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Dancing from the Heart

At La Scala the 2021/2022 season closed with a very beloved ballet, “Onegin,” a mainstay of the Milanese repertory for some thirty years. Roberto Bolle, La Scala's iconic Onegin, was greeted by his fans who feared that this could be his last performance in Cranko’s ballet, once again partnered by Marianela Nuñez as Tatiana. For the subsequent performances, ballet director Manuel Legris decided to cast dancers debuting in the leading roles for one night each (aside from aside from principals Marco Agostino and Nicoletta Manni who debuted three years ago). We talked to each couple to discover how they prepared for the main roles and how they felt about their premieres.

Nicola Del Freo and Vittoria Valerio in “Onegin” by John Cranko. Photograph by Brescia e Amisano

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Timofej Andrijashenko in “Onegin” by John Cranko. Photograph by Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Among the dancers debuting “Onegin,” principal Timofej Andrijashenko was particularly anticipated because of his penchant for dramballets and his Russian origins:

“At the beginning I couldn’t understand Onegin’s personality, so I read Pushkin’s novel in verse in Russian, my mother tongue, finally finding it very fluent. Previously I tried to read it in an Italian translation, in a book gifted to my fiancée Nicoletta Manni when she debuted as Tatiana, but I found it complicated, as not translated in rhyme. Puskin’s novel has been my first source of inspiration as, you know, for Eastern people he is like a Shakespeare. Since the first pages of the book, I began to imagine how I would have portrait my Onegin.”

Martina Arduino and Timofej Andrijashenko in “Onegin” by John Cranko. Photograph by Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

After having learned the choreography with La Scala’s maîtres, Reid Anderson, who owns the ballet’s rights, arrived to supervise the choreography, and he asked Andrijashenko to find his own character beyond the choreographic and pantomimic score. The technical difficulties were not a problem for ’Tima:’ he is a very gifted dancer and a very strong partner.

“I decided to forget the technique in favor of the playing. I have to confess that didn’t have great expectation on my performance, but soon as I entered on stage, I felt myself at ease as Onegin, except in the second act as I’m not so cruel as him! Anyway, I found a continuity in the development of my character through the acts and I hope to have been able to transmit it to the audience.”

As a special counsellor Andrijashenko had Roberto Bolle, who loves to be a Pygmalion for La Scala’s younger dancers. “Roberto is a column of our theatre, a model for everyone. He gave me some corrections, especially for the last pas de deux, suggesting to be heavier in my way of dancing and partnering in order to better represent my sorrow.” Martina Arduino, also making her debut, is not a frequent partner for Andrijashenko, but they worked hard in rehearsal to make the new partnership a success. “[It was] not easy anyway,” Tima points out “also considering that only our cast was totally composed by debutants, including Navrin Turnbull as Lensky and Caterina Bianchi as Olga.” A dream? “No doubt,” he replied, “to dance ‘Onegin’ one day with my [fiancée] Nicoletta as Tatiana.”

Martina Arduino and Timofej Andrijashenko in “Onegin” by John Cranko. Photograph by Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

La Scala’s youngest prima ballerina, Martina Arduino is a very thoughtful person who prepares her new characters with a great care. She danced Olga in the first cast, and this season had the chance to debut as Tatiana.

“Tatiana is a role that I always hoped to perform, since 2017 when I danced Olga for the first time. Now the right moment has came: I feel myself more mature and enriched to face this role, after having thought a lot on it and dreamed about the way I would perform it. In the meantime, I saw other dancers, as Maria Eichwald, Nicoletta Manni, or Marianela Nuñez on stage with me as her sister,” she explains.

The novel in verse and the opera helped Martina to shape her character, but the psychological work in studio was most important. “The main effort was to embody in me and make perceptible to the audience the difference between the young and the new Tatiana. The young Tatiana is closer to me as personality as I’m lonely, shy, silent—but the mature Tatiana is far from my age and I had to find a way to get closer to her.”

Martina Arduino as Tatiana in “Onegin” by John Cranko. Photograph by Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Martina’s study of Tatiana found original perspectives: “For the last pas de deux, marking her farewell to Onegin, I worked on my body’s attitude, in order to assume Tatiana’s longtime pain and fatigue of living, in my way of walking and racing, but especially in my upper part, my neck, décolleté, arms: the dress also is designed to valorize the choreography. With this feeling we danced the last pas de deux, so different from the aerial first one.”

As a result, Martina’s Tatiana was very natural and spontaneous, while with her simple, naive beauty she looked like a classic Russian heroine. “Reid Anderson asked every character to strictly follow gestures and times of the choreography, in order to let understand the audience the story and the dialogues. It’s up to an artist to make natural the fidelity to the original choreography.”

Martina Arduino and Timofej Andrijashenko in “Onegin” by John Cranko. Photograph by Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

The partnership with Andrijashenko was also successful, although they were dancing together for the first time in a narrative ballet. “He is a very instinctive artist, able to shape his character only with a glance, unlike me, but together we worked a lot and very well.”

Primo ballerino for one season, Nicola Del Freo is enjoying a lot of stage time. A strong dancer with a precise technique, Nicola has a dramatic personality onstage so that he can explore many roles in narrative ballets. He debuted the role of Lensky two years ago, and danced that role again this season to Roberto Bolle's Onegin. This season was finally his turn as Onegin.

Nicola Del Freo in “Onegi” by John Cranko. Photograph by Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

“Puskin's novel in verse, that I already read to play Lensky, was a source, of course, but I also did mental work to understand and enter the character,” says the dancer. “I was helped by Massimo Murru, La Scala former étoile and now our maître, and by Manuel Legris, our director: both danced Onegin during their careers. While with Reid Anderson, after having refined Lensky, I need to start my work from scratch to approach the role of Onegin.”

Finding a personal way of portraying Cranko’s characters is difficult as dancers have to stay true to a rigid choreographic and pantomimic score. “Yes, it is necessary to perfect manage the technique, so that you can have the freedom to create your own Onegin” confirms Nicola, pointing out the most demanding scenes of the ballet. “In Onegin’s variation in the first act, Anderson asked to continuously enter and get out of reality. The first pas de deux with Tatiana, that is her dream in her bedroom, is very difficult, while to the second one, that marks their forever farewell, I was carried by the events.” With Vittoria Valerio as his Tatiana, the partnership was natural: “She is a dear friend of mine and we are very similar,” Nicola says.

Nicola Del Freo and Vittoria Valerio debut in “Onegin” by John Cranko. Photograph by Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

The soloist Vittoria Valerio is a woman with an intense interior life, an exquisitely expressive dancer with her delicate lines and her tragic attitude. For the Sicilian dancer the role was much anticipated: by chance, just ten years ago, when she entered La Scala arriving from Ballett Zürich, we admired her as Olga.

“Actually, Olga was a character far from my personality,” admits Vittoria. “When the cast list appeared, I was taken by a great emotion: I was happy even just to have the opportunity to study the role of Tatiana. During last summer I read and read again the book, feeling myself so close to Tatiana’s personality.”

Vittoria Valerio as the young Tatiana and Nicola Del Freo in “Onegin” by John Cranko. Photograph by Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

A dancer with a personal approach to every role, Vittoria took inspiration from a few very sensitive ballerinas able to transform themselves on stage, just like her. “I would have like to see a video with Carla Fracci but I couldn’t find it. So, I took as a reference Marcia Haydée: I studied again and again her performance, finding her very measured way of acting, balancing every gesture and expression, closer to me. I also admired a lot Maria Eichwald, who was a guest as Tatiana at La Scala. Anyway, we had the chance to have Reid Anderson as a repetiteur and we learned that in this ballet every single gesture has a sense, nothing is left to chance.”

Together with Nicola Del Freo, with whom she danced for the first time, Vittoria has much in common: “We are both hard workers and taken by emotions while dancing such dramas. Like me towards the roles of Tatiana and Olga, he too feels himself more Onegin than Lensky. As a partner he is very strong, while I’m light, so I trusted him during the two very difficult pas de deux, in order to obtain the fluidity that the ballet needs.”

For Vittoria the most difficult challenge was to portrait the mature Tatiana, as she feels herself more akin to the shy girl of the beginning than the woman able to accept a fate of unhappiness. “But onstage, also thanks to Tchaikovsky’s music, I was carried away by the emotions, especially during the farewell pas de deux—so deeply that for many nights I couldn’t sleep.”

Alice Mariani and Gabriele Corrado in “Onegin” by John Cranko. Photograph by Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Alice Mariani, 30 years old, the most recently nominated prima ballerina at La Scala, has already showed off her brilliant technique in repertory ballets. Performing Tatiana, she had her first chance to prove her dramatic qualities since she arrived two years ago from Dresden's Semperoper Ballet.

“In Dresden, ‘Onegin’ was not in repertory but I saw it in Berlin, with the Staatsballett, especially admiring Polina Semionova’s Tatiana,” recalls Mariani. “While in creating my own Tatiana, listening to Tchaikovsky’s music helped me to enter the story and recognize it, finding all its details. Rehearsing with Reid Andersen I learned Cranko’s heritage in this ballet: a strict choreographic and pantomime score, even in the way of turning the head, direct your gaze or say yes and no, where I could anyway express my personality.”

Alice Mariani and Gabriele Corrado in “Onegin” by John Cranko. Photograph by Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Her technique shone in Tatiana’s variation in the second act, with firm balances, perfect pirouettes, thrilling accelerations, apparently inspired by Marianela Nuñez style. “I’m very different from Tatiana as a girl, as I’m not at all shy or discrete, while it was easier to me to became Tatiana as a woman as I have in common with her strength of mind. But especially difficult was to let the audience understand the passage of time in between.”

In her only performance, Mariani was partnered not by a debutant Onegin like her colleagues, but by Gabriele Corrado, a soloist who has danced several times in Cranko’s ballet. “I was lucky as Gabriele helped me so much! I totally trusted in him, especially during the two pas de deux where we experienced a great feeling, in the difficult coordinations of the first one and the strong emotionality of the second one.” For Alice Mariani as for her colleagues, only one show each was not a limit but instead a joy, sharing a beautiful ballet and being inspired by others’ performances.

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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