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Nureyev Gala

Taking Nureyev's Name in Vain

Pas de deux from 'Sleeping Beauty,' ' 'Le Corsaire,' the 'Tschaikovsky pas de deux,' 'Don Quixote,' 'The Lesson,' 'Romeo and Juliet,' 'Diana and Acteon'

by Patrizia Vallone

January 22, 2004 -- Teatro Sistina, Rome

The Teatro Sistina, one of the most important theaters in Rome if not in Italy, took advantage of a free day in the run of a musical to offer us – perhaps “thrust upon us” is a better term – a dance gala such as we hadn’t seen for ages. It was truly like going back to the old days when theaters would invite a couple of guaranteed SRO dancers, together with some bound-to-be-famous-someday ones, and cobble together a program made up of Classical-Romantic-Modern-repertoire pas de deux. The results: artistically dubious, but gratifying money-wise.

This time the great names were two: Rudolf Nureyev, still able to fill the theaters even post-mortem, and the international star Maximiliano Guerra, very much alive and kicking. The advertising campaign was impressive: TV space (quite a feat, given Italy’s normally balletophobic TV), radio interviews, the city plastered with posters featuring Nureyev’s and Guerra’s faces. It worked: the theater was sold out days in advance.

The event was organized by Luigi Pignotti, Nureyev’s physiotherapist, driver, secretary, manager, factotum, friend and confidant, now a dance impresario.

Why it was put on remains unclear. Had the intention been to celebrate Nureyev by presenting extracts from his repertoire as well as his own choreography, or even – more simply – to dance in his honor, that would have been just fine. But an unnecessary pretext was invoked. We were told that the event was meant to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Nureyev’s death, but that had come around last year. What’s more, Pignotti (emceeing) repeated several times, “Happy Birthday, Rudy!” – but Nureyev was born in March, and this was January. Come again?

As to the pieces were presented and especially how they were presented, there was much to get upset about. When Nureyev staged the great classical ballets, he used to insert variations in principal male roles, in part to make them longer and showier for himself, in part to make these male characters emerge from under the ballerina’s shadow. However, except in "The Nutcracker," he never dared change the great pas de deux of the repertoire.

Well, ALL the choreographies performed during the evening at the Sistina were attributed (by an off-stage voice; the program printed on a scrap of paper was nearly impossible to get hold of) to Nureyev, except for "Diana and Acteon," which was correctly credited to Maximiliano Guerra.

The evening started with the “Blue Bird” pas de deux from "The Sleeping Beauty," definitely from Nureyev’s production (still regularly staged at La Scala in Milan), but with none of his own variations. And Petipa? Petipa who?

This was followed by the pas de deux from "Le Corsaire," which Nureyev did indeed perform, but without changing the original choreography or staging a production himself.  Then came Balanchine’s famous "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux." As it happens, Nureyev never danced it in his whole career, much less choreographed it.  The first part of the evening ended with the pas de deux from "Don Quixote" – original, undiluted Petipa, not the variation that Nureyev had done.

The second part started with what proved to be the show’s pièce de resistance, "The Lesson," a 1963 ballet created for television by the Danish choreographer Flemming Flindt, which won that year’s Prix Italia. In ’64 it was performed on the stage in Paris by the Danish Royal Ballet, and thereafter by other companies. The story is based on Eugène Ionesco’s play of the same name, but the setting here is a dance school; one of the teachers is so transported by his teaching that he ultimately kills his pupil.
The ballet is about half an hour long and very dramatic, with three very intense roles – the teacher, the pupil and a haughty assistant. It was one of Nureyev’s favorites; he first performed it in 1975. and often included it in his “Nureyev and Friends” tours, but (despite what we were told by the Sistina announcer) he was not its creator.

Next came the pas de deux from the balcony scene in "Romeo and Juliet." Here, Pignotti had organized a shell game. Nureyev did produce his own Romeo and Juliet in 1977 for the London Festival Ballet. His version was staged at the Teatro alla Scala in 1980, with Carla Fracci, and it remained in the theater’s repertoire for a long time. Eventually, however, La Scala replaced Nureyev’s production with Kenneth MacMillan’s. Needless to say, MacMillan’s ultra-famous choreography was the one performed at the Sistina gala though it was passed off as Nureyev’s.

The long evening ended with the pas de deux from "Diana and Acteon," performed by a scantily-clad Maximiliano Guerra, to the joy of the many ladies who had flocked to the Sistina (the audience’s male to female ratio was the lowest I’d ever seen).

One wonders why Pignotti felt an urge to attribute choreographies to Nureyev which weren’t his, and why he was unable to resist it. Why deceive the audience, counting on its ignorance?

But wait! There’s more! As I said, the gala took place during the musical’s day off. The Sistina evidently didn’t think it worth its while to take out a second stage floor – about 15 cm high, resting on the regular floorboards (which it didn’t however cover completely) – that was used in the musical. A total lack of respect (to say the least) for the artists and the audience. One needs only to have been to one ballet performance to realize how important the stage floor is for the dancers’ safety and ease of mind, and therefore, for the quality of the performance itself.

Well, the performers at the Sistina had to dance on a hard and slippery floor, and the results can be easily imagined. I never saw so much slipping, so many badly-closed pirouettes, so much nervousness all in a single show. It was painful to see a dancer of Maximiliano Guerra’s caliber counting his steps so as not to end up on the dangerous part of the stage where he would have risked breaking a leg and damaging his reputation. Dancers have to be given the conditions in which they can give their best, not their worst, and in which they will not be in danger of injuring themselves. If a theater management doesn’t provide those conditions, then it’s up to the organizers of a dance event to do it.

Thus sheer thoughtlessness and negligence marred what could have been a high quality event, dance-wise – a real pity.

Notwithstanding these difficulties, many of the dancers, most of whom are with the Teatro alla Scala’s Ballet, managed to give a decent performance.  Maria Francesca Garritano, Roberta Voltolina and Michele Villanova were excellent from all points of view in "The Lesson." Antonella Albano and Nino Sutera -- "Sleeping Beauty" (Blue Bird) and "Romeo and Juliet" – were graceful but a bit too academic.
Daniela Cavalleri performed her part in "Tchaikovsky pas de deux" with brio and elegance, though her partner was not up to her level.  The interpreters of "Le Corsaire" were definitely inadequate.

The stars of the evening were obviously Paola Vismara (of the Maggiodanza company) and Maximiliano Guerra. They performed two highly virtuoso pieces – the pas de deux from "Don Quixote" and "Diana and Acteon."  I had never seen Paola Vismara before, and she was charming and elegant as she overcame all the choreographic and logistical difficulties.

As for Maximiliano, the hero of the evening, I’m particularly fond of him, since I saw him dancing at barely twenty in the English National Ballet (under Peter Schaufuss’s direction) with great ballerinas such as Eva Evdokimova. His brilliant technique, his confidence in partnering, his humility and humanity were already evident at the time. Today he’s one of the great male stars on the international dance scene, but he hasn’t lost any of these qualities. Dance-goers are always charmed by his generosity on the stage and his outgoingness. The only thing that has me wondering is what possessed him to dance at the Sistina Theater in those conditions?

The audience was divided between those who didn’t realize that something was wrong in the stage’s setup and the few who did and therefore appreciated all the more the dancers’ efforts in giving the best possible performance. The applause was thus plentiful. I worry, though, that the theater and the organizers of the gala are convinced that they’re the cat’s pajamas for having put on this event whereas it was the dancers alone who deserve all the credit for more or less pulling it off.

Edited by Jeff.

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