A programme of dance dedicated to Igor Stravinsky on the 50th anniversary of his death launched the dance season at this year's Nervi Music Ballet Festival.
The pieces on the programme for Stravinsky's Love were sensitively chosen by Gastón Fournier-Facio with Daniele Cipriani, and Vladimir Derevianko made a return to the stage as Stravinsky with a remarkably unstuffy yet informative text by Vittorio Sabadin (who in his day job is a prolific writer of books on the British royal family).
Derevianko proved himself to be a worthy actor with the Italian text (memorised) being enhanced by his impeccable Russian pronunciation – so much better than an actor with a fake accent. The great dancer was also able to interact with several pieces, including the charlatan in Petrushka. Here Derevianko was dressed as Stravinsky the conductor, in a tailcoat and waving a baton, making a subtle reference to the famous photo of Stravinsky together with Vaslav Nijinsky wearing his Petrushka costume.
The final section of The Firebird was danced to Stravinsky's own recording from 1967 (with Derevianko placing the needle onto a record on an onstage gramophone), but the rest of the music was live, and of top-notch quality, provided by the much sought-after pianist Beatrice Rana, her frequent collaborator and fine pianist Massimo Spada, and Simone Lamsma playing her 1718 ‘Mlynarski' Stradivarius. The transcriptions used were the originals from soon after the orchestral premieres, including Stravinsky's 1913 piano version of The Rite of Spring for four hands.
A stimulating programme put George Balanchine's Apollo and Michel Fokine's Petrushka alongside Marco Goecke's Firebird; Uwe Sholz's The Rite of Spring; an extract from Pulcinella created last year by its dancers, Sasha Riva and Simone Repele; a new piece by John Neumeier which had been premiered in Hamburg just the previous week with music from Le Baiser de la fée; and a world premiere from Sergio Bernal using music from The Soldier's Tale.
Riva and Repele are a team, often dancing together and often dancing their own choreography. Their dance work Pulcinella was created for Teatro Pergolesi in Jesi last year, and it was Giovanni Battista Pergolesi's music that inspired Stravinsky's score. Several works were created using the Pulcinella ballet music, including the 1933 Suite Italienne when Stravinsky made an arrangement for violin and piano together with American violinist Samuel Dushkin. Riva and Repele's Suite Italienne is a beautifully crafted gem The reconstruction of Pablo Picasso's original Pulcinella costume is deconstructed as we see it taken on and off, worn in parts, or left on the floor. There is perversity (he, after all, became Mr Punch from Punch and Judy in the UK) mixed with poignancy, as Pulcinella is at times hidden under his half-face mask yet often exposed, naked and vulnerable. The detailed movements underline the intimate relationship between the two dancers showing an understanding that goes beyond mere rehearsing – a connection that is unfortunately so often missing in quickly thrown together casts.
Sergio Bernal used three dances from L'Histoire du soldat for a Spanish-flavoured choreography that involved Ashley Bouder during the first piece, a tango. Bernal knows how to hold a stage and is always a powerful performer, here showing anguish and sensitivity from beneath the macho posturing.
Peter and Igor uses the Divertimento from Le Baiser de la fée and although Peter is Tchaikovsky and Igor is Stravinsky, Neumeier has created a love duet between the two men (Stravinsky was a great admirer of Tchaikovsky's music), played with passion and intensity by Jacopo Bellussi and Alessandro Frola. They both dance with Hamburg Ballet, and Neumeier created the piece on them for the theatre's Nijinsky gala at the end of June. Bellussi is already a principal dancer with the company, and the easy way Frola has with technique combined by an artistic intensity means that he, surely, will soon join the company's upper ranks. The 15-minute piece is extremely demanding yet Neumeier inserts moments of stillness that are quite as intense as a complex sequence of steps. The two dancers are not afraid of exposing the intimacy of not just physical contact, but particularly eye to eye contact, rarely breaking their gaze and thus creating complicity as intense as the Rudolf and Mary pas de deux from Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling.
The dangers of the outdoors. Nervi presents one of the most enchanting settings imaginable for a stage, the backdrop being the sea and palm trees with the occasional ship passing on the horizon. But there are drawbacks. Not having a roof over the stage leaves the dancers under the stars, but during the day the sun heats the stage. As the sun goes down, humidity can gather on the dance floor leaving the dancers with a waterslide to negotiate. The only dancer with pointe shoes was Bouder who prudently chose not to risk dancing Apollo with the risk to both her body and her pride.
However, two days later at the Ravenna Festival she joined Bernal for the Apollo and Terpsichore pas de deux from Balanchine's Apollo, and how wonderful they both were. Bouder's upper body softness with a weightless, soft port de bras is exemplary, and in contrast with the strong and bold positions that Bernal adopts as Apollo. He is an elegant young god with a beautiful line and looks fine in white tights, though he can be playful too as his youthfulness comes to the fore. The apparent simpleness of many of the moves, such as when she swims while perched on his back, only seems that way because of the skill of the performers: the strength to maintain her cambré, and keeping balance while changing the body's weight distribution while moving her arms, is demanding as even the slightest wobble will be apparent even to those unacquainted with ballet. It was a performance of great style and aplomb.
Riva and Repele returned to perform Goecke's Firebird, using the Lullaby and Final Hymn of Stravinsky's score. It has all the characteristic Goecke twitching and fluttering, which is certainly apt for a piece about birds, and here the dancers peck at each other, their fingers flitter, and their hands grip like claws. Apparently, Goecke's intention was to maintain the story of the Prince and the Firebird: if so, here is a prince who wants to fly. The work is full of fine details and is an inward-looking piece, strangely meditative over music of such grandeur.
Alexandre Benois' costumes have been beautifully recreated by Anna Biagiotti for Petrushka, an excerpt of which was delightfully performed by Tommaso Beneventi (Royal Swedish Ballet) and Susanna Elviretti, and Mattia Tortora from the Daniele Cipriani Company. Maria Vittoria Frascarelli hinted at Fokine's choreography for The Firebird in a reconstruction of Natalia Goncharova's costume for the 1926 Ballets Russes' revival of the 1910 ballet.
The tour de force of the evening came from Davide Dato in Scholz's The Rite of Spring. At a punishing half an hour on stage, with rare pauses to interact with the pianists, he jumped… and jumped, and jumped… even during the closing minutes. If the stamina for the jetés wasn't enough, the piece demanded total commitment mentally as the tortured soul he portrays veers between the classical purity of classical dance and the squalor of vomiting in a public toilet. This was very explicit in the original version, captured on video in 2008 with the role's creator, Giovanni di Palma (who worked with Dato for this performance), where projections graphically illustrated what torments the dancer – a semi-autobiographical portrayal of Scholz himself. Large projections can distract from the human-sized figure dancing below, and while the piece loses some of its power without them, at Nervi all eyes were on Dato. He confronted invisible demons, pulled at his sweat-soaked clothing, crouched fearfully on the floor, and danced… exhilaratingly.
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.