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Film of La Scala Ballet performing "Excelsior" at the Kenned

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The Kennedy Center is having a brief "Ballets Lost and Found" series -- films of reconstructions of 19th century ballets. Hans posted on "Abdallah" last week (in Recent Performances). This week was the grand Italian spectacle-ballet "Excelsior."

Jackson showed Act I, Scene I of the new ballet, and then the same sequence from a 1913 film of a touring company, and then the rest of the "Millennium Edition" (this Millennium). Now, since the ballet was originally done in 1881, we have no idea how close to that original the 1913 version is, but we could certainly see how far the 2000 version is from that of 87 years earlier.

I've never seen so many people on a stage. Huge stage, with several layers. It was like watching a house whose front had been cut off. There wasn't just a meagre little perch for the cherubs, there was a second stage, and not just at the back, but at the sides. It would take ten viewings -- and lots of discipline, concentrating on only one segment of the stage at a time -- to see it all. Watch the cave men, miss the angels. All choreographed like a Swiss Watch, so even if you aren't focused on one particular part, you get the effect of constant, synchronized (well, sort of) movement. This is the 1913 version. Girls, girls, girls, girls, girls. Squadrons of girls -- little girls, big girls, very big girls.

And then, after lots of marching and kicking chorus lines, and the cave men forming two lines, and pushing and pulling the women back and forth, with their clubs (to make it look like a piston engine), in bursts the ballerina -- Galimberto, as Civilization. Deepest backbend I've ever seen save for Fonteyn (in photos, quite young). Her head touches the floor. Very fast feet, careless arms -- sometimes stuck straight down in front of her, like two poles, sometimes wafting about, not in any recognizable position.

Structurally, it's quite like Sleeping Beauty -- a fierce battle between two mimes, The Spirit of Darkness (male) who tries to stop progress -- the telegraph, railroads, the steam engine, electricity, the Suez Canal (built solely so that the Arabs wouldn't die of thirst as they trekked through the desert) and a tunnel through the Alps -- and is constantly thwarted by the Spirit of Light (female, think of the Lilac Fairy danced by Kate Smith). The mime, the mime. I was in Heaven. HUGE gestures. ENORMOUS -- and so free and alive that it did seem conversational. Light knew those gestures, they were part of what I'm sure was an immense vocabulary. And then ZAP a transformation scene. A Spanish Village, whose destruction seemed to depress Darkness and delight Light, turns into hell.

Darkness, in 1913, was a middle-aged man watching the defeated Spaniards sorrowfully from the side of the road. That he turns out to be a Force of Evil, a Villain of Villains, is a surprise. In 2000, Darkness is a skinny dancer in a black unitard with a skeleton painted on it. When he appears in one scene (to warn the fishermen that they're about to be put out of business by the steam engine) he's cuddled up under a black cloak. Surprise! He pops out.

The 2000 reconstruction is, IMHO, as bad as any I've ever seen. Every cliche known to man or ballet. Every step seems culled from other 19th century works, and pasted, willy-nilly, one to another. There are two variations in the first act for Civilization that I thought did look authentic -- one is nothing but epaulement and beats, another begins with gargouillades (at least, I think they were; the skirt hid the legs) But those variations weren't in the 1913 version.

In the 2000 reconstruction, Light is a danced role. Arabesque after arabesque, each higher than the one before it, and her skirt is split up the side so all you see is leg and underwear. She is partnered incessantly, which diminishes her authority. Civilization dances with a Savage -- a very 20th century pas de deux (the Savage was Roberto Bolle, the first I've seen of him, and the most tame person one could imagine. Great turns, though.) The end looks like a commercial for the United Nations, with everyone, in appropriate colorful native costume, carrying his or her flag and marching, marching.

The score is like a movie score -- one rather grand and martial tune played over and over every time something significant happens, which is not infrequent.

But in its day, nothing could have been more modern. In a way, it's a model of how you can deal with contemporary material in ballet.

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Oops. I posted this before I'd read Alexandra's post in "Ballet History." Any moderators may feel free to move this post under hers.

This was the second installment of the three-part "Lost and Found" film series at the Kennedy Center. "Excelsior" was choreographed by Luigi Manzotti in 1881. For those who thought 19th-century ballet was all roses and fairies, here is a ballet extolling progress and technology. It's been heavily updated, and from the bit of the 1913 film we saw, Manzotti was no Petipa or Bournonville (some Parisians found the ballet vulgar), but the little scenes are fun to watch even if some of the dances are too repetitive and uninspired.

The printed cast list isn't entirely accurate, but I can only be sure of the correct name in one instance: Sophie Sarrote is listed as Civilization when it was danced by Isabel Seabra. The principal cast members were:

The Spirit of Light: Gilda Gelati

The Spirit of Darkness: Andrea Volpintesta

Civilization: Isabel Seabra

There were many, many other characters, including people of various nationalities, telegraph girls, Alessandro Volta, &c. Enrico Cecchetti was in the first production, but the printed material doesn't say which role he performed. Here is the printed synopsis that was handed out:

Part I Scene I. A Spanish town in ruins. A bell tolls for those about to be burnt at the stake.

The Spirit of Darkness rejoices, for at his feet lies a woman, Light, in chains. Gradually she revives, breaks her chains, and informs the Spirit of Darkness that his reign is over and that the future belongs to her.

Part I Scene II. The abode of Genius and Light. The walls are inscribed in gold with the names of those associated with the greatest achievements.

Science, Power, Industry, Love, Civilization, Perseverance, Union, Concord, Courage, Glory, Invention, the Fine Arts, Agriculture, Commerce--all inhabit this abode. Civilization and the Spirit of Light meet in triumph.

[A "grand ballabile" was performed here, with a set comprising many levels, golden lions, and a great many people. The 1913 clip also shown was of this part. -Hans]

Part II Scene I. A village on the banks of the Weser. To the left a tavern; to the right, a post-house.

The inn-keeper and his wife greet their son, Valentine, a boat-man who has won all the prizes at the regattas. His betrothed and his friends congratulate him and drink his health. But the unsuccessful competitors are downcast and do not care to join in the rejoicings. A quarrel is averted by the arrival of a party of postilions and country lasses who dance a mazurka. The dance concluded, the losers propose a new trial of strength, which Valentine accepts. As they go to the river, the Spirit of Darkness draws their attention to a strange craft, the invention of Papin, which moves by itself. He declares it to be inhabited by demons, and that it will ruin their trade. The boatmen seize their weapons and smash the steam-boat. The Spirit of Darkness is triumphant; but Light appears, saves Papin, and declares that his invention will attain full success at the hands of Watt and Fulton.

Part II Scene II. The Brooklyn Viaduct, New York.

Two promontories are connected by an iron bridge over which express trains pass, while a steamer forges through the stormy sea below.

Part III Scene I. Volta's laboratory at Como.

Volta is engaged in various experiments. After some failures an electric spark appears. He kneels and offers thanks to God. The Spirit of Darkness attempts to destroy the battery but is hurled backwards by an electric shock. Light shows Volta the benefits of this discovery and the curtain descends to the ringing of electric bells.

Part III Scene II. Telegraph Square, Washington.

Light and the Spirit of Darkness are borne to the Central Telegraph Office, Washington. Little telegraph-messengers pour out of the office. Light is triumphant, but the Spirit of Darkness swears vengeance.

Part IV Scene I. A Desert Simoom.

Clouds of sand arise and hold up a caravan. Robbers attack the caravan and pillage it. The wayfarers struggle vainly against the storm and gradually all are buried beneath the sand. The Spirit of Darkness arises in triumph, but Light points to the horizon.

Part IV Scene II. The Isthmus of Suez.

The desert is replaced by the Suez Canal along which pass numerous vessels. In the meantime there are great festivities in honor of De Lesseps's achievement.

[At this point, there was a pas de cinq between Civilization, a Turk, a Chinese man, a British man, and a Spanish man. George Jackson said that when the ballet was shown in St. Petersburg, Petipa was asked to do one like it, and he produced the Sleeping Beauty. The pas de cinq was supposedly the predecessor of the Rose Adagio. -Hans]

Part V Scene I. The Tunneling of Mount Cenis.

The Spirit of Darkness watches in anger the work of tunnelling go forward. The mine is ready and fired, but the Italian engineer's men do not hear the pickaxes of the French. There is consternation.

A distant detonation is heard and an engineer listens intently. He hears the French at work and orders his own men to attack their end of the tunnel. Soon mount Cenis is pierced and the French and Italians embrace in triumph. Light glories in the achievement.

Part V Scene II. A bust of De Lesseps supported by Fames.

The Spirit of Darkness attempts to flee, but Light tells him that it is his turn to tremble. Clouds fill the stage and, through them, all the nations are seen at peace. At a gesture from Light, the earth opens and engulphs [sic] the Spirit of Darkness.

Part VI Scene I. The clouds vanish and there follows a Grand Festival of the Nations.

Part VI Scene II. Apotheosis of Light and Peace.

It sounds much longer than it really is--about 2 hours. I'll write my opinions in another post:).

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In Beaumont's Complete Book of the Ballets, from a London review in 1885:

"The lean and lissom primo ballerino Signor Enrico Cecchetti not only fairly astounds by his wonderous pirouetting, but dances throughout in such a finished and graceful style as to conquer the prejudices I have generally entertained against the masculine ballet dancer. In the plump and pleasing prima ballerina, Signora Adelina Rossi, he has a worthy co-adjutor."

I guess he danced the Savage? He's not listed in the original cast list in Beaumont.

Thanks for posting the libretto, Hans. I picked one up, but didn't read it (I never read them before watching a new story ballet; spoils the fun).

At least now I know why Light was so chipper amid all that destruction at the beginning (I did see her burst her chains, but couldn't connect it with the poor Spaniards.) I'll await your analysis eagerly!

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La Scala actually performed Excelsior at the Paris Opera last year. I saw two performances and it was Extraordinary! Wonderful effects - terrible modern additions to the chorography - but a highly entertaining performance. And one interesting historical footnote - I noticed that in the 'ballet of the nations' the flags used date back to the period of the original production, so many of them no longer exist.

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Thanks, Alymer -- I wondered about the flags. I don't know the flags for states like Bavaria and Prussia, so I didn't pick out any old ones (and didn't have time to count the stars on the US flag).

Now, imagine what you saw with the addition of 875 dancers, give or take a hundred, plus the odd elephant, all dancing something completely different on several levels on all sides of the stage (that's the 1913 version). The men actually had more to do in that one, I was surprised to see. Nothing much interesting, but more stage time jumping :)

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Oh, we had dancing on different levels and I particularly liked the winged, and seemingly demented harpists sitting on the third level. I also admired the men's striped, gold fringed bloomers. But alas, no elephants. Incidentally, Darkness was translated in the Paris programme as Obscurantism - a great name I thought.

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An interesting link from Italy (in English) -- an abbreviated libretto, pitting the Genius of the Shadows against the Genius of Humanity. (And explains why we should be happy at the sacking of the Spanish village; it's the end of the Inquisition.)


And a review by Giulio Nascimbeni (in English) that gives some historical context:

It was the evening of January 11th 1881. Leaving La Scala, people whispered the irresistible notes of a "galoppo" that had just learnt by heart. The first night of the "Excelsior" by Luigi Manzotti and Romualdo Marenco was a triumph. It was very cold, a piercing wind, snow was expected, but people were glad. Behind the flickering reverberation of the lamps, already unbelievable dawns, suns to come, fantastic phosphorescence started peeping as in a dream.  

The "Excelsior" prophesied it by the means of the personage of Alessandro Volta.  

In the libretto of the ballet, Manzotti wrote: "Volta seizes two electrical wires, joins them and a spark illuminates the set! The pale brow of the scientist is radiant".  

Farewell to gas lamps so. Five or six years of wait and the electric lighting would make a clean sweep of all the romantic heritages of the past. People leaving La Scala sensed this certainty and the proud rose throughout fur muffs and lapels as a hot, pleasant wave: the proud to be bourgeois and Milanese, the proud to have contributed with one's own money (the proceeds were six thousands lire) to this spectacle that seemed a message coming from future.

For the full review, click here:


An uncredited description from WayItalia, which ends:

According to Vittoria Ottolenghi, Excelsior is "a ballet that expresses a very special moment of our history and our theatre, which is precious and unrepeatable. It describes the inspiration, the imagination, the Italian genius, utopias of progress and science. The wishes for a better world. A great show that will influence Hollywood thirties' productions, always keeping up with the times, with continuous choreographic integrations ".

For more: Italian Style

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I thought the effects were good, too, Alymer.

The dancing in the 1913 clip was rather wilder than in the modern production, in which the dancing was rather bland, I thought, though Seabra was a welcome relief. Whoever danced Civilization in the 1913 film did some amazing things--double echappés without coming off pointe, for example, travelling downstage! I also preferred the original mime of Light and Dark to the boring modern choreography: arabesque, arabesque, pirouette in arabesque.... Granted, the dancer had a beautiful arabesque, but it was just too much after a while. Also, I found her to be rather in the Julie Kent mold--gorgeous long lines, high extension, very polished and smiling, and absolutely lacking in power or dramatic force. When she performed the supported penchés with Darkness that were clearly meant to represent Light pushing Darkness down, it was instead quite obvious that he was supporting her as she raised her leg to the sky.

Thought Bolle was good as the Savage, though I agree, Alexandra--much too tame. Jackson said when he first appeared "Watch him, he turns into a danseur noble." I thought, "He already is one to judge by his dancing!" But still--beautiful lines. He looked great paired with Light.

The ballet can't have been very long (less than two hours) but to me it felt like an eternity. The divertissements, which in the classics are beautiful and tasteful, were in "Excelsior" boring and repetitive.

The music was reminiscent of a Hollywood movie, and the dances seemed calculated to impress, with a great many "piqué turns" (ie, tour dégagé en dedans) and various other pirouettes, but the elements were all just sort of thrown together, and not presented well.

Did not like Darkness' costume, or the MacMillan pas de deux between the Savage and Light, which looked drearily like a combination of Manon and Romeo and Juliet. The acrobatic splits given to Darkness were ridiculous--he looked like he was taking a stretch break in the middle of the performance. Also, it was not clear when he burned his hand that he was trying to destroy Volta's lab equipment.

The finale was all right, although the marching steps looked kind of ridiculous in those long tutus, especially when the dancers' legs wouldn't stay parallel and they'd slip into a sort of marching waddle.

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