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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
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on its face might seem to be out-of-date but whose historical merit is unquestioned.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to see an old painting with an out-of-date subject at the Louvre or Met, you don't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
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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