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Flash Review 2, 1-16: "Excelsior"!
La Scala Gives a Schooling in How to Present a Classic (But Please, Lose the Classic Orientalism)

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- "Excelsior!" Finally, a ballet company has demonstrated the proper way to present a classic work which on its face might seem to be out-of-date but whose historical merit is unquestioned. I've long said that there are two ways for a ballet chestnut -- or any classic, for that matter -- to justify itself to a modern audience. One is for the themes to be universal and still resonate, e.g. "Romeo and Juliet." The other, essential in a ballet whose story and sensibility might strain credibility with a modern audience -- "Giselle," for example -- is for the story to be danced and acted with absolute gusto and conviction by the performers. Think about it: If you go to see an old painting with an out-of-date subject at the Louvre or Met, you don't say, "Oh, that's just silly," because the colors and approach and subject are true to the time. "Excelsior," Luigi Manzotti's celebration of progress first performed in 1881 at La Scala, to music by Romualdo Marenco, was revived in 1967 by Ugo Dell'Ara, and is currently being given a thrilling resurrection by the dancers of La Scala Ballet in the company's debut at the Garnier, from star Viviana Durante to every single corps dancer.

"Excelsior" is a pageant, really, of 11 tableaux which track nothing less than the progress, sometimes wrenched, of late 19th century civilization into the 20th century. Electricity, light, the telegraph, the steam engine, the Brooklyn Bridge, tunnels linking France and Italy, the Suez Canal -- all are recreated in front of us. What saves this from being just a dry history lesson is the installation of an antagonist, "Obscurantism" -- costumed more like a skeleton a la "Black Orpheus" -- who tries to thwart progress at every turn, but is thwarted at each by Lumiere, or Light.

The production is extravagantly over-loaded with MGM regalia, most winningly (for this American expat, anyway), in a telegraph section where the chief sound effect is the repeated ring of a telephone, the scenic dazzle comes from flats upstage rising like a pyramid and lit in the manner of that old RKO trademark, and the choreography is nothing less than Busby Berkeley, with Western Union-clad chorus girls breezily hoisting telegrams every time the phone goes off. (Er, at least that's what I wrote before a colleague turned me onto a review in yesterday's NY Times, whose Alan Riding points out that the choreography in the original 1881 "Excelsior" of course introduce "the high-kicking showgirls of the music hall and Broadway."

The oh-so-smug sophisticate sitting besides me in the third row seemed to have come only to make fun of this spectacle, but I think he was blind. "Excelsior" is a curio, really, a piece of our history. Not just ballet's history, but a window into the utter excitement that must have been felt at that time by those experiencing the rapid progress. (Well, at least the bourgeoisie if not the proletariat, many of whom were being trampeled under the wheels of progress, or being paid starvation wages to do the gruntwork necessary for its advancement.) The La Scala dancers convey this because they BELIEVE IN IT. How many times have you seen decrepit rote mime movement half-heartedly enacted? For an audience to suspend disbelief, the performers have to buy into what they are presenting.

So it is in "Excelsior," where we see a team of Italian tunnelers madly hammering at one side of a wall, confident that their French colleagues are hammering at the other side as they inaugurate a tunnel between their two countries. So it is when the Italian engineer (Gianni Ghisleni, playing his character as a man, not a type) beats at his map, gesticulating to an assistant that he doesn't understand it, they should have hooked up with the French team by now. We see it when he suddenly faints, when everyone collapses -- and then when a sudden explosion that heralds the proximity of the French team stirs them to one last dash at the wall, until the rocks break and the French diggers break through like the catcher coming through the rye.

We see it too in the gall-less, genuine innocence of Monica Vaglietti, as the country fiance of a sailor whose team of rowers has just beaten another in a good-natured race (they're about to be eclipsed, or so Obsurantisme would have them see it, by the steamboat).

Somehow -- and notwithstanding costumes which are archaic but lack the exaggeration which would make them campy as opposed to familiar -- somehow these dancers manage to brim with brio without being one-dimensionally melodramatic. For example, before you can roll your eyes at the appearance of another ballet "Danse Indienne" which will no doubt regurgitate the most pat belly dancing moves, weakly executed by a stiff torso'd ballet dancer, Elisabetta Armiato slinks onto the stage to sweep away all those pre-conceptions. Armiato, in her interpretation of what is more than the usual 2-minute (a la Coffee in "Nutcracker") sexual exotica teaser, takes the road less travelled: What's mystical about this "Indienne" is inside, a fire that the slow, restrained snaking of her legs and shifting of her sinewy torso seem only barely to contain, as if she is hinting that what we're seeing on the surface is only a spoon-sized sample of her sensuality. I'm not saying it well, let me try again: With the exception of some languorous floor work, spine on the stage, legs up, it's not the choreography here that is so unusual from the bad belly dance usually given us by ballet choreographers. What marks the solo is the soloist, and it's because she knows that the best way to convey heat is not to burst into flames, but to look like you're only barely containing them and in one minute you might implode.

Unfortunately -- and this is the one downside of this production -- if Armiato saves this section from being eye-rolling Orientalism, this turn of the 19th-20th century view of Asians by many Western artists shows its ugliest face in the Suez Canal section. When the curtain here rises, and we see the massive prow of a ship upstage, and milling before it the people of many nations, we are willing to forgive the stereotyped costumes they all wear (turbans for the A-rabs, pince-nezes for the Brits, bobby-hats for the British chorus girls, and who knows what those black feathered turbans on one group of women are supposed to represent). But then Isabel Seabra appears with a retinue of four suitors: a stick-up-the-butt Englishman, a buffoonish raja, a toreodore-clad Spaniard and, oy, oy, oy, or maybe I should say, "Ay-yah!" a "Chinaman." At first I chalked the program note describing the character with this word up to just bad translation, but no, folks, what we have here is the classic "Chinaman," complete with hair queue, cap, and -- okay, maybe "Ugh" is the best word -- upper arms at right angles to the lower, hands extending one finger each with each musical note, and mincing, yes mincing, feet. In other words, your basic coolie. At the end of this section the Englishman even kicks the dumb "Chinaman" off the stage.

I'm going to continue on this mini-rant for one more paragraph because I think this stereotype's inclusion is not just thoughtless, but mindless. And, interesting, the last time I saw Orientalism show its ugly face on the Garnier stage was in Rudolf Nureyev's revival of "Raymonda," in which he mixed every possible "Oriental" stereotype under the Sun in a dance for women supposed to be part of a sultan's harem. Surprise! It was this ballet that the Paris Opera Ballet toured to La Scala last year, the Italian company sending "Excelsior" here in exchange. A great arrangement for cultural understanding between Italy and France, perhaps, but not so much for advancing that between the Occident and the Orient. It's just a little short of tragic, I think, that a ballet which purports to champion progress should cling to such a regressive and yes, racist attitude when it comes to Asians.

Unfortunately, not even Durante's luminous "Lumiere" could save the ballet from being blemished by this little bit of obscurantism. But besides that, the ethereally winsome former star of the Royal Ballet absolutely occupies the moral center of "Excelsior"'s universe and imbues it with even deeper, more transcendent universal meaning beyond the libretto.

There's a misunderstanding abroad that the parts with more lines (or stage time, or choreography, or difficult moves) are the bigger parts. And unfortunately -- maybe even inappropriately -- the final curtain call for "Excelsior" Friday was taken by Isabel Seabra, who, as Civilization, also brought onstage the energetic, workhorse of a POB conductor -- Paul Connelly, and can we give props to the maestro and his enthusiastic Orchestra Colonne, please?! Seabra's physical force is unquestioned, and her abandonment in a pas de deux with the hunky Roberto Bolle (as a Slave freed by her as another sign of progress, Bolle is the only one in the costume-laden cast who gets to show up in only the skimpiest of Italian-style dance belt and undies) is admirable. But it's Durante who brings that other-wordly ballerina force to this ballet, and takes it -- whenever she's around, anyway -- out of its time, enlarging it to a story not just about specific steps in progress, but about the force of Light in our lives.

Proof of Durante's ballerina power -- how much is hers, how much the choreography's -- is that she isn't given much, choreographically, to work with. We're talking kicks to the chin or shoulders clamped on the shoulder to suppress Mick Zeni's Obscurantisme. An oh-so-delicate, oh-so-brief, penultimate solo where she sort of meditates, lightly raising on one foot, holding the position, before reprising this. So her arsenal is more in her manner, soul, and spirit. This Lumiere isn't so much trying to defeat Obscurantisme, as win him over. Whenever she inevitably appears to foil him, her look isn't one of gloating victory; rather, with winking of twinkling eyes and tilt of head and carriage of body she seems to be saying to Obscurantisme, "Come on over to the Light you old fogie! It's not so bad. If you'd just loosen up, you and I could really have some fun."

Because Durante is not all that imposing size-wise -- she's not petite, but she's also no towering Amazon, and arrays and moves herself featherlike -- the power here comes from within. For mem anyway -- wresting me from the dark side on the night I saw the ballet, a reminder of the joy and beauty available when once chooses Light -- she made this performance of "Excelsior" more than a museum visit, but a transformative experience.

Zeni wasn't bad either! He too is not given much to work with -- a rote costume, black body suit painted with skeleton, and "Drats, foiled again" arm-flailing whenever Lumiere spoils the party -- but saves the role with his natural and musical and human interpretation. You can see him crumbling -- so you come to expect it -- every time when, just as he's achieved his success and thwarted progress, he hears the music indicating Lumiere is about to appear on the scene, and his body, from head to slumping shoulders and back to knees crumples.

Also fine Friday was the entire cast of the Hamsin scene, nomads making their way through the dessert when a sandstorm strikes. What made the sand palpable was the way their bodies, individually and as a corps, slowed and gave the sense of truly being obstructed and beaten down by the winds and sand.

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