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In Search of Alberto Spadolini

The Incomplete Mosaic Behind an Extraordinary Life

by Rosella Simonari

July 2006 -- Mondaino, Italy

The year 2006 marks the 100th anniversary of Josephine Baker’s birth, and Mondaino, a small village in central Italy near Riccione, celebrated this anniversary in June in an unusual manner -- by unveiling the figure who at the beginning of the 1930s represented her partner on stage and possibly in her life. Alberto Spadolini (1907-1972) was a great dancer within the Parisian music-hall environment -- he often choreographed his pieces, was also a figurative painter, decorator, restorer, actor, singer and occasionally writer. His was a very eclectic figure, and his life emerges as an adventurous story whose many pieces still remain hidden.

The rediscovery of Spadolini’s career has been done by his nephew, Marco Travaglini, who in 1978 found a box of documents, posters, newspaper articles and musical sheets belonging to his uncle who had passed away a few years before. He found this treasure in his aunt’s attic as he was helping them to move. A marvellous world was opened to him, and since then Travaglini has begun a research both in Italy and France to discover more about him.

He traced the steps of the beginning of his career as dancer through magazine articles such as “Vedettes”. He collected material about him and Baker, and kept on searching for more pieces of this mosaic. Incredibly, Spadolini had never mentioned his past as dancer to his relatives, and when from Paris he visited them in Italy, he would only show his other artistic sides, that of painter, decorator and restorer.

This fact is quite interesting and worth a reflection. Why did he never talk about his career at the Paris Casino and about his tours in France, in Europe and in the United States? We can find a possible answer in the attitude and mentality his relatives may have had towards dance. Maybe he knew that they would misunderstand him and see it as a depraved thing to do rather than a successful position.

Dancing in itself was probably not seen as a worthy occupation; dancing in the music-hall for a man was considered even worse. And this is a kind of paradox for an Italian region like Marche, a region linked to two eminent male figures belonging to dance history, namely Renaissance dance master Guglielmo Ebreo da Pesaro and internationally renowned ballet master Enrico Cecchetti.     

In the small exhibition in Mondaino, apart from some beautiful illustrations portraying Josephine Baker, such as the coloured one by Federico Fellini, there were black and white photographs presenting Spadolini in some of his dance pieces. One featured him in a high jump with a leg straight up and the other bent, his costume resembling that of a Greek figure. Another presented him in all the splendour of his naked athletic body, showing his profile and a pose with a leg slightly bent and the other straight and with a pointed foot.

Because in his most famous shows he usually danced with succinct costumes, he came to be known as “the naked dancer”, and in one of Baker’s memoirs compiled by André Rivollet, the writer confirms this, stating that: “On Christmas Eve I was invited at Vésinet, for dinner…Everything was white in Josephine’s house…there was a group of her friends: those from the Paris Casino, dancer Spadolini for the occasion dressed!”

His dance style was quite powerful, at times acrobatic, but unfortunately we do not have much record left. There is a scene from the 1936 French film “Marinella”, where he performs one of his famous solo pieces. He wears only a pair of pants and he stands on a stage in the circular shape of a big drum. He rotates his arms and beats his bare feet on the floor, recalling the flamenco zapateado. It is a thrilling piece of primitivist kind, full of rhythm and speed. 

Anton Giulio Bragaglia refers to Spadolini’s dancing as “aereodance”, thus recalling the Futurist approach to movement. The Futurists too exalted speed in their notion of dance, and Spadolini may have been influenced by their aesthetics to create his style. Bragaglia was the creator of the Teatro degli Indipendenti (theatre of the independent artists) in Rome, a place where the Italian avant-garde met and discussed new ideas about art, theatre and literature. Among the artists and writers, there were Prampolini, Balla, Marinetti and Pirandello.

Spadolini had left his hometown, Ancona, to go to Rome and study as painter. After debuting in the studio of Vatican painter Gian Battista Conti, he joined the Bragaglia group and began to expose his work and create his own set design pieces. From the paintings we know of, some of which were exposed in the Mondaino exhibition, he was not very influenced by the Futurist aesthetics. He liked painting the natural landscapes of Marche with its nice hills and countryside, towns such as Ancona, and dancers. He was a figurative painter who was more inspired by Ventian artist Canaletto rather than Futurist painter Balla.

Interestingly, he created a whole series of paintings inspired by ballet, with fluctuating ballerinas in white long tutus surrounded by curtains whose shades of light and darkness followed those of the costumes. This topic is very significant with respect to the kind of dancing he performed. He was a music-hall dancer, but from his paintings it seems that his aspiration or his ideal of dance was ballet, and precisely, Romantic ballet.

This tension may be important to understand his commitment to dance and his spiritual approach to movement. Spadolini was a fervent Catholic -- at age 19, he painted a beautiful portrait of San Francis, which is now kept in the Church of Bradford in the United States. In an interview he affirmed: “with my dancing I intend to express my love for the sun, beauty, life in all its aspects and also a religious feeling that I consider as guide and support”.

Some friends recall that before creating his dance pieces, he would sit on an armchair listening to music, as if to find the proper concentration. His career as dancer began after he moved to Paris at the beginning of the 1930s. He had found a work at famous illustrator Paul Colin’s studio and was working with Colin’s group at the decorations of a dance-hall in Villefranche-sur-Mer when the orchestra began rehearsing the second rhapsody by Liszt.

He began dancing what was defined “a savage dancing”. Everybody seemed hypnotised by his sense of rhythm, and the impresario of the place immediately hired him to dance at the Eldorado Casino in Nice. Spadolini, never having danced in front of an audience before, did not have a costume and he managed to turn a white sheet into a Greek-like costume. 

As Bagaglia himself stated, the beginnings were difficult as Spadolini suffered from the jealousy of other dancers who had studied for years and could not accept his role as star who had come from nowhere to steal their place. Still Spadolini endured, he danced his solo pieces with force and energy. A few years after his debut, he took ballet classes with Alexander Volinin, Pavlova’s partner who had opened a school in Paris in 1925, so that his fierce style acquired the discipline and refinement of technique.

His encounter with Josephine Baker was as magical as his debut in the dance world, and it is recounted by the Flemish magazine “De Dag”. She was looking for a new partner in her shows, and when she saw Spadolini performing, she chose him to dance with her at the Paris Casino. As some newspapers articles ironically underlined, Baker was looking for a dancer and she had found a painter. Between 1932 and 1935, Spado’, as he was called, and Baker performed together in several shows such as “La Joie de Paris”, “Hawaii” and “Créole”.

According to some reports from Spadolini’s relatives and friends, he also had a tumultuous love affair with Baker which came to an end probably because of professional problems between them. If on the one hand Baker was much more famous than Spadolini, his dancing, especially in solo, was always very much appreciated so that newspaper reports began to often highlight his quality in spite of hers. As Legrand-Chabrier in the “L’Intransigent” affirmed in 1933, “the glory of Josephine Baker does not overshadow him at all”.

Their last show together was probably in 1935 at the Prince Edward Theatre in London. Baker was criticised while Spadolini was highly praised. She did not like it, as a fragment from a French paper titled “Jealousy” states. They broke up, and Baker never wanted to dance with him again. They made peace only in 1947, thanks to the mediation of Prince Ruspoli and to a gamble he made with Spadolini. On his part, Spadolini, as his long time friend Alex Wolfson reported, was very shaken by the event:

“Alberto came back home like a fury and he locked himself in his studio. I heard noises of broken glasses and objects thrown away. When I managed to enter, the room looked like a battle ground: there were broken records, destroyed books, the beautiful Spado’s portrait of the black Venus with its golden frame, irremediably gone!”

Spadolini destroyed all the objects that reminded him of Baker, including a series of photographs. The only thing Wolfson could save was a photograph of Spadolini and Baker in “Hawaii”, even though when Spadolini gave it to him it was already partially torn and Baker’s face had been cut away.

Nevertheless, Spadolini’s success continued both as dancer and painter. Wherever he was touring, he also tried to find a place to exhibit his paintings, and even when he no longer danced, he continued to expose his work. We have a record of an exhibition he organised in Brussels at the Galerie Rubens in 1955, titled “La Danse”, probably featuring his dance series paintings. 

Spadolini did not only perform primitivist kinds of dances, he was quite influenced by Spanish dancing too, and his most renowned performance in this sense is the one set to  “Bolero” by Maurice Ravel. After it was presented in 1928 as a ballet choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska, “Bolero” was often employed in concert performances, and Spadolini excelled in this so much that Ravel himself said that Spado’s choreography was “in harmony with the music of the Bolero”. He also danced together with flamenco dancer Nati Morales and collaborated with Django Reinhardt and Carmen Amaya for the creation of a documentary on the origin of Gypsy music called “Nous les gitans”.

There are still many parts of this puzzle called Spadolini that remain hidden and questions that should be more deeply addressed -- for example, the tension between his energetic dance style and his paintings of ballerinas and countryside. Or, how his experience at the Teatro degli Indipendenti in Rome affected his dance pieces, if at all. Was he influenced by Futurism and its focus on speed and rhythm in his dancing? What was his role as an Italian immigrant dancing primitivist dance? What was his relationship with the Avant-Gardes?

Marco Travaglini’s search for more and more news on his uncle continues, and thanks to the discovery of the box of documents and to an important exhibition he organised in Riccione in 2005, he received a medal from the former President of the Italian Republic Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.

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