The lucky ballet students of Milan's academy at La Scala get to perform five shows on one of Milan's most famous stages – the Teatro Strehler, named after the great director who established the famed Piccolo Teatro. Teatro Strehler is not ‘piccolo' though, and at the end of the Presentazione (an Etudes-inspired piece devised by the school's director, Frédéric Olivieri, giving all the courses a chance to shine) the stage fills with 160 young dancers from 11 to 18.
The second part of the programme was taken from the full-length La fille mal gardée (again with choreography by Olivieri) performed recently by the school on La Scala's stage, and now cut down to create a 30-minute divertissement. The cast I saw was the same as that seen at La Scala which was reviewed here in April. Filippo Ferdinando Pagani was as sunny and confident as he was at La Scala, and showing off some technical wizardry. However, seen again, the surprising casting of 16-year-old Gisèlle Odile Ghidoli as Widow Simone (a risk that paid off as she has a mature self-assuredness about her, and bags of personality) took my eye and mind away from her dancing the first time round, yet she excels there as well. Her manège in clogs put a big smile on my face.
The novelty was a piece called Balthus Variations, choreographed by Emanuela Tagliavia (who also teaches contemporary dance at the school) to an original score by Giampaolo Testoni. It consists of a series of scenes inspired by the works of the Polish-French painter Balthus, though that knowledge isn't necessary to appreciate the work. As soon as we see a glance, an interaction, we start to create stories in our heads, and in Balthus Variations the imagination gets to work overtime – so many combinations of dancers… so many situations.
Balthus was (in)famous for his paintings of adolescent girls. As the New Yorker neatly stated, he depicted “young girls in gamy poses”. Courageously for a ‘school show' there are suggestions of awakening sexuality, there is some same-sex partnering, and in the low-lighting there is intimacy, but also the idea of danger lurking in the shadows. It's a brave choice, and the subject matter must ring true to these 14 to 18-year-olds who are going through many of the emotions seen on stage – provocation and daring, wistfulness and despondency, flirtatiousness and longing. These young dancers obviously possess maturity and have faith in Tagliavia's vision to play out situations so close to their own experiences in front of 1,000 spectators (including mums, friends, and teachers, one supposes).
They were colourfully dressed (by Lou Antinori) in 1950s garb with above-the-knee skirts, pleated trousers, woollen waistcoats, and cardigans. They imitate some of Balthus's poses, giving distinct hues to the choreographic palette – hands crossed above the head, slipping down to lounge on the floor (often with one knee raised, as seen in many of his paintings), interweaving their limbs and, being that the inspiration is from canvases, adopting still poses.
There are solos, duets, trios, and various combinations working upwards to moments involving most of the company of 29 dancers. Often there are various scenes going on around the stage. The casting seems to be unusually sex-blind in the formations – there may be a group of mostly boys with just a couple of girls, but for no apparent reason… they are just dancers, performing the same choreographic vocabulary. Most of the piece is moody (though, towards the end, there is a section that resembles a school prom), but from the proud, happy faces during the applause it was clear that the young dancers had thoroughly enjoyed the challenge.
Testoni's seductive, melodic score alternates distinctive dance rhythms (with a slight French flavour… a touch of the accordion) with dreamy and slightly melancholic string and woodwind sections. The strong aural contrasts are a gift for the choreographer, but also for the dancers who get to try out an array of movements allowed for by the wide-ranging score. It's the sort of music it would be a pleasure to listen to without the visual element, which is rare for this type of contemporary piece.
So, from classical to contemporary, an exam passed. Now, in a month's time, the final year students have to confront their academic exams – from manège to mathematics – in bocca al lupo… break a leg!
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.