When is a ‘saggio' not a ‘saggio'? When it is La Scala Ballet School's ‘end of term' show.
Well, mid-April is hardly the end of the school year, and a fully costumed production, with sets, orchestra (with world-class specialist ballet conductor, David Coleman), and a paying public at La Scala's opera house is hardly the average ‘saggio' either.
Saggio is a great Italian word which can refer to an academic paper, a wise person, an exam… or an end-of-term show – an opportunity to see the whole school in action and shine a light on those at the end of their studies. The Royal Ballet School gets around the phrase by calling the exhibition a ‘Matinée', and the School of American Ballet have ‘Workshop Performances'. ‘Ballet School of La Scala's Academy Show' is the preferred title at La Scala, a show that involves all the students at the theatre's academy (except for the opera singers): photographers, costume makers, the musicians of the academy's orchestra, and the young dancers.
The director of the school, Frédéric Olivieri (a former dancer with the Paris Opera Ballet and previously the director of La Scala's ballet company), has choreographed a version of La fille mal gardée to show the school at its best, using the score by Peter Ludwig Hertel composed in 1864 for Paolo Taglioni's choreographic version in Berlin, and first performed at La Scala in 1880.
In 1987, La Scala staged Heinz Spoerli's version of the ballet with Carla Fracci and Gheorghe Iancu, and sets and costumes by Luisa Spinatelli. It is this production that has been dusted down and modified, with Spinatelli's costumes looking vibrantly sumptuous and detailed, together with newly made costumes integrated for the younger dancers who perform the maypole dance. The ‘aww' moment when the smallest boys and girls rushed on, gave way to a ‘wow' as they expertly dealt with the complex interweaving and continual adjusting of ribbon length.
These lucky students get to dance two performances at the main opera house, and a further four performances at the modern Teatro Strehler, but from the outset of the opening night performance they showed command of the stage, and if sometimes the dancing would be considered scholastic for a fully-fledged professional dancer, it was entirely appropriate for a school performance – every step was under control and not one young dancer overplayed their hand.
Gisèlle Odile Ghidoli is the exquisite name of the ‘girl' playing the Widow Simone. I say girl, because she's still in the sixth year (there are eight in total) so she's about 16 years old, yet mercifully there was no old-age walking or head tremors – in fact, there was absolutely no cutesy or cliched acting from anyone onstage – and she was imposing and thoroughly convincing.
The goofy Alain was played by Antonino Modica (seventh year) who was as light as a feather in his multiple jumps, with an elastic plié and some fun comic reactions. His father, Thomas, was solidly played by the final-year student, Andrea Denei.
The two dancers who played Lise and Colas were put through their paces in a large number of pas de deux and variations, yet they smiled, and interacted with the others on stage, as though this was yet another performance in their long careers. Rebecca Luca has a pretty face that travels across the orchestra pit and her dancing is secure and graceful. Filippo Ferdinando Pagani (hopefully that name will get trimmed for future theatre programmes) is personable with a high jeté and easy turns (of all types).
As for the corps de ballet, they were well-drilled and had plenty to do in Olivieri's heterogeneous choreography. It was a pity that some of the older dancers were not given moments to stand out from the group.
Of course, the first night was packed with relatives and friends, and what fun to hear a cheer of young voices as Lise and Colas kiss. Those were the days.
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.