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Homage to Milloss

Art exhibition curated by Maria Ida Biggi

Exhibition review by Rosella Simonari

June 10, 2006 -- Palazzo Cini Gallery, Venice

Aurel Milloss (1906-1988) was a key figure in Italian dance history. Born in Hungary, he studied with Rudolf Laban and Enrico Cecchetti, and he created his own style combining classical dance with expressionist dance, also known as Ausdruckstanz. When he was called to direct the Royal Opera Theatre in Rome in the late 1930s, the status of dance was quite low and the audience’s tastes were quite old fashioned. With his charisma and high professional persona he managed to reform ballet and give dance a proper role within the Italian panorama.  For the 100th anniversary of his birth, the Fondazione Giorgio Cini has organised an exhibition in Venice to celebrate him, titled “Homage to Aurel Milloss”. The curator Maria Ida Biggi, with the collaboration of Linda Selmin, arranged a series of documents, photographs, sketches and rare books into three main sections. One centered on his formative years in Germany, another on his permanence in Venice and on the works connected with that period, and the third dedicated to the rare material from his personal library. 

Significantly, the poster of the exhibition features Milloss as the Marvellous Mandarin, a character he interpreted and created with great success. His rapacious hands, his evil eyes and his costume, designed by Futurist artist Prampolini and characterised by shiny black satin adorned with lateral curling yellow motifs, turned Milloss into a devilish creature. “The Marvellous Mandarin” (1942), with music by Béla Bartók and set by Prampolini, was inspired by Melchior Lengyel’s homonymous tale. It is the dark story of a Girl who is forced to prostitute herself by three Gangsters. When she approaches a Mandarin, whose heart is barren and stingy, her seductive power awakens an unexpected energy in him. The three Gangsters rob him and try to kill him in different manners until they fatally wound him. Before he dies the Girl approaches him and he manages to touch her, thus dying in peace. Apart from the dancing movements characterising the Gangsters and the Girl, those created for the Mandarin are the most interesting. As dance scholar Patrizia Veroli explains, Milloss “showed that he could compress…his body that was quite tall (more than a metre and eighty centimetres tall) into the angular…dimension of a horrible insect”. This was his most intense dramatic performance as a dancer and, according to him, even during the moments of stillness the Mandarin had to be disturbing and threatening.  

The first section of the exhibition presents several interesting photographs. One features Milloss improvising with a group of other students at the Laban school. He considered Laban to be his true master and always paid a great respect to his work and theories. He also restaged “Gaukelei”, one of Laban’s pieces, and Laban himself was quite grateful, as is shown by a dedication he wrote to Milloss in one of his books. There are also photos of his first important pieces, such as his adaptation of “Petrouchka” and “Coppélia”. He was particularly good in dark and grotesque roles, which is why in his Coppélia, Dr. Coppelius plays a much more important role than in the St Léon’s version. In the recreation he made in 1939, he chose to stage four Coppelius’s that would circle Swanilda, “a motif, this of the clones, of great spectacular impact, but of difficult realisation, because it implied the employment of dancers with physical characteristics and mimic peculiarities identical to his [Milloss’]”, Patrizia Veroli highlights.    

The second section of the exhibition is the largest. Milloss had a deep relationship with the city of Venice and between 1939 and 1977 he presented several performances there. That is why he also donated his personal library to the Fondazione Cini that has created a special archive dedicated to the Hungarian dance master. In this section there is a series of beautiful sketches by artists such as Renato Guttuso, Felice Casorati and Enrico Paulucci for his work, be it an opera or a ballet. Together with his intense activity as dancer and choreographer he was also director of some operas such as “Idomeneo, King of Crete”. Among the pieces he presented in Venice, “Marsia” (1948) is maybe the most relevant. Born out of Milloss’s fruitful collaboration with composer Dallapiccola, this ballet is based on the Greek myth of Marsia who, after discovering the sound of music, accepts the challenge to measure his ability to play the flute against that of the god Apollo. He loses and Apollo has him flayed and transformed into a river. In this story Milloss saw the abuse of a gift and what that abuse can bring to the receiver. The beautiful sketches for this ballet are from artist Toti Scajola and they show a big sunlike shape divided in the middle by a diagonal line. There is also the poster from the premiere and some letters between Dallapiccola and Milloss on the genesis of the work.

The third section presents some rare books and documents belonging to Milloss’s library. Among the books is one by Curt Sachs, who was his teacher, another one by Fritz Böhme who appreciated Milloss’s work, a book by Laban and two rare 18th century books by Feuillet and Pécour respectively. As is clear from the video interview introducing this section, Milloss dedicated a great part of his studies to dance theory and history. He was not only an extraordinary dancer and choreographer, he also often wrote about dance in articles published in Italy and abroad, and because of his recognised competence as a historian and scholar, at the end of the 1940s he was asked to work at the dance section of the monumental Enciclopedia dello spettacolo [Performance Encyclopaedia] promoted by theatre critic Silvio D’Amico.

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