The Mysterious Allure of the Swan

The Mysterious Allure of the Swan

Principal Dancer Nicoletta Manni talks about her Swan Lake and the dual role of Odette/Odile

1.9 Rivista Manni Il lago dei cigni   cor Rudolf Nureyev  ph Brescia e Amisano   Teatro alla Scala  (Nicoletta Manni) (2)

Some ballets become "classics," and they are classics precisely because they are ingrained in our memory with their visions of thrilling beauty that transcend the limits of performance to tell stories of universal themes, such as love, the mysteries of death, and the eternal struggle between good and evil. Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake has entered the repertoire of all companies and tickled the fancy of all audiences thanks to the timeless appeal of the romantic fairy tale of Odette and Siegfried. One of the many interpretations that followed the original by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1895, is that of Rudolf Nureyev at La Scala, the longest running one. After nine years, his Swan Lake returns to the Piermarini stage from Sept. 15-27, on the 30th anniversary of his death. The ten performances will allow numerous artists of La Scala's corps de ballet to shine, starting with Principal Dancer Nicoletta Manni.

VC You started dancing very young. Did you always know that's what you would do?

NM I started at the age of two and a half at my mother's dance school. It was like a game for me, a distraction, but I soon realized it was my destiny. I was 13 years old when I asked my family to take me to La Scala for an audition. I was accepted and thus began my path at the Accademia. Moving from Puglia to Milan was not easy. I was homesick, but my desire to stay there was stronger. When I graduated, at 17, I entered the Staatsballett in Berlin. It was a formative experience. If I had not done it at that age, I probably would have never done it. At the beginning, it wasn't a choice because, as a minor, I couldn't work in Italy, but then I stayed for three seasons to "climb the ladder" of the corps des ballet.

VC In 2014, you were nominated Principal Dancer at La Scala, which you have held for almost 10 years.

NM I owe it to Makhar Vaziev, who never stopped watching me after I graduated from the Accademia, even though I had moved to Berlin. He was the one who encouraged me to return to La Scala. At first, it was a risk, but today I am immensely grateful. Every day, I am living a small dream, but I continue to practice because I know I have never actually arrived. I hope that the next ten years will be just as intense and that I can live many other lives on the stage of this prestigious theatre.

VC What does Swan Lake mean to you?

NM It is undoubtedly the ballet of dreams. Ever since I was a girl, I wanted to dance in it on the stages of the great theatres, and it was my debut at La Scala in 2013. I was only 21, but it was an explosive debut. Four performances in four days alongside Carlo Di Lanno and Christian Fagetti, also debuts. The next year, I reprised the role in Nureyev’s version, which was then filed away to make room for Ratmansky’s staging. To rediscover it nine years later with the experience I’ve gained in between is extraordinary. I have had the chance to try out the role of Odile at various galas here at La Scala, but I’m curious to see myself as Odette, a part I have never played before.

VC Fragile and spiritual Odette on one side. Insidious, bewitching Odile on the other. What technical and interpretive challenges are involved in this dual and opposing role?

NM The role of Odette-Odile requires a remarkable interpretive depth because it embodies the conflict that exists in all of us. It’s no coincidence that it is the ballet every dancer strives to perform, no matter their age or level. One must be able to create the tone shift throughout the evening. Quickly exchanging personalities with costume changes requires a profound understanding of one’s body and spirit. The pure white lines of Princess Odette bring out the more intimate, delicate and ethereal part of a person: the white swan is all about the quivers and the allusiveness of the arms, almost driving her to take flight on a whim. On the other hand, the black swan, Odile, immediately demonstrates conviction and confidence with sensuous and dizzying variations aimed at speed and seduction. You can really indulge in the endless nuance of her explosive character.

VC Have you been inspired by any past or current dancers?

NM There are many performers to look up to… I have watched videos of Ul’jana Lopatkina as Odette many times and I find her moving for her masterful virtuosity and the incredible technique of her noble swan figure. But I also followed the example of Polina Semionova, who I had the fortune of watching up close while at the Staatsballett in Berlin and shortly after during my debut at La Scala. She is a gifted artist with a unique charisma who absolutely masters the stage and is sensual and seductive both in the fragility of Odette and the irreverence of Odile.

VC In 2016, you were part of Ratmansky’s version of Swan Lake, which replaced the historic version of Nureyev for a few years. How different are these two interpretations?

NM Nureyev’s version is a revolution in the long history of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, and what makes it unique is not only the choreography but also the theatrics. The reference to the human condition and its complexities is what Nureyev tries to bring out first and foremost in the role of Siegfried, who is conceived as a romantic hero in the solos of Act II, while in other parts he is simply a partner. In Ratmansky’s choreography, the role of Odile is more central. Of course, you have the 32 fouettés that precede the tragic ending, but in the Pas de deux of Act III there are no swan movements; the character must play with their skills as a malevolent enchantress rather than imitate the movements of Odette. Furthermore, her ballet blancs replicate an earlier operatic atmosphere that recreates the 1895 original in St. Petersburg. The tutus are longer, more cumbersome and inhibit the extensions of today’s style. The dancers’ steps are less acrobatic, and the height of the legs never goes beyond 90 degrees. I will definitely bring a piece of this Swan Lake with me. Although it was arduous to internalize the style evoked by this interpretation, Odette’s humanity will remain with me when I dance Nureyev’s Swan Lake.

VC Your repertoire boasts a wide variety of roles, from classical and contemporary to galas designed by Roberto Bolle. Which one are you most fond of?

NM As you grow, your tastes change, as does your understanding of dance. It is one of the most stimulating parts of our job. The characters I have played who I hold dear in my heart are those that have marked my artistic maturity and a turning point in my career in 2017: Tat’jana in John Cranko’s Onegin and Marguerite in John Neumeier’s Dame aux camélias. They are very interpretive roles, played more as an actor than as a dancer.

VC A year ago, your colleague and partner Timofej Andrijashenko dazzled the Arena di Verona with an emotional proposal. What is it like to share the stage with the person you love?

NM Dance is a fundamental part of our lives, but what bonds us more is the companionship we have found and the balance we have managed to build between our work and private life. We are very different, but this helps us to complement each other. In our everyday life, I am the more rational one, but when we share the stage, we let ourselves be overcome with the emotions. Whether it’s a love story or a tragedy, whatever we perform is pure truth.

VC Outside the theatre, you are both ambassadors for the Italian Foundation for Arthritis Research (FIRA). How does it feel to inherit the legacy of star Carla Fracci, who served 12 years alongside the Foundation?

NM Carla Fracci was not just an icon of dance; she was an example of dedication and generosity. It is a great honour to follow in her footsteps and support such an important cause. As ballerinas, we know how important it is to be able to move freely. That’s why we want to use our art for research. In the awareness ad featuring us, we personify the disease and the cure through a performance of our own improvisation. The message we intended to convey is the change in perspective that is triggered when scientific research succeeds in finding a way out of suffering.

Valentina Crosetto