The Contemporary Evening was a triumph, with seven works: a contemporary ‘classic', some lesser-known pieces, and a new creation.
La Scala is finding it difficult to attract audiences back to the theatre – a mix of health safety fears, the idea of spending a balmy July evening inside, and breaking the habit of getting a cultural fix on television, are probably all contributing factors. Although the opera house has very sensibly reviewed its pricing structure, a top ticket at 127 euros for a contemporary programme of largely unknown works, without orchestra, is going to discourage even La Scala's balletomanes. The Milanese tend to be conservative in their tastes, preferring full-length classical ballets, and even mixed bills of George Balanchine and Jiří Kylián can be hard to sell. This is a pity because the Contemporary Evening was very good indeed. It was made up of seven pieces with a contemporary ‘classic', some lesser-known works, and a new creation.
Philippe Kratz's SENTieriwas created in 2014 for the Aterballetto company, and the work's concluding trio was performed in La Scala's Great Moments of Dance programme which was transmitted in February of this year. Now, it has returned to be danced in front of a live audience, with the same cast: Alessandra Vassallo, Christian Fagetti, and Andrea Risso. Kratz has chosen Chopin's Berceuse Op. 57 to place his highly complex movements on, with lots of precise play with hands and feet. All three dancers are particularly gifted in dancing contemporary styles, throwing off the constraints of their classical ballet discipline with ease, and in this piece they interweave their bodies continuously, creating exciting waves of energy. It bodes well for Solitude Sometimes, Kratz's new creation for La Scala next season.
The second piece, Árbakkinn, was danced quite beautifully and poetically by Antonella Albano and Massimo Garon. Simone Valastro created this pas de deux in 2019 on the composition of the same name by Ólafur Arnalds whose music is a mesmerising wash of minimalist atmosphere with a piano ostinato and strings – imagine Philip Glass meets Max Richter. Although Valastro is Milanese by birth, he has spent his dancing career with the Paris Opera Ballet and created this duet for company dancers Laetitia Pujol and Alessio Carbone. His classically based movements are presented with seeming spontaneity and naturalness which makes it most touching and human.
British choreographer David Dawson was also making his debut at La Scala, though the restaging of his 2007 piece, A Sweet Spell of Oblivion, was left in the capable of hands of his frequent collaborator, Christiane Marchant. Dawson's vocabulary is challenging for the dancers because while it demands a classical technique – she's on pointe – it requires them to go beyond the normal limits for what, in a classical ballet, would represent good taste. He uses the body at differing heights from the stage with deep pliés and high reaches, there is much sensuous play with the legs and feet, and the sophisticated fluidity ‘between' movements is impeccably crafted and controlled. Again, Virna Toppi and Gabriele Corrado are two members of the company who manage the transition to a more modern palette of movement with success, and the result was captivating.
More magic came with Patrick de Bana's The Labyrinth of Solitude, created ten years ago for Ivan Vasiliev and now interpreted beautifully by Mattia Semperboni. Obviously, having Vasiliev in front of him, de Bana was compelled to include virtuoso jumps and turns and, although a very different dancer physically, Semperboni has many of these strong qualities, along with a sensibility which connects him with the style of Vaslav Nijinsky, which was one of de Bana's inspirations for the piece. There are many lyrical, tender moments with positions recalling Le Spectre de la rose or Petrushka, though as Tomaso Antonio Vitali's glorious Chaconne in G minor grows more agitated the dancer breaks out into a manège of grand jetés before collapsing on the stage as the music climaxes and plays out, recalling the mood of Le jeune homme et la mort. Exquisite.
One of La Scala's finest dancers since he entered the company from its school, is Mick Zeni, who will be retiring in January 2022. He has consistently given fine performances, both with the quality of his dancing and the sincerity of his interpretations. Natalia Horecna has given him the main role, together with a group of sixteen dancers, in her new work, Birds Walking on Water. The concept of putting the miracle of walking on water together with that of the freedom of birds to fly, came after lockdown when our wings were clipped. Horecna's idea is that with inner strength we can fly again, no matter the difficulties we must overcome. Zeni leads his flock to freedom. Horecna has a very free style, and there's almost a stream of consciousness to the piece's flow, with a sense of random grouping and position. The dancers rarely move in a strictly synchronised way, meaning that when they do come together the effect is powerful.
Krzysztof Pastor's Tristan and Isolde – pas de deux, the concluding section of his ballet Tristan created for the Royal Swedish Ballet in 2006, is a pleasing piece of choreography which isn't shocking, surprising, or revelatory, but does what it wants to do very satisfactorily. Using the closing Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde could be thought of as an easy way to win over an audience, but choreographically maybe it's harder to bring the movement to the fore when our ears are revelling in the sound. Nicoletta Manni and Timofej Andrijashenko danced with their customary elegance and refinement, but maybe they lacked abandon – it should feel as though the couple are being swept away by the music.
The Ballet of La Scala was dancing William Forsythe's The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude for the first time, and what fun they had. The ballet was meticulously remounted by Stéphane Phavorin, and the cast of five thrillingly ticked their way through classical ballet's exacting glossary of steps; it seemed effortless. Set to the last movement of Schubert's Symphony No. 9, Forsythe's work is a homage to Petipa, Balanchine and others that came before him. It was created in 1996 for the Frankfurt Ballet, though it's full of New York City Ballet speed and sparkle. Martina Arduino, Agnese Di Clemente, Gaia Andreanò, Marco Agostino, and Nicola Del Freo (finally promoted to principal dancer) all shone.
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.