now added excerpts from Ballo della Regina (La Peregrina) from Don Carlos and dedicated the work to Carla Fracci. Fracci played Giuseppina Strepponi (the opera singer who became Verdi's second wife) in the 1982 television miniseries with Ronald Pickup, and danced with Patrick Dupond in I vespri siciliani in Pier Luigi Pizzi's celebrated opening season production in 1989.
Legris has created a piece full of joy, an explosion of dancing bravura which lets his dancers show off what they do best: turners turn, jumpers jump, and everyone seemed to be having a jolly good time. Although Legris doesn't have a distinctive choreographic voice, he puts the steps together in a satisfying way to create a showcase of company talent. Martina Arduino stood out with her nonchalantly executed triple pirouette and general aplomb, as well as Nicola De Freo with his pyrotechnical displays of pure ballet technique. Everyone shone, which is the advantage of having a choreographer who is there to make changes if a sequence isn't working: Virna Toppi, Marco Agostino, Mattia Semperboni, Maria Celeste Losa, and Gabriele Corrado are all first-rate dancers.
Also, hats off to Legris for using Luisa Spinatelli's costumes from A Midsummer Night's Dream and her pre-existing backdrop to not dig further into the coffers of a theatre struggling to balance its books; a worldwide phenomenon.
An abrupt change of atmosphere came with András Lukács' piece Movements to Stravinsky, a work he created for the Vienna State Ballet when he was still dancing with the company in 2017. He also designed its black and white costumes that contrasted starkly with Spinatelli's pastel palette. Legris wanted to pay tribute to Igor Stravinsky on the 50th anniversary of his death, and in this work there is music from the Pulcinella Suite, Les Cinq Doigts, Apollon Musagète, and Suite Italienne – ballet and orchestral pieces. The atmosphere is broody and controlled with black ruffs giving an austere air while the main duet used a large white ruff as a tutu which lit up the stage. The twelve dancers often cross the stage slowly in a line, leaving dancers behind to dance a solo or a duet as the line moves on, or reabsorbing them back into the group. Simple but effective. Lukács is a thoughtful choreographer, and this ensemble piece shows sensitivity and elegance. Nicoletta Manni and Timofej Andrijashenko performed the sustained main duet.
Jiří Bubeníček's Canon in D Major is from his work Le souffle de l'esprit. Unfortunately, the segment finished before it had time to make its impact at just seven or eight minutes long. It is the last section of a work he created to celebrate the life of his grandmother, the woman who largely brought him up as his acrobat parents were often on tour. He created it as a way of grieving for her, and her death is ‘celebrated' to the music of Johann Pachelbel's canon. He uses three of the company's finest dancers – Nicola Del Freo, Gioacchino Starace, Mattia Semperboni – who show off the plasticity of their bodies in a choreography that is in continual flux, rising high with jetés and sinking down to stage level rolls, with exhilarating skids across the stage. It's as though he wanted to put all the body's repertoire of movement in these few minutes – the movements of a lifetime.
Alexei Ratmansky's Concerto DSCH, is a crowd-pleaser as well as being a slyly clever piece of choreography. He created it in 2008 for the New York City Ballet, and it shows, for some passages are at dazzling speed – it was difficult not to picture NYCB's Ashley Bouder spinning around the stage, though Alessandra Vassallo did the best she could with such a fiendishly difficult part. DSCH is how Dmitri Shostakovich abbreviated his name and it corresponds to four musical notes, which was a musical motif he used to represent himself; Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 2 inspired Ratmansky for this work. It is a composition full of happiness and hope motivated by the end of the Stalin era, something that Ratmansky thinks is especially suitable for this time as Europe starts to emerge from lockdown and looks to the future with optimism.
The choreography conjures up images of Russian villagers, community, everyday life. It's plotless, but full of stories. Vassallo teases Valerio Lunadei and Domenico Di Cristo, two lads who clown around; some of the dancers just sit around, watching on; a favourite moment (pictured) is when a symmetrical pattern is sweetly upstaged by a little kiss – Ratmansky has no problems with putting humour into his work; he knows his worth. And it's something he does well: “dying is easy, comedy is hard”.
Here too, the main couple is Nicoletta Manni and Timofej Andrijashenko who dance the more lyrical sections quite beautifully, especially the dreamy second movement. However, it was the orgasmic exuberance of the closing bars that brought cheers from under the spectators' masks. The formal closing picture is cheekily completed by Vassallo's rejected suitor leaping onto the shoulder of the other. A delight.
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.