How to celebrate a great dancer on stage? How to evoke memories of their artistry without creating a parody of their talent?
Certainly, with Carla Fracci and the American Ballet Theatre video of her as Giselle, (one that many ballerinas have grown up with), to avoid harsh comparisons is wise but to ignore such a cornerstone of Fracci's repertoire could seem like ineptitude. Manuel Legris, the director of La Scala's ballet company, cleverly decided to open the evening dedicated to the Milanese ballerina, who died last year at 84, with projected photographs of Fracci as Giselle but, as the screen rose, it was Myrtha who was at centre stage beckoning the Willis to join her. The company presented Myrtha's scene, ending before the entrance of Giselle.
As the Fracci Gala at La Scala will become an annual event it was possible to leave many of her important roles for future occasions. The repertoire ballets that she danced at La Scala, including La Sylphide, Les Sylphides, Coppélia, Cinderella, Swan Lake, Paquita and Don Quixote were not presented during the first edition of the gala, as well as Cristoforo Colombo, Fall River Legend, Lulu, The Lady and the Fool, Othello, Il bacio della fata (The Fairy's Kiss), Francesca da Rimini, the opera ballets created for the first night of La Scala's season including Guglielmo Tell and I vespri siciliani, as well as the occasion ballets Dalla Taglioni a Diaghilev, Omaggio a Picasso, Serata a tre, Notti egiziane, and many, many more. Being that she also guested with all the Italian companies as well as many other companies around the world – most notably her long collaboration with the American Ballet Theatre from 1967 until 1991 – and seeing that so many works were created for her, Manuel Legris will have an ample repertoire to choose from in the coming years.
However, the selection for the 2022 edition was generous – the curtain rose at 8pm and came down at 11 – and presented the company at its best. It represented moment's in Fracci's career from 1960 when she danced in George Balanchine's Symphony in C to 31 December 1999 when she danced in Excelsior for the last time on La Scala's stage. Fracci was kept at the centre of the evening by showing animated photos of her in the ballets before they were presented by the company and, thankfully, there were no fawning speeches.
The 19th-century ballet extravaganza Ballo Excelsior had hundreds of dancers on stage in the original 1881 production at La Scala, together with elephants, trumpeters, children and so on. Although it was whittled down a little by Ugo Dell'Ara when he recreated it on Fracci in Florence in 1967, there were still flag-waving scenes representing different nations (each female ‘soldier' was in a white tutu, and the British troop wore bearskins), Victorian strongmen, deus ex macchina descents from the flies, lampshade-shaped tutus with incorporated lights, and so on. For the gala, there was a simpler scene but full of technical difficulties with Camilla Cerulli as Civilisation and Mattia Semperboni as the Slave. As she hasn't yet ‘civilised' him, he is almost naked and assumes cowering positions. I wonder if this ballet will be added to the ‘cancel' list soon.
In a similar vein, it was the first time that La Scala has presented the rose adage from Nureyev's The Sleeping Beauty (danced by the promising Agnese di Clemente) without one of the four princes in blackface.
Some of the most moving moments in an emotional evening were seeing the choreographies made especially for Carla Fracci and two of these were created towards the end of her career by Roland Petit and Maurice Béjart.
Petit created Chéri for Fracci in 1996, with Massimo Murru playing Chéri, the young man of Collette's novel. Fracci was a few months shy of her 60th birthday and Murru was 24. Here, Emanuela Montanari and Nicola Del Freo danced Petit's delicately judged bedroom pas de deux, which is both playful and passionate. They were perfect for their roles with Montanari's warmly communicative face and Del Freo's potent musculature giving impetus to an erotically charged scene. It was Montanari's last performance with the company before entering retirement and one couldn't help think how perfect she would be in the complete ballet.
Béjart created L'heure exquise (based on Samuel Beckett's play Happy Days) for Fracci in 1998 at the Turin Dance Festival. Alessandra Ferri has been touring the piece since June last year and with Hamburg's Carsten Jung she played out a scene that works well out of context. Ferri's ‘Her', possibly remembering a great career, relives the daily drudgery of the barre but also the compensation of the lights and applause. Needless to say, Ferri has barely to lay her beautifully undulating leg on the barre to have already won over the audience, but her acting and artistry are superb.
In 1966, towards the beginning of Fracci's career, Mario Pistoni created La Strada with Fracci as Gelsomina, a character first played by Giulietta Masina in Federico Fellini's homonymous film. It was a role that she would perform many times over the years and went against her romantic ballerina image. Here she plays a tragi-comic tomboy with short, shaggy hair and a pigeon-toed stance. Antonella Albano was extremely touching in the role, dancing a scene that follows an entertaining jukebox number in a trattoria danced with verve by Caterina Bianchi and Gioacchino Starace. Albano seamlessly moved from stamping her foot and shrugging her shoulders to almost distractedly rising up on pointe and crossing the stage with melancholic pas de bourrées. It is a ballet that should be better known.
Carla Fracci was extraordinary in that she maintained her technique for many years and was able to confront new repertory roles late in her career. Casually, two of these were danced by Marianela Nuñez during the Fracci Gala: Onegin (La Scala mounted a new production of John Cranko's ballet for Fracci in 1993) and The Merry Widow (a new production of Ronald Hynd's ballet came in 1996 when Fracci was 60).
With Roberto Bolle, Nuñez danced the mirror scene from Onegin and the closing scene from The Merry Widow. They make a fine couple, even though all eyes were on Nuñez as Bolle was largely a porteur in both scenes and unfortunately in black against dark backdrops. Apart from some surprising uncertainty in the lifts of Onegin, she proved herself yet again a delightful interpreter.
Fracci's partnership with Rudolf Nureyev was not just as a dancer, but he was also her choreographer. At La Scala she danced with him in his versions of Romeo and Juliet, The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty and Don Quixote (making her debut in the role at 44). His choreography is often fiendishly demanding – and, frankly, it often seems as though it is complicated just for the sake of it without being expressive – but Vittoria Valerio as Juliet and Marco Agostino as Romeo coped admirably with the balcony scene pas de deux and gave it nuanced detail. The Grand pas from The Nutcracker was danced with textbook precision and cool assurance by Nicoletta Manni and Timofej Andrijashenko, though it would have been even more satisfying with brisker tempi. It was preceded by the Waltz of the Flowers and this, for me, is where Nureyev excels. In his ballets he always moves groups of dancers in fascinating and satisfying shapes, complexly interweaving their movements like threads in a tapestry.
With the stimulus of her husband, the director Beppe Menegatti, Fracci recreated many lost or overlooked roles. The Cachucha was recreated under the guidance of the dance notation specialist Ann Hutchinson Guest, who died this week at 103. She worked intensely with Fracci on this Spanish-inspired dance that Fanny Elssler made famous, touring it around Europe and America. Such was its popularity that it started a craze for putting dances with national flavours in ballet. It is taken from the 1836 ballet Le Diable boiteux, choreographed by Jean Coralli at the Paris Opera. It was presumed lost until the notation of Frederich Zorn, a German dancing master, was found. However, as he recorded the piece half a century after he had seen Elssler dance it in 1837, Hutchinson Guest brought her informed eye to the piece using his notation together with her extensive knowledge of the dancing styles of that period and, in 1967, she first staged it for the UK company, Ballet for All.
Caterina Bianchi danced the solo at La Scala with vitality and great conviction (as well as an impressively deep backwards cambré!). It's not an easy piece to pull off yet she did so to great applause.
La Péri was a vehicle for the La Scala-trained ballerina Carlotta Grisi, two years after her success in the premiere of Giselle. Two of the originators of Giselle worked on the new ballet too: Théophile Gautier wrote the scenario and Coralli devised the choreography, and he also put a pas espagnol in this 1843 ballet. In 1979, Loris Gai based his choreography for La Péri on that of Coralli – in 1973 he had also choreographed a La Péri with music by Paul Dukas, again with Fracci, for La Scala – and that's the charming version that Martina Arduino and Marco Agostino danced in the gala. Arduino was crowned with extra-large stars, even bigger than those that adorn Grisi in 19th century prints, and both danced with flair and sunniness – two more successful debuts in an evening of debuts.
Balanchine's Symphony in C closed the programme. It was called Le Palais de Cristal when Fracci danced the first movement in a performance supervised by Balanchine in 1960. Interestingly, on the same mixed bill that evening was Frederick Ashton's choreography of the Dukas' Péri danced by Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes. For the gala, the company danced the fourth movement and finale with Maria Celeste Losa and Nicola Del Freo, Alice Mariani and Timofej Andrijashenko, Nicoletta Manni and Marco Agostino, and Vittoria Valerio and Christian Fagetti, all dancing like the stars in La Péri's headdress and, although the music lagged a little, it was a thrilling conclusion to a highly satisfying evening.
The full company and guests on stage for the curtain call divided and turned to applaud Carla Fracci as she appeared in a projection behind them, pictured in front of La Scala's famous curtain where she had taken her applause hundreds of times. A woman behind me, sniffling, said, “That's our Carla!” and I suppose that's the real secret of her popularity… she's OUR Carla.
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.