The new mixed programme at La Scala is logically entitled Dawson/Duato/Kratz/Kylián, the names of the four choreographers and the order in which they are presented. It was more or less the same programme planned for a year ago that was postponed to make way for Le Corsaire performances after a Covid lockdown interrupted the run of the ballet after just a couple of performances. It is good that it has been rescheduled as it is a rewarding evening with a company working slickly and with passion.
Although the four pieces (the one by Philippe Kratz is a new creation) were chosen by the company director Manuel Legris without any apparent thematic connection, there were connections to be found, especially in the two most interesting pieces of the evening, David Dawson's Anima Animus and Kratz's Solitude Sometimes, which reflect on the nature of being human, with music that pushes the dance along like the force of destiny.
Dawson uses Ezio Bosso's Violin Concerto No. 1 which has a Philip Glass-like relentless urging with minimalist, tumbling phrases building into climaxes, and with a movingly intimate central movement. Kratz has assembled an electronic soundtrack with music from Thom Yorke and Radiohead (Yorke's band) with several sections created from resampling and loops; pieces built on minimalist blocks.
Their choreographic style, however, is very different.
In Anima Animus, which was created for San Francisco Ballet in 2018, Dawson uses the beauty of the rounded human body in contrast with the stark lines of the architectural scenery. In Jungian philosophy, the animus is the unconscious masculine side of a woman, and the anima is the unconscious feminine side of a man, and Dawson takes this concept as his approach to this piece, with the men often moving softly, with gently opening ports de bras, and the women are given many grand jetés, yet their movements are completely interchangeable. There is a constant ebb and flow to the movement with almost no static poses. Classical lines are beautifully presented, though lightly touched on as there are no full stops, just commas. Bodies are not contorted into odd shapes just to make a movement seem modern or original, so his asymmetric use of one wrist pointing a hand down while the other points the hand up is because it is beautiful to see. Every movement is curved, from the gesturing of the feet, the use of cambré, and a full-body arc when the woman is held aloft.
The women spend most of the time in the air during the lyrical and quite emotional middle section, with two trios, both made up of two men and a woman, who sustain this longest part of the work with constant movement that was beautifully phrased. Of course, not all dancers can find this fluidity inside themselves easily, and some were still a little academic, but Maria Celeste Losa was especially winning.
The contrasts in the choreography and music are summed up by Yumiko Takeshima's costumes that are in black and white, with black panels for the front of the men's torsos, a white stripe down the spine, and white tights, while the women have the opposite on their torsos with black briefs. This creates enjoyable patterns during the turning sequences with all ten dancers but, black or white, when the dancers approach the backlit white screen upstage, they become dark grey and eventually appear as black silhouettes as they reach the light. I have a feeling that Dawson is mostly fascinated by the in-between grey than either white or black.
Kratz says that the basis for Solitude Sometimes was the ancient Egyptian Amduat funerary text with its story of Ra, the Egyptian sun god who travels through the underworld from when the sun sets until it rises again. The title seems to be another source of inspiration as it comes, I imagine, from John Milton's Paradise Lost: “Solitude sometimes is best society.” So we see the 14 dancers, in Tutankhamun-gold costumes, moving from right to left, exiting to run around the set to reappear from the right again. A cyclical day-after-day flow when it might happen that a small group forms, or sometimes the passage of time will be passed in solitude, and occasionally one against the others… shunned by the others? Condemned by the others? To these micro-stories, a myriad of interpretations can be imagined. Maybe of rebirth, maybe about the cycle of life, certainly of love, and maybe catharsis? The general mood though is melancholic.
Kratz's choreography is quirky and inventive with a bit of Michael Jackson's moonwalk and a taste of Fosse thrown in, groups of dancers performing a cute little sideways shuffling step made me smile (though I doubt that was the idea), and the vertical space is used well with dancers often lowering on all fours, or down in the splits.
Radiohead's Pyramid Song was an obvious choice for a work inspired by Egypt, and is hauntingly effective, but at the close of the piece, Kratz uses the song again, this time performed acapella by Voces8, which almost transforms it into a hymn. And a lone dancer (an excellent Claudio Coviello) is left to experience the solitude… of death?
Nacho Duato's Remanso was created in 1997 for the American Ballet Theatre. A male trio move in front of, around and above a three-metre by three square box, occasionally illuminated in colour, which allows Duato lots of scope to be inventive as he has the men balancing on each other against the box to form shapes.
He uses many common classical combinations that you might find in a ballet class centre, often together, sometimes with one mirroring the others. Each man has a solo where they can show off, and then follow various solos, duets and trios executed with humour, playfulness, and tenderness. One role is slightly more exposed than the others and was interpreted by Vladimir Malakhov for ABT. That role at La Scala was taken by Roberto Bolle for each performance and he and Domenico Di Cristo (in the cast I saw) were especially fine.
One very odd decision during the applause saw all three (together with the pianist Takahiro Yoshikawa who played Enrique Granados's Valses poéticos) taking their applause together. During the final exit behind the curtain from the apron, Bolle was following on last and, as soon as the others were out of sight, he turned towards the audience to continue taking the applause – it looked like a Morecambe and Wise skit (and bad-mannered). His legions of fans whooped, and I'm certain that his presence had resulted in the contemporary programme being sold out, but the artistic team should have devised a way to let it happen in a more graceful way.
The last item on a very generous bill was Jiří Kylián's Bella Figura. The well-known piece was created in 1995 to celebrate Kylián's 20th anniversary as head of the Nederlands Dans Theater. It was staged at La Scala in 2009. I remember loving it, but I was a little disappointed this time around. The production felt a little tired, and the blacks that are drawn in and out looked shabby, the lighting was not very precise, and was the audience supposed to see the technician lighting the flames?
The music is seductive and as soon as the notes of the Pergolesi Stabat Mater began, this spectator was already half won over. The company of dancers, all topless with floor-length voluminous red silk skirts, has a powerful effect, and the duets are poetic and rich in invention. However, I have trouble with topless dancing women, just as I do with bottomless dancing men, with bits jiggling around of their own free will and, of course, some jiggling more than others. For me, it's distracting.
Playing with the theatre structure itself (a topless woman is grabbed by, and almost sucked into, a black drape at the beginning; a bar and curtain descend from the flies into the arms of the dancers below) leads to ideas about reality and pretence. In fact, the curtain opens on the dancers warming up while the houselights are up and the audience still chatting in the aisles. Is this the beginning of the performance? Are we part of the performance? And are we part of the performance, even when the lights go down?
Certainly, these are no longer original questions, and there are countless productions with theatre-within-the-theatre stagings in attempts to shine a new light on a familiar text or libretto and (pretentious) programme notes can try to explain as long as they like, but what we see and hear is what we take away, even with an enquiring mind at work. The title of the piece is in Italian: bella figura – to make a good impression. The piece finishes (as it began) in silence, and my response was also in Italian… “Boh!” (in this case, an expression of indifference).
N.B. Some of the dancers in the photos are different from those in the review.
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.