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Flash Review 2, 7-20: Dark Shadows
From La Scala, the Stark and the Just Dark

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2001 Susan Yung

La Scala Ballet chose a curious program to mark its first New York performance run in 20 years as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, presented in the State Theater accompanied by the New York City Opera Orchestra. Program A (as seen Wednesday) comprised the New York premiere of "Amarcord," choreographed by Luciano Annito and inspired by a Fellini film, and "Carmen," staged by Jan Broeckx, based on Roland Petit's original. The first offered refreshing theatrical surprises with dark undertones; the second, merely dark undertones.

The brilliant set for "Amarcord," designed by Carlo Sala, consisted of matrices of enchained dummies lining the three performance walls; each dummy bore one civilian side and one more sinister, militaristic side, the two rotating accordingly. The story basically traced the romantic escapades of a beautiful woman (Sabrina Brazzo) in a small Italian town eventually occupied by fascist forces. Brazzo made the most of a vampy role, with a boundless extension, highly arched feet liberated in soft slippers, and form-fitting, sheer gowns (by Roberta Guidi di Bagno). Her pairing with a fascist official (Biagio Tambone) interestingly produced more sparks than with Massimo Murru as a German officer, due in part to Murru's consistently indifferent countenance.

Though striving to be Fellini-esque, the staging was fairly tame, mixing townsfolk, soldiers, prostitutes, the occasional bicyclist, and the requisite human harp and peacock. The soundtrack worked like a film score, slipping between snippets from the film, pop songs, and well-chosen music by Alfred Schnittke (played live). The dark secret of this piece addressed the lures of fascism: its demand for order and symmetry, and the appeal of belonging to a group and acting in tandem. One of the most effective dance segments had the ensemble moving stridently through bold gestures to a heavy drumbeat. Suddenly, alarmingly, the mass appeal of "Riverdance" was brought home. Otherwise, Annito‚s choreography leaned toward musical theater, offering bold, loosely sketched phrases of ballet. Signature moves included spiralling lifts in back attitude, deep plies in second, and outside turns with the arms in -- appropriately -- a "V," for victory. It suited the production, an ingenious staging taking the best of film's theatrical potential.

"Carmen" portrayed not the quirky, appealing absurdity of daily life, but its drab ugliness. The set, by Antoni Clave (who also designed the costumes), seemed to have been inspired by Picasso's worst work -- scribbles, angrily-drawn figures, muddy colors, and simplistic geometric shapes. Granted, the story demands an industrial-type setting, but big grey dropcloths and fright wigs felt merely hostile. The tavern scene, on the other hand, was so busily staged that Murru, as Don Jose (replacing the advertised Laurent Hilaire), was nearly lost in the visual din of the corps clapping behind him.

Viviana Durante, as Carmen (originally cast with Alessandra Ferri) danced with a brisk efficiency and clarity -- her passes were particularly lucid -- but lacked the street savvy and bad-girl appeal demanded of the character. She was mismatched with Murru, who not only towered over her, but again lacked any sort of emotion or acting ability. Sadly, his leading-man stature has carried him to what is clearly an alien place. The one opportunity the pair had to exploit their massive size difference was in a couple of extended series of lifts, during which Durante never touched the stage, executing splits and then alternating leading feet, in back attitude. In the finale, the pair's knock-down, drag-out scene was truly an exercise in survival for both the dancers and the audience.

Generally, the company danced with energy and enthusiasm, displaying for the most part solid fundamentals and controlled elasticity. Understudies filling major roles combined with opening night jitters may explain some of the technical lapses -- men unable to cleanly close fifth position when landing from a double tour en l'air; hopping in simple double turns; jumping the music a bit. And the esprit, while ample in "Amarcord," was not strong enough to drag this sullen "Carmen" along.

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