Paolo Bortoluzzi, a star to remember

Paolo Bortoluzzi, a star to remember

Thirty years after the death of Paolo Bortoluzzi, Luciana Savignano tells the story of one of the greatest yet often forgotten dancers of the last century.

Intervista Savignano Bortoluzzi

Some photos mysteriously possess a prophetic aura. Those depicting Paolo Bortoluzzi behind Rudolf Nureyev in Maurice Béjart's Le Chant du compagnon errant, likely in Bortoluzzi's Brussels debut, foreshadowed the relationship of the two great dancers with our collective memory. In the poignant pas de deux that Béjart created for Gustav Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Nureyev was the Wandering Companion, Bortoluzzi his alter ego, fate, the fatal shadow that accompanies the young man on his earthly pilgrimage. "The Companion is a wandering traveller," Béjart himself explained, "like those young apprentices of the Middle Ages who went from town to town in search of their Master's destiny; of a romantic student pursued by his destiny and suffering from - to use Mahler's words - 'that knife in the chest' that contains the struggle against self and loneliness.”

Both handsome and at the peak of their physical form and careers in that distant debut at the Forest National in Brussels on March 11, 1971 (in 1978, the role of Nureyev passed to Jorge Donn), Nureyev and Bortoluzzi were united in life by a fateful set of dates: they shared a birth year, 1938 (the Russian was born on a train en route to Vladivostock on March 17, the Italian in Genoa on May 17), and the year of their death, 1993 (Rudolf passed away in Paris on January 6, Paolo in Brussels on October 15). At the end of their earthly adventure, however, the two stars entered the memories of audiences and critics in completely antithetical ways: Nureyev continues to be celebrated fully across the globe 30 years after his passing, while Bortoluzzi slipped almost immediately and inexplicably into the shadows. Yet, Bortoluzzi's life shone from the very beginning. 

Paolo Bortoluzzi began his dance studies in his hometown of Genoa and was a student of Ugo Dell'Ara, Nora Kiss, Victor Gsovsky and Asaf Messerer in Milan. He made his debut at only 19 years old, in 1957, at the Nervi Festival, and in 1960, he joined the European Ballet directed by Léonide Massine. That same year Maurice Béjart wanted him in his Ballet du XXe Siècle in Brussels, where Bortoluzzi was a star for twelve years, displaying extraordinary expressive and technical talent, as well as innate elegance, in such titles as Symphony no. 9, Romeo and Juliet, Messe pour le temps présent, Bhakti, Nomos Alpha, The Firebird, Nijinsky, clown de Dieu and, of course, Le Chant du compagnon errant in 1971.

The following year he left the Ballet du XXe Siècle for a career around the world, from La Scala, where he made his debut in 1963 in Roland Petit's Les Demoiselles de la nuit, to the American Ballet Theatre, where he was principal dancer. The 1980s saw him as director of the La Scala Ballet (1981-84), the Düsseldorf Ballet (Deutsche Oper am Rhein) and, in 1990, the Ballet de Bordeaux for which he created Les Nuits d'été and La Belle et la Bête (1992). His work as a choreographer, which began with La Valse in 1965, contemplated the creations for La Scala Homage to Picasso, Cinderella (1977), Nuits d'été (1980), and The Happy Prince (1987). His artistic partnerships with Carla Fracci, Luciana Savignano, and Vera Colombo were fundamental, in titles from the great repertoire, in which Bortoluzzi excelled with his exquisite talents as danseur noble, including Excelsior, Giselle, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker. "He embodies the joy of dance in its purest essence," Béjart said of him.

His death in 1993 having eclipsed the star that he was in an oblivion that betrays his multifaceted and international career, today we would like to rip open that dark veil that separates us from the memory of him, 30 years after his passing, with the affectionate words of Luciana Savignano. his partner and friend. 


VC Savignano, Italian dance sometimes suffers from amnesia: why was an artist of Bortoluzzi's calibre removed? 

LS Because at Paolo's peak of fame, Nureyev exploded, and attention focused on him. Just as has happened in Italy, in more recent times, with Roberto Bolle: other dancers disappear. But, without taking anything away from Bolle, there are good dancers. I wonder: is there room for only one at a time in ballet? It is a strange mechanism that I do not understand. Back then, there was Nureyev and it seemed only he existed, but Bortoluzzi still danced all over the world.


VC What kind of partners were Bortoluzzi and Nureyev on stage? 

LS Paolo conveyed confidence. I remember, before the third act of Lake, warming up at the barre and him sitting quietly. At the mazurka, he would hold out his arm to me, "Let's go." On stage, he would barely touch me, holding me the minimum necessary, because he knew where to put his hands. I danced with Nureyev on rare occasions, like in Roland Petit's Poem of Ecstasy, which was a unique experience because Rudolf had an incredible strength and he transmitted that to you, but with him I felt in competition. He wanted to dominate. There were three women, but in the pas de deux with him, I was Death, so I was invincible.


VC When did you meet Bortoluzzi? 

LS I had danced with Béjart's company in Turin, the city where Paolo lived at the time: he had come backstage to see the show, and I watched Bortoluzzi peeking in from behind. It was logical that we met right away. We shared the same path with Béjart and danced the same style. Paolo was older than me and had been with the company in Brussels years before me. When I arrived at the Ballet du XXe Siècle, he had already left. Bortoluzzi was very confident; he knew what he wanted and what he was worth, he never hid that, and he could afford to. We danced a lot together. He was always very accommodating with me, but also strict. I remember one time we were supposed to dance together on an evening in Genoa. I joined him by train there from Milan, but I forgot to bring the musical bases of the show with me. When I told him, he was unperturbed: "No problem, go back to Milan and get them," he quietly ordered. I took the train back to Milan and then returned to Genoa to dance that evening. With the music. Another time, during a Lake rehearsal, a maître scolded me, but Paolo intervened: "Don't listen to him, you have to listen only to me. You have a special allure." Bortoluzzi's judgment was very important. It gave me the strength to be a different dancer.


VC Were there ever any unexpected happenings on stage? 

LS For the Nervi Festival, he created the choreography The Encounter for him and me, an enthralling pas de deux to the music of Rachmaninov. At the debut there was much anticipation: at one point he lifted me into the air in arabesque, but he stumbled, and we both fell on stage. Very nonchalantly, we got up and continued to dance as if nothing had happened. Never lose heart. When he would come to La Scala to perform some of his ballets, he would sit backstage waiting for his entrance. His body was already ready without the need for the barre; he had natural physical talent.


VC How was Bortoluzzi as director of La Scala ballet? 

LS It is difficult for a director to be completely accepted by the dance company. At the time, the syndicate was led by pugnacious leaders like Edoardo Colacrai, now passed. They gave directors a hard time. Yet at La Scala Bortoluzzi also created his own Cinderella, a good version that was well received by the company. He knew how to manage dancers, thanks to a long experience abroad in many companies.


VC What kind of choreographer was he? 

LS Very musical, he excelled in pas de deux. He could read sheet music because he had a well-rounded education, certainly not improvised. I learned a lot from him. I liked to attend his rehearsals because he knew what he was doing.


VC You also danced together on TV. 

LS We did the program "Under the Stars" together for RAI. But for me TV is a cold medium, it doesn't have the warmth and truth of theatre where every night is different. 


VC What relationship would he have had with today's dance? 

LS He was also very good in contemporary ballet because of his very supple physique. I think he would have continued to dance looking for choreographers and roles that were right for his age. As Baryshnikov did.

Valeria Crippa
Translation by Alexa Ahern