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Has anyone ever seen this one? (Too much to hope there's an old-timer around, I guess, but there have been recent revivals.)

In an 1881 Ballet, Optimism as It Used to Be

Innocence can be disturbing. Yes, on a wintry Paris evening early in the 21st century, it can be a tad unsettling to be abruptly transported to the sunny optimism of the late 19th century, when Science was conquering Backwardness for the sake of Humanity and Western nations were celebrating a relatively peaceful European century around the flag of Progress.

[The 19th century "relatively peaceful"? Between Napoleon and the Franco-Prussian War, not to mention a few dozen revolutions......]


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Did manage to get in last week, to see Act I, twice, and then both Acts straight through, on one occasion.

As you've given the Link here, I'd rather not repeat the "plot" details, given in today's NY Times, and by Clement Crisp as well, in yesterday's Financial Times, for space reasons.

The subject of the ballet - Progress, in a word, is truly delightful, and I say, We Need More of It. The choreography, save for two decent Mime scenes with Denis Papin (inventor of the concept of steam-power) and the inventor Volta, is, however, a nightmare from start to finish, devoid of a single redeeming feature.

In Luigi Manzotti's defence, it should be said that not a step of his original choreography survives. What we are seeing is a 1967 mock-up, by Ugo dell'Ara - although I cannot but suspect that the original may not have been up to scratch either...

The less said about the corps de ballet of La Scala, the better. They are pretty actors and mimes, they have a graceful ear for music, and somewhere in there, there do seem to be a handful of decent dancers, but given the thundering masses on stage in Excelsior, it's a bit of a case of seeking a needle in a haystack.

Clearly, at La Scala, help is badly needed backstage and in the classroom. Were I competent to give it, I'd be on the train out there tomorrow !

The featured guest artists were Viviana Durante, and Massimiliano Guerra. Again, the less said, the better.

One cannot but suspect that the REAL reason La Scala chose to present the thing at Paris in 2002, is that their ballet masters prudently decided that, on POB territory, flight into trivia was the better part of valour.

On the other hand, the idea of putting up a ballet on PROGRESS, a thing I had never thought of, until Luigi Manzotti came, so to speak, into my life (!), IS a beautiful idea. I found myself wondering whether one might not do a piece on the Conquest of Space, which would include a Pas des Dieux et des Déesses, and a Pas des Héros, with the great space scientists and astronauts - in the form of ethereal artists of course: Gagarin et al. may have been a tad unwieldy on stage.

Something like the international space station, where leading lights from our stages round the world, would interpret John Glenn, Claudie Haigneré...

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There was a grand ballet presented in America (Philadelphia) at the end of the 18th century called "Democracy." All of the Indian Chiefs (what few there were left in the area anyway) were invited to attend -- to be instructed, no doubt -- and did so, dressed in evening clothes (formal tribal best). There's a report of it in Marian Hannah Winter's "Pre-Romantic Ballet." Maybe there's something about the end of a century that leads to excess?

I'd be curious to see Excelsior, but knowing that it was all "reconstructed" and I wouldn't be seeing Excelsior made it less attractive. There was a similar ballet called "Sport". Progress and Sport; that sums up the century very well -- theirs and ours.

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I saw Excelsior twice, with two different casts and I have to say I enjoyed it hugely both as a piece of real ballet kitsch and also as an example of what brought in an audience in the 1870s. I'm surprised that Katharine Kanter says there is no original Manzotti choreography. The programme states that three separate notations exist (pages from one are reproduced in the programme) and my impression was that Dell'Ara had merely added a number of rather undistinguished variations and pas de deux, leaving the crowd scenes much as they were, although adapted for fewer dancers. Certainly, that is what Horst Koegler wrote when he reviewed the production when it was revived some years ago at La Scala.

As to the dancing - well, an ability to conceal fits of giggles is probably the most necessary quality for the Corps. I thought Durante was fine, dancing strongly and with a nice touch of irony. I was less impressed by Guerra, but I confess I've never been a fan of his. I haven't got the programme to hand, so I can't name the dancers from La Scala, but having seen the company recently in Giselle, there would seem to be some very decent dancers among the ranks.

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