La Scala doesn't ‘do' Nutcrackers for Christmas. Its last two productions during the Christmas period were La Bayadère and Sylvia. It flirted briefly with a version of The Nutcracker by Nacho Duato in December 2014, and that of Georges Balanchine in 2018. Although the theatre usually puts on Nutcrackers at Christmas and the New Year, it's not a tradition – in 2016, the second and final outing of Duato's Nutcracker was in February.
Now, Rudolf Nureyev's staging returns to La Scala after sixteen years, with sets and costumes by Nicholas Georgiadis that he redesigned for the theatre in 1987 from his original designs in the ‘60s.
Nureyev created his Nutcracker for the Royal Swedish Ballet in 1967, in 1968 it entered the repertoire of The Royal Ballet, and then it arrived in Milan the following year on 18 September 1969. Nureyev danced the double Drosselmeyer/Prince role, Liliana Cosi was Clara and, unsurprisingly, Luciana Savignano was chosen for the Arabian dance.
Like the Paris Opéra, La Scala has always been a ‘Rudi' house, though many of his productions slipped away when the ballet company was directed by Frédéric Olivieri and Makhar Vaziev. Now, with Manuel Legris at the helm, Nureyev's works are being brought back, so Ratmansky's reconstruction of Swan Lake has been jettisoned, as too the (expensive) production of Balanchine's Nutcracker after just 12 performances.
La Scala has a young roster of principal dancers, so they are all facing Nureyev's choreographic challenges in Nutcracker for the first time. Principal dancer Claudio Coviello (whose Clara will be Agnese di Clemente) has performed several choreographies by Nureyev, especially as Basilio in Don Quixote that he has danced many times in Milan and on several tours with La Scala Ballet. Don Quixote is a ballet which has remained in the repertoire since 1980 when Nureyev danced alongside Carla Fracci, and has become something of a calling card for the company. Coviello has also danced Solor in La Bayadère, which was added to La Scala's repertoire last year, Siegfried in Swan Lake, and he danced the demanding four-minute solo from Manfred in last year's Nureyev Gala, filmed without an audience during a lockdown.
I spoke to him about Nureyev and this production.
Nureyev's choreography is well-known for its idiosyncratic difficulty, especially for the male dancer as he was creating roles that he too would dance and was always wanting to push himself. What are some of the difficulties in his Nutcracker?
Nureyev's choreographies are among the most complicated there are, and they really put everyone to the test. In the Nutcracker, I find the pas de deux particularly intricate and challenging: they are technically complex and extremely musical, where each note corresponds to a step, and with lots of play on the nuances of the music and the speed.
What is typical of Nureyev's choreography in The Nutcracker that you have found in other works by him?
I think that the style of Nureyev's ballets is characterised by his use of music, the rapid sequences, the fast beats in the ronds de jambe, and the very rapid fouettés in arabesque – these can be found in practically all his choreographies.
You mention his musicality. Sometimes, though, his movements appear to go against the music in surprising ways, making passages seem almost like contemporary dance.
The steps and the music are almost in conflict because Nureyev had such a remarkably musical ear that he was able to really use every single note by inserting rapid steps that very nearly clash with the melody.
How is this Nutcracker different from the others you have danced?
Well, I had an injury when the Balanchine version was staged so I didn't dance that one, but I did dance Duarto's. Certainly, in that production, the prince was peripheral to the story, whereas in Nureyev's he is certainly more of a protagonist and therefore it requires greater commitment both technically and stylistically.
And there's the double role too, playing both the Prince and Drosselmeyer.
It is very interesting to play this double character. I really like being able to play Drosselmeyer as well because in other versions the Prince enters just for the pas de deux with Clara, so it is difficult to get into the story, but in this version you enter on stage right away, even if in another guise, so it is easier to live the story because you are involved and present right from the start. It helps me get acquainted with the stage and to face, as far as possible, with greater serenity all the hard work that comes later.
Also, we've been given carte blanche on our approach to the role of Drosselmeyer, so you can play with the various aspects of the character – my Drosselmeyer is a middle-aged man full of mystery.
Of course, you didn't see Nureyev dance on stage. Is it difficult to appreciate the effect he had on audiences just by seeing videos?
Unfortunately, I never saw him dance live, and I really envy many of my colleagues who not only saw him dance but danced next to him, sharing the stage with him. I think you can feel his charisma from watching he videos, but I really wonder what it was like to see him live…
Claudio Coviello rehearses Rudolf Nureyev's The Nutcracker
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.
I saw Mr Coviello by chance when I visited Milan. I found him to be a lovely, sensitive dancer, delicate and precise with a strong technique, and a little melancholic. I was moved by his performance. and would love to see him again. He was dancing in Heinz Spoerli’s Cello Suites.