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From Verona to Venice

In very hot Italian summer, travelling between Verona and Venice could reveal the tastes and manias of “the beautiful country” in the field of dance. In Verona, stormed by tourists this year more than ever, dance has a great tradition, as this writer remembers looking back at her childhood. At the Arena di Verona, you could admire the best of the then international dance scene, such as Maurice Béjart’s Ballet du XXème Siècle or classic ballets with stars like Rudolf Nureyev and Carla Fracci, Vladimir Vasiliev and Ekaterina Maximova, while at Teatro Romano more contemporary programs introduced companies such as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater or Nederlands Dance Theater. Unfortunately, today the offering is as broad and is mainly Italian: the only ballet show scheduled at the Arena for the past decade has been the Roberto Bolle and Friends gala. (Granted, it has sold out every year, and is already announced for next summer on July 19, 2023.) While at Teatro Romano the dance program is focused on Italian contemporary dance. But we were lucky, staying two days in a row in Verona, to catch its two summer highlights, with the two most popular dancers in Italy: Eleonora Abbagnato, the eternal Juliet, and Roberto Bolle, the eternal gladiator.

Melissa Hamilton and Roberto Bolle in “Caravaggio” by Mauro Bigonzetti. Photograph by Andrej Uspenski

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At Teatro Romano, Eleonora Abbagnato, a former Première danseuse with Paris Opera Ballet now director of Opera Rome Ballet, debuted with a new production, “Giulietta,” conceived by her impresario, Daniele Cipriani, very active on the Italian scene. A title of sure appeal in Verona, staged not far from Juliet’s house, at Teatro Romano, an enchanting ancient theatre dominated by a Romanesque little church, with a natural scenography of cypresses on the Adige river. For a theatre where countless editions of “Romeo and Juliet” were staged, the artistic team conceived a “fantasy” on the theme mixing old choreographies (one by Uwe Scholz) and a new creation, “Giulietta,” by Sasha Riva and Simone Repele.

Eleonora Abbagnato and daughter Julia Balzaretti perform “Giulietta.” Photograph by Graham Spicer

After this new creation we can confirm the brilliant talent of the young couple, able to stage a story (a difficult challenge nowadays!) with their imaginative touch, an original and expressive choreography, only a few objects as scenography and a turning point idea. This time it was a mise en abîme between Juliet as a young woman, Eleonora Abbagnato at her ease in a contemporary style, and Juliet as a little girl, her 10-year old daughter Julia Balzaretti. An Eleonora in thumbnail, with the same beautiful face and blond hair, Julia has a natural way onstage: the two choreographers, both performing, captured this talent and guided her in the creation of a poetic character. With their original game of mirrors around Juliet, set to Tchaikovsky’s score played by dual pianos, Riva and Repele could have created the full length program.

Roberto Bolle in “In Your Black Eyes” by Patrick de Bana. Photograph by Andrej Uspenski

In front of 10,000 people Roberto Bolle celebrated the tenth anniversary of his gala at the Arena. The peerless Roman theatre, at its full capacity, is a show in itself, even if at sunset the lights of the mobile phones have taken the place of the little candles held in the past by every spectator. The formula of Bolle’s gala is well known: a popular show mixing half of the pieces performed by himself with his favourite partners with repertory pas de deux or contemporary solos for eight or nine dancers, most of them used to guest in Italian galas. It's nothing new, but this is what the audience wants: to admire their idol in easy, enjoyable contemporary pieces, and to be thrilled by the classical virtuosity of his friends. Among Bolle’s highlights Mauro Bigonzetti’s “Caravaggio” is always a success, especially when danced with Melissa Hamilton, as the Royal Ballet first soloist always surprises with her incredibly flexible legs and her contemporary grace, exalted by a sure partner as Bolle is. The two artists debuted in “Penumbra:” an elegant, patinated duet by Remi Wortmeyer where the pianist and a cellist on stage playing Rachmaninov’s music reminded us how beautiful an entire gala with live music would be, especially at the Arena that has its own orchestra.

Fumi Kaneko and Roberto Bolle in Three Preludes by Ben Stevenson. Photograph by Andrej Uspenski

This tour's novelty was Ben Stevenson’s “Three Preludes,” a rather dated ballet performed by Bolle with Royal Ballet principal Fumi Kaneko (in other tour stops his partner was Melissa Hamilton). The solo “In Your Black Eyes,” recently created for Bolle by Patrick De Bana, has become his signature piece: not so original, but appreciated by audience for its melodramatic mood and Ezio Bosso’s easy music.It was a hit for Bolle’s fans also the last piece, Duel, a duet with Bayerisches Staatsballet’s Principal Osiel Gouneo, with live drums, but choreographer Massimiliano Volpini failed if inspired from capoeira. Royal Ballet’s Vadim Muntagirov, former Mariinsky Ballet’s Anastasia Matvienko, Aalto Ballet’s Adeline Pastor, NDT’s Toon Lobach completed the cast. But as all the ballet world already knows, at the Arena the spotlights were on La Scala’s principals Nicoletta Manni and Timofej Andrijashenko. After having danced with gentle passion the balcony pas de deux from “Romeo and Juliet” in the monumental scenography of the Arena, at the end of the show “Tima” asked Nicoletta to marry him, presenting her a ring. It was a really moving scene, especially for Nicoletta's sincere emotion, a very discreet young woman indeed, as everyone can see from the now viral video. A pop scene, according to someone who remembered a similar proposal, in the same place, made to a famous Italian influencer. Maybe, but . . . that’s the Arena, baby!

She said yes! Nicoletta Manni and Timofej Andrijashenko get engaged. Photograph by Andrej Uspenski

You can find a completely different atmosphere in Venice, with the many shows, exhibitions, talks of the Biennale Danza. The dance festival, directed for the second year by Wayne McGregor, is followed by a crowd of aficionados migrating from the theatrical venues of Arsenale, the ancient arsenal of the glorious Republic of Venice. A stunning venue, especially at sunset, worth the trip alone. Over a ten-day program named “Boundary-less,” replete with all the latest trends without forgetting any inclusion (from gender to ethnicity), the director chose to award the Golden Lion to Saburo Teshigawara.

“Petrouchka” by Saburo Teshigawara. Photograph by Andrea Avezzù, courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

For the occasion the Japanese dancer and choreographer debuted a new version of “Petrushka” at Teatro Malibran, one of his best creations. With a score mixing Stravinsky with electronic and natural sounds, the piece barely evoked the synopsis of the original ballet, focusing instead on the main character (played by Teshigawara himself) more similar to Pinocchio than to the Ballet Russes puppet. A wooden-like mask, a black costume with a white collar and, mostly, his stiff movements in a flow of kineticism and some notes from Fellini’s films sounding in the distance, reminded us of the “burattino” created by Collodi. In a refined staging juxtaposing black and amaranth, Teshigwara’s muse and partner Rihoko Sato unhinged the narrative playing a ballerina (or maybe not) with different personalities and dresses.

Diego Tortelli's “FoNo.” Photograph by Andrea Avezzù, courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

Aiming to elevate young artists, the Biennale Danza promotes a college for dancers where Teshigawara also taught, and held a competition for a new Italian choreography which was won by Diego Tortelli. Currently in residence at Aterballetto, the young artist premiered “Fo.No,” the result of one year of work. However, while his choreographic style appeared refined and original, with a natural and almost organic quality, the piece lost its spontaneity in an overly ambitious dramaturgy and conceptual scenography. But we know staging a full-length work is difficult even for a talented choreographer. Who will try next year?

Valentina Bonelli

Valentina Bonelli is a dance journalist and critic based in Milan, and a longtime contributor to Vogue Italia and Amadeus. She is a correspondent from Italy for international dance magazines such as Dance Europe and Dance Magazine Japan. As a scholar her main interest lies in the XIX century Russian ballet, in its connections with the Italian ballet school. She has translated and edited Marius Petipa’s Memoires (2010) and Diaries (2018) into Italian, and she is currently writing essays and biographies about La Scala ballerinas dancing at Russian Imperial theatres.



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