Jacopo Bellussi and Alessandro Frola return to Italy to perform John Neumeier’s new work Peter and Igor in Stravinsky’s Love – a show commemorating the 50th anniversary of Stravinsky’s death.
Jacopo Bellussi and Alessandro Frola are dancers with John Neumeier’s Hamburg Ballet. For the company’s Nijinsky Gala on 27 June, they danced a new work by Neumeier entitled Peter and Igor celebrating the relationship between Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Igor Stravinsky. The work will now be performed for the show commemorating the 50th anniversary of Stravinsky’s death presented by Daniele Cipriani, Stravinsky’s Love. I talked to Bellussi and Frola about the piece.
“Tchaikovsky was a huge inspiration to Stravinsky throughout his whole career, and Peter and Igor pays tribute to them both,” says Jacopo Bellussi. “It is an abstract piece which, although doesn’t have a proper story, is full of emotion and nuances. John described it to us as almost a dialogue between two brothers who although are very different from one another, and can sometimes not understand each other fully, respect each other.”
Neumeier uses the music of the Divertimento from Le Baiser de la fée (The Fairy’s Kiss) which Stravinsky wrote as an homage to Tchaikovsky on the 35th anniversary of his death, and the one-act ballet uses melodies from piano pieces and songs by Tchaikovsky. It was commissioned by Ida Rubinstein and Bronislava Nijinska’s choreography to the score was first seen in Paris in 1928. However, Tchaikovsky died when Stravinsky was 11 years old, so Neumeier’s pas de deux is a metaphor for the two composers’ artistic connection.
“With this choreography, we show their love for each other, the differences of the two styles of the music they composed, two opposite personalities and the anger that, of course, has to exist in a relationship,” suggests Alessandro Frola. “We show the love with a kiss that we pass to the other with a delicate hand, with a huge hug, and with a look. Everything stops in the middle of the pas de deux – the music as well – and it’s in that moment that we have the chance to look into each other’s eyes without moving, just us face to face with deep breathing and eyes full of emotion. I think this is my favourite moment of the whole pas de deux.
“My opinion is that ballet isn’t just a sequence of steps: dancers also dance with their eyes so even if two dancers just stand in the middle of the stage looking at each other, the public should be able to feel the energy they have in that precious moment.”
You mentioned that there is also anger.
“Yes, we show the anger by punching each other’s shoulder and dancing a sequence of harder steps. You can see the differences between the two personalities and how they express their love for each other in the two solos. One is really delicate and romantic while the other is funnier and crazier.”
Jacopo, the duet is 16 minutes long, but I’ve heard that it is particularly challenging.
“It is an extremely demanding piece resistance-wise as we literally never stop moving. It also requires a total commitment mentally to express all these emotions. By the end of it you feel completely empty and worn out, but it’s also an extremely rewarding piece to do.”
“I find the whole work a bit hard for the stamina. It’s a long pas de deux with a lot of different steps. By the coda I’m really tired so I let my emotions dance for me.”
The ever-shrinking Italian ballet world obliges more and more of its dancers to go abroad to find work. Jacopo, you were born in Genoa, studied at La Scala’s school in Milan and then with the Royal Ballet School; you first worked at the Bavarian State Ballet in Munich, and you’ve been in Hamburg for nearly ten years, becoming a principal dancer in 2019… have you got used to being a nomad?
“I think being an Italian dancer working abroad isn’t always the easiest thing, especially as most Italians tend to be quite close to their families so being away from your home country for your whole career can be hard at times; at least it is for me. I’ve often considered coming back to Italy to be closer to all my relatives.
“Working for someone like John definitely makes up for these kinds of sacrifices. John is simply unique when it comes to creating and portraying stories that focus on human emotions and relationships. He uses ballet technique and its vocabulary only as a vessel to express feelings and thoughts on a much deep level than most, which is what makes his work so profound, unique, and interesting for both the audience and the dancers that are lucky enough to be in the studio with him. Working in such a creative way and having the chance to not only prepare repertoire pieces but also to take part in new creations almost every season keeps us always on our toes and motivated from a physical as well as a mental point of view. It makes the Hamburg Ballet an ideal place for an artist to grow under every aspect.”
Twenty-year-old Alessandra Frola finished his dance studies at the Hamburg Ballet School, starting in 2017, joining the company in 2019.
The Hamburg Ballet is full of beautiful people, each one of us has their own personality and their own style of dancing that I think makes the Hamburg Ballet a fantastic company. It’s really strong as a group but there’s a lot of diversity. One of my ways to study is by watching my colleagues and then to take a bit of them and make it mine. I feel like I’ll never stop learning new things with them.
Of course, you’d only just started with the company when the pandemic started.
“I spent two months of quarantine in Hamburg and, since I was living alone, a friend of mine, Alice, and I decided to stay together in my place. We had classes at home with our ballet master via Zoom and we were lucky that Hamburg Ballet gave us a ballet floor. Even though we were together, the desire to come back to the studio with a pianist playing live music and being with my colleagues dancing was got stronger and stronger. Despite that, we spent really nice moments together cooking a lot of good food, watching movies, reading books, singing…”
And for you Jacopo, how has this last year or so been?
“I was lucky enough to spend the first lockdown in 2020 at home in Italy as when the whole pandemic started, we were in the middle of our midseason break so I couldn’t fly back to Hamburg.
“It was a wonderful time because although it was hard to be away from the normal company routine, and with the very strict rules in Italy, my ballet teacher from when I was little gave me private classes every day as well as individual Pilates classes which kept my mood high and my technique strong so I could focus on getting stronger and better in my dancing instead of focusing on the terrible and devastating situation that was happening in the world.
“I was also able to spend my first birthday at home in 14 years which was a great gift for me as during a normal season I only get to be home once a year and it’s always in the summer. It really was a time of great growth for me.”
Daniele Cipriani Entertainment in collaboration with Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa will take Stravinsky’s Love to the Nervi Music Ballet Festival on 8 July, the Ravenna Festival on 10 July, with a preview performance on 6 July at the Parco della Musica in Rome to open the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia’s summer season. Jacopo Bellussi and Alessandra Frola will be coming home.
“It’s so wonderful for me to come back to Italy this summer and to perform in so many beautiful Italian cities,” says Jacopo. “The very last performance I did in Italy was in Venice at Teatro La Fenice in February 2020 where we performed the ballet Duse [played by Alessandra Ferri] by John – it was the last show before lockdown.”
Alessandro says, “My last performance in Italy was in December 2020, [the director] Massimo Romeo Piparo invited me to dance with Ricominciamo da Rai3 in the beautiful Teatro Sistina in Rome.”
This was a television series produced during the period when theatres were closed to give performers and theatre audiences the chance to come together. Billy Elliot the Musical opened in that same theatre in 2015 when 14-year-old Alessandro Frola became Italy’s first Billy. In the TV programme he danced the Swan Lake solo for the adult Billy. “It was touching and such a pleasure to be back in that theatre. I’m have so many beautiful memories of all the people that worked with me. Whenever I step in a theatre the smell and the warmth of the people touch me every time.”
So now things are returning toward normality, and you’ve both had the bonus of creating a new Neumeier work too.
“I fell so honoured to work with such a genius as John Neumeier,” says Alessandro. “His ideas will never cease to surprise me. It’s just unbelievable how he sees all the scenes in his head and how good he is at explaining what he wants. He makes everything easier and more interesting by letting you enter in his ideas, and once you see what he sees it becomes magical.”
“With his vision,” observes Jacopo, “he can guide you to understand exactly what he’s asking from you and to draw those feelings out from your personality… it’s really special!”
Alessandro says, “I like when during the creation rehearsals happen that you forget some steps, or you enter in the wrong music, and John actually likes it. The ‘mistake’ you made finishes in the final choreography. It makes it more ‘yours’ and it’s always funny and interesting how it perfectly fits in the piece.”
“John has a total commitment and belief in what he does,” adds Jacopo. “He is an incredibly demanding choreographer who always asks for one hundred percent from each and every one of us, but first of all from himself. His ballets feel much more than simple ballet performances: he has the gift to be able to take both the dancers as well as the audience on a journey. You almost forget you are watching a performance or playing a role and you feel transported to a completely different reality where you become the character you are portraying, or you become part of the story you are watching. It’s a gift that very few choreographers have.”
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.