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Ballet History

The present day Ballet Company of Teatro alla Scala can boast a glorious past whose roots go back centuries to the 1778 inauguration of the world’s most celebrated musical theatre and where it still maintains its base today. Illustrious choreographers, such as Jean-Georges Noverre and Gasparo Angiolini, the reformers of the ballet d’action style or “the pinnacle” of all, Salvatore Viganò, idolised by Stendhal for the numerous coreodrammi presented in Milan between 1811 and 1819, were to exert great influence on dance in Europe – even before the founding in 1813 of the Imperial Dance Academy of La Scala. From here Carlo Blasis, the illustrious dancer, teacher and theorist brought Ballet – which can already trace its birth in Italy back to the 15th century – into the romantic period, contributing to the technical innovation of its style. Some of the majors stars of this era trained with Blasis, such as Carlotta Grisi, Fanny Cerrito (interpreting in 1841 the second Scala Sylphide staged by Antonio Cortesi, to both specially created and existing music by Gioachino Rossini, Saverio Mercadante and Antonio Mussi), Lucile Grahn, Augusta Maywood, Amina Boschetti and above all the Scala born talents like Amalia Ferraris, Claudina Cucchi and Carolina Pochini, who were capable of contending for the favours of the European public.
 
In Russia Caterina Beretta and Virginia Zucchi were to anticipate the successes of Carlotta Brianza, the first to dance The Sleeping Beauty in 1890 and Pierina Legnani (first Odette/Odile in the Petipa/Ivanov Swan Lake of 1895), whereas the great teacher Enrico Cecchetti, who had already established himself there, propagated the teaching of the Italian academic technique and by way of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which he had joined, elevated its status in this new era. Cecchetti, who had made his début at La Scala in 1871, returned once again in 1881 for the production of Excelsior by Luigi Manzotti, Romualdo Marenco and Alfredo Edel. This dance of progress and most successful of the “big ballets” produced by Manzotti, was presented and reproduced for over thirty years all over Europe and the United States and is considered to be a forerunner of the later reviews and music-hall style shows.
 
Dance at La Scala entered the twentieth century in the company of established Manzotti-inspired professionals such as Raffaele Grassi and Giovanni Pratesi (author, in 1928, of Convento veneziano), but also with renowned choreographers linked to the Ballets Russes, like Mikhail Fokine (Scheherazade, Cleopatra, The Love for Three Oranges) and Leonide Massine (who in 1950 chose Luciana Novaro for the premiere of his Rite of Spring). They were engaged with a view to adapting the innovative elements brought to dance, music and set design by Serge Diaghilev’s celebrated company (which appeared at the Teatro Lirico in 1920 and at La Scala in 1927) in line with the tastes of La Scala, and counting on the talents of Ettorina Mazzucchelli, Teresa Battaggi, Rosa Piovella Ansaldo, Attilia Radice, Ria Teresa Legnani, Vincenzo Celli, Gennaro Corbo and Cia Fornaroli (who in 1926, took part in the first Milanese performance of Boris Romanoff’s Petrushka, with its composer Igor Stravinsky on the podium). In 1921, after its war-time closure, the Ballet School (in which all the aforementioned excellent performers were formed) was entrusted firstly to the celebrated Russian teacher Ol’ga Préobrajenska, then to Nicola Guerra and finally to Cecchetti, who directed it until his death in 1928.   
 
From the free and expressionist dance of Middle-Europe of the thirties and forties, came artists such as Max Tarpis, Margherita Wallmann, already an assistant to Max Reinhardt at the Salzburg Festival and above all, Aurelio Milloss. Precisely to this academically formed artist and in turn choreographer at La Scala in 1942 of The Miraculous Mandarin (to music by Béla Bartók, sets and costumes by Enrico Prampolini), Arturo Toscanini gave the task of reuniting the lost threads of the Scala company after the Second World War. Milloss, who directed the company several times, brought alongside the many female stars of the time  - such as Nives Poli, Bianca Gallizia, Milly Clerici, Edda Martignoni, Wanda Sciaccaluga, Elide Bonagiunta and in turn Olga Amati and Novaro -  new masculine elements like Ugo Dell’Ara, Giulio Perugini, Mario Pistoni, Walter Venditti and the youngest of the group, Amedeo Amodio. For his repertoire, he not only chose great musicians (Petrassi, Dallapiccola) renowned set designers and painters (Casorati, Sassu), but also illustrious guests such as George Balanchine who, for the first time with an Italian company, restaged his Ballet Imperial (1952), The Fairy’s Kiss (1953), Palais de Cristal (1955), Concerto Barocco (1961), The Four Temperaments (1962) and Orpheus (1964).
 
In the fifties and sixties, La Scala became a stage open to the best names of the then artistic panorama. Amongst the choreographers, Roland Petit made his début in 1963 (Le Jeune homme et la Mort, Le Loup, La chambre and Les demoiselles de la nuit ), and to the array of internal company talents such as Vera Colombo, Fiorella Cova, Gilda Majocchi, Elettra Morini, Giuliana Barabaschi many guest stars were added like Yvette Chauviré, Margot Fonteyn, Ludmilla Tchérina, Jean Babilée, Tamara Toumanova, Galina Ulanova, Alicia Markova, Maya Plissetskaya and Rudolf Nureyev, giving rise in 1965 (with his appearance in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet) to the beginning of a very close collaboration with the Milanese theatre.
 
Here he staged his versions of The Sleeping Beauty (1966), The Nutcracker (1969), Paquita (1970), Don Quixote, Romeo and Juliet (1980), Swan Lake (1990) always partnering the most envied ballerinas in the world, such as Liliana Cosi, who became étoile of the theatre in 1970 and Carla Fracci, performer of the romantic roles par excellence and a great tragédienne to whom John Cranko, in 1958, had already destined the lead role in his Romeo and Juliet (music by Prokofiev), which was indeed performed for the very first time by the Scala company at the Teatro Verde on the San Giorgio Island, Venice.
 
From this time and for over forty years, Carla Fracci was the most prominent star of the theatre; innumerable are the creations which were thought-up with her expressly in mind, such as La strada by Nino Rota and Mario Pistoni (1966) who was also the creator of Ritratto di Don Chisciotte with sets and costumes by Lucio Fontana, Francesca da Rimini (1967) and a new version of The Miraculous Mandarin (1966) in which the modern talents of the future star Luciana Savignano were brought to light. She was many times the partner of Paolo Bortoluzzi and the favourite of Maurice Béjart, the choreographer who was to firmly mark the Scala repertoire of the day with his Ninth Symphony to the music of Beethoven, The Firebird, Le marteau sans maître, Bolero, Bakhti, and Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien but also today’s, with the revival of Bolero for Sylvie Guillem (2002) and The Rite of Spring (2004).
 
In the seventies and eighties the ranks of the company were also led, aside from Savignano, by the other two stars Anna Razzi and Oriella Dorella, and stood out not only in the choreographies of Nureyev, Cranko and Martinez (Coppélia) but also in those of Pistoni and Amodio (L’aprés-midi-d’un faune, Ricercare a nove movimenti, Oggetto amato) and in the effervescent “new” version of Excelsior directed by Filippo Crivelli, musically adapted by Fiorenzo Carpi and staged by Ugo Dell’Ara for the theatre’s Bicentenary season (revived once more at the dawn of the new millennium and again to great success at the Théâtre National de l’Opéra de Paris in 2002). Alongside Jiří Kylián (Symphony in D and La Cathédrale Engloutie), Birgit Cullberg (Miss Julie), Jerome Robbins (Afternoon of a Faun, Les Noces), again Petit (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Proust, ou Les intermittences du coeur, The Blue Angel), Louis Falco (The Eagle’s Nest) and Joseph Russillo (The Legend of Joseph and Lieb und Leid, both with sets by Luigi Veronesi and costumes by Gianni Versace) new artists began to appear and on the horizon, a new and great tragédienne: Alessandra Ferri. Initially trained at the Scala school, followed by that of the Royal Ballet in London, Ferri returned to the Piermarini for a Swan Lake directed by Franco Zeffirelli (1985) to become in 1992 prima ballerina assoluta of La Scala, lending her name, already renowned in the world, to a long series of débuts up to that of La Dame aux Camélias by John Neumeier, the important ballet given as her original farewell to the stage in March 2007.
 
In the nineties the recognition of Roberto Bolle and Massimo Murru – both products of firstly the Scala school and then the company, of which they are today its étoiles – very quickly re-established the historic status of men in Italian dance. Bolle is the most loved and sought after danseur noble in the world. Interpreting the major roles of the classical repertoire since the late eighties, he was a regular partner to Ferri and today with Svetlana Zakharova, who became an étoile of La Scala in 2007, they constitute one of the most fascinating couplings to be seen on stage today. Massimo Murru, a dancer of a more classical-modern inclination, has been admired on many international stages and is often coupled with Sylvie Guillem, an assiduous presence at La Scala since 1987 (when she first appeared alongside Nureyev) and choreographer for the Scala company, on whom she restaged her version of Giselle (2001), which was also taken on tour to Covent Garden.
 
Following firmly in the theatre’s tradition, guest invitations have always been of additional value. Thanks to Vladimir Vassiliev, Gheorghe Iancu, Maximiliano Guerra, José Manuel Carreño, Laurent Hilaire and Manuel Legris, Tamara Rojo and Darcey Bussell and also to Diana Vishneva, Denis Matvienko, Alina Cojocaru, Robert Tewsley, Guillaume Côté, Aurélie Dupont, Leonid Sarafanov, Julie Kent, Lucia Lacarra and Polina Semionova, it has been possible to consolidate the romantic-academic repertoire, upon which all successive artistic directions of the company (Giuseppe Carbone, Elisabetta Terabust, Frédéric Olivieri and again Terabust) have been based, prior to the installation in January 2009 of Makhar Vaziev, who for the last thirteen years had been at the head of the Kirov Ballet at the Maryinsky Theatre of St. Petersburg.
 
Today, the repertoire of the company maintains the principle of variety: putting side by side ballets such as Swan Lake (the Vladimir Bourmeister version), Giselle, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Don Quixote, La Bayadère (in the version by Natalia Makarova), La Sylphide (from Taglioni and staged by Pierre Lacotte), Coppélia (in the version by Derek Deane) with the most important Balanchine titles like Apollo or the 1962 A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to which only La Scala holds the European performing rights.
 
It also contemplates works by Italian creators like Amodio, Fabrizio Monteverde, Jacopo Godani, who are also as famous in the world of dance as Mauro Bigonzetti (active at the Piermarini since 1994) and followed by internationally acclaimed names such as the Franco-Albanian Angelin Preljocaj (Annonciation, La Stravaganza, Le Parc), and the Englishmen Christopher Wheeldon (Polyphonia) and Wayne Mc Gregor (the company danced in his Dido and Aeneas). It also includes the “classics” of Kylián (Symphony of Psalms, Petite Mort, Sechs Tänze and Bella Figura in 2009), John Neumeier (Daphnis et Chloé, Now and Then and La Dame aux camélias), Mats Ek (in his version of Giselle), Forsythe (In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated) those of historic American modern dance (Alvin Ailey, Agnes de Mille, Paul Taylor, Antony Tudor and Glen Tetley, with the début in 2009 of his Voluntaries) and that of Europe (Petit’s Tout Satie, Carmen, Chéri, La Chauve-Souris and also Pink Floyd Ballet, Béjart’s Rite of Spring).
 
Recent years have seen the La Scala Ballet expand its visibility at home and abroad, with debut performances at the Paris Opera, Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, the Mariinsky (Kirov) Theatre in Saint Petersburg, and in the USA, Germany, Turkey, Brazil, Spain, Mexico and China, to name just a few. Thanks to the unfailing expressive, technical and interpretative appeal of La Scala’s three great étoiles Svetlana Zakharova, Roberto Bolle and Massimo Murru, our guest artists, principals and newly appointed soloists, and the many Corps de Ballet members frequently selected for major roles, Makhar Vaziev’s direction resolutely embraces a set of precise artistic standards. The aim is to reinvigorate the twentieth century’s most refreshing and influential ballet repertoire as a “tradition of the new” in the ballet world, reviving the necessary classics, providing young choreographers with creative opportunities, and drawing celebrated musical directors to the ballet rostrum, both as an element of added appeal and also as an unmistakable sign of the musical excellence that befits La Scala, not only in its operatic performances but also in its dance productions.
 
In the wake of a season taken over by outgoing director Elisabetta Terabust, crowned in particular by Roland Petit’s Pink Floyd Ballet in the evergreen 1972 choreography - an overwhelming success and hit with younger audiences - came the Season 2009/2010 opener, Serata Béjart, under the baton of Daniel Harding. Performed between L’Oiseau de feu and Le Sacre du printemps, the return of Mahler’s Chant du compagnon errant, for a long time absent from the La Scala stage, was met with great acclaim and reprised in the Gala des Étoiles in the following season. In 2010, Nureyev’s Don Quixote, MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet (this time with new sets by Mauro Carosi and colourful costumes by Odette Nicoletti) and John Cranko’s Onegin showcased as-then-unknown guest artists such as Natalia Osipova, Alexander Volchkov and Maria Eichwald, with Roberto Bolle and Massimo Murru debuting in the dazzling title role in Cranko’s ballet. Trittico Novecento and a special Serata Forsythe would also lay bare the artistic choices of the new director.
 
Indeed, in the May-June 2010 triple bill, Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial and The Prodigal Son featured alongside the premiere of Francesco Ventriglia’s Immemoria, to music by Dmitri Shostakovich and whose choreography doubtless helped launch the career of the young dancer-choreographer, later to become director of MaggioDanza. Of note during the run of Romeo and Juliet in July 2010 was the promotion of Antonino Sutera to primo ballerino following his performance as Romeo opposite the elegant and special Alina Cojocaru as Giulietta. In Serata Forsythe, the final instalment of the autumn, the brilliant Artifact Suite, to music by Bach and Eva Crossman-Hecht, and Herman Schmerman, to a score by Thom Willems, joined the La Scala repertory, alongside the now highly renowned and well-established In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated. The new Season 2010/2011 opened its doors to Nureyev’s Swan Lake, on the occasion of the centenary of the death of Marius Petipa. No ordinary Swan Lake, the production will be remembered for the debut of the promising young Russian star Alina Somova, and above all the musical directorship of Daniel Barenboim. La Scala received a great gift in the same season in the form of Sylvie Guillem’s return in L’histoire de Manon, dancing with her partner of choice Massimo Murru. In the title role, new guest artist Olesia Novikova also made a superb debut in this much-loved ballet.
 
In the group work L’altro Casanova, Polina Semionova embraced the figure of the female libertine (against Gabriele Corrado) in a new work set to music from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries and to choreography by La Scala dancer and choreographer Gianluca Schiavoni and dramaturgy assistant Andrea Forte. May 2011 saw an unprecedented first in Italy in the form of the first complete choreographed performance of Balanchine’s triptych Jewels (Emeralds, Rubies and Diamonds), featuring guest artists Somova, Semionova, Sarafanov and the Canadian Guillaume Côté. Next on the season programme was an equally significant work requiring the forces of the entire company and its newest stars. This exciting challenge was the choreographic revival and staging of Marius Petipa’s Raymonda, under the directorship of Sergej Vikharev, and to music by Aleksandr Glazunov. The 1898 classic, the last of the great imperial ballets and never before performed by Teatro alla Scala Ballet Company, was interpreted by the étoiles of La Scala and visiting guest artists, including Olesia Novikova and Friedemann Vogel. Worthy of note was the reception by the international press of the extensive reconstruction work by Vikharev on choreography notes from the Harvard archives and original sketches and figurines, recaptured so faithfully and with so much artistic care by La Scala's set and costume teams.
 
The December 2011 debut at Moscow’s renovated Bolshoi Theatre of Excelsior – in its historic 1967 production, with choreography by Ugo Dell’Ara, staging by Filippo Crivelli and enchanting sets by Giulio Coltellacci – delayed the opening of La Scala’s ballet season 2011/2012 until January 2012. In fact, the reinstatement of the Italian tradition was a prominent theme, closely linked to a Leitmotiv that was no less important to Vaziev than the other "strong points" of his directorship: the concept of an ever-increasing solid presence of La Scala’s Ballet Company abroad. Indeed, La Scala's artistes were the first to tread the boards of the newly restored Bolshoi Theatre, and it was there that Petra Conti and Eris Nezha - protagonists in Excelsior and the other work performed in Moscow, Balanchine's A Midsummer Night’s Dream - were promoted to prima ballerina and primo ballerino. The 2012 season held many surprises, including the return from maternity leave of Svetlana Zakharova to dance the lead in Giselle and then in Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand as part of a double bill also featuring the european premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH, based on Concerto No. 2 in F Major, Op. 102 by Dmitri Shostakovich, or DSCH, which spells out four musical notes in German notation. 
 
Lastly, before Onegin and the return of Raymonda in October 2012 came a challenging work under the guidance of Martha Clarke. In L’altra metà del cielo, the versatile American director and choreographer draws on the concepts, story and music - arranged for orchestra - of Italian rock star Vasco Rossi, bringing to La Scala a new work that catered once again to a younger audience. The media attention generated by Rossi and Clarke's partnership led to the work being re-scheduled as the September performance in Season 2012/2013, finishing off a programme of productions that began with a new and less conventional language. Indeed, from December to January, La Scala's curtain rose to welcome Sasha Waltz's Roméo et Juliette, to music by Hector Berlioz and with on-stage chorus and singers. The three artistic sections of La Scala united for the first time under the direction of contemporary German choreographer Waltz, trained in the neo-expressionist, experimental, European and American styles, and in various improvisation methods and contact improvisation. The presence of James Conlon on the rostrum in this much-acclaimed work, created especially in 2007 for the dancers of the Paris Opera on Berlioz's grandiose Symphonie Dramatique, attested to the continued tradition of associating esteemed orchestral conductors with the ballet. Guest artists included Aurélie Dupont and Hervé Moreau (the two French étoiles for whom Waltz created her Roméo et Juliette), alongside many in-house performers, all of whom appeared in the second ballet of the season, Notre Dame de Paris.
 
Absent from La Scala's playbill for over ten years, the well-known ballet saw the debuts of three dancers in the role of Quasimodo: Roberto Bolle, opposite Natalia Osipova; guest dancer Ivan Vasiliev with Petra Conti; Claudio Coviello with Lusymay Di Stefano; and seasoned professional Massimo Murru's interpretation alongside Petra Conti. Transported away by the colourful and majestic sets of René Allio, the impeccable primi ballerini (including Mick Zeni as Frollo) and the entire Ballet Company came alive, in a blaze, to the music of Michael Jarre and in the costumes of Yves Saint-Laurent. Next in line, the timeless Giselle in the 1950s revival by Yvette Chauviré took the Bolle-Zakharova partnership to Olympic heights, and Swan Lake, in the Nureyev version, introduced the charming Natalia Osipova in the role of Odette-Odile for the first time, now a principal dancer of the Royal Ballet but again guest artist in the final billing of the season in October, L'histoire de Manon (preceded by L'altra metà del cielo), which also featured La Scala stars Zakharova and Bolle and young performers supported and inspired by Makhar Vaziev.
 
Under Vaziev's direction, the Ballet Company's chain of command has grown in every respect. Today's principals include Claudio Coviello, and soloists include Massimo Garon and Marco Agostino, and very young dancers trained at the Ballet School (the company's main, but not the exclusive, feeder) are emerging from the ranks of the Ballet Company: among them Alessandra Vassallo, Federico Fresi, Carlo Di Lanno and Christian Fagetti, and many new dancers such as Lusymay Di Stefano and Virna Toppi, Nicoletta Manni, Vittoria Valerio and Denise Gazzo, who have debuted in main roles, fulfilling the Company's brief to recognise and cast burgeoning talent.
 
And nowhere are there more occasions to flaunt new talent than in Season 2013/2014, which features Jewels, Swan Lake, a Serata Petit (with the eagerly-anticipated Pink Floyd Ballet and Le Jeune homme et la Mort to open), and also Don Quixote, MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet and, opening the season, a Serata Ratmansky - the perfect reward for the still young but already very highly respected US-based Russian choreographer - with the return of Concerto DSCH, the Scala debut of Russian Seasons, to a score by Leonid Desyatnikov, and the world premiere of his Opera, on texts by Metastasio and Goldoni. Mikhail Tatarnikov conducts the season opener, while Daniel Harding takes the helm in  Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, preceded by an opera/ballet double bill of Le Spectre de la rose by Michail Fokin and Petit's La rose malade - two rose-related homages that are almost contemporaries of the Serata Ratmansky: further evidence of the versatility of the Ballet Company and its newly acquired technical and expressive merits.
 
 
Marinella Guatterini © Teatro alla Scala, 2013
 
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