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I am set to be a good student of dance and have made reasonable progress following the origins and evolution of the art form in France, Russia, England and America. But the history of ballet in Italy seems rather elusive or, at least, not as well defined as I would have imagined. Having now written this and "thinking out loud", I purpose to go back and have a closer look ! Could one correctly say of the Italian contribution: great bravura style dancers and outstanding teachers but with no permanent school or distinctive evolving style as in the Paris Opera ? Perhaps there is a good book on the subject?

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Altongrimes I hope that the following may be of assistance to you in your quest to discover the contribution which Italy has made to the development of ballet.


I am not aware of a book in English about the history of Italian ballet, ballet in Italy or the contribution which Italians have made to the development of ballet as an art form. I think that there are a number of reasons for that.


The first is that, unlike France, where you can produce a fairly persuasive book on the development of ballet in France by concentrating on dance activity in Paris that is not possible for Italy. Before the  Risorgimento and Unification  the peninsula was a patchwork of states each of which had its own theatrical traditions, its own cultural preferences and is own rules on censorship. The major centres of ballet at La Scala,Milan, and the Teatro San Carlo, Naples, did not share the same tastes so you have to write about both and explain changing tastes in both centres.


Then there is the fact that Italian ballet activity was not confined to the peninsula. There were Italian ballet dancers working across Europe and at one point in the eighteenth century there were Italian ballet masters working in Copenhagen and St.Petersburg. Writing about the major Italian dancers who appeared as guest artists in Russia is much easier and more likely to attract funding than writing about the efforts of Italian ballet masters in Italy and Europe.


 Now the two countries which played the greatest part in the development of classical ballet in the nineteenth century and thus of ballet as we tend to think of it today it today were France and Russia both of which were, and remain, very centralised states. Although by the time we get to the nineteenth century the Paris Opera was being run on a commercial basis while the Russian state was supporting the activities of the Imperial Theatres and companies  the two states were similar in that there were identifiable centres of ballet training in Paris and St Petersburg respectively which were recognised as centres of excellence and whose artists influenced what went on elsewhere in their respective countries. That does not seem to have happened in Italy, even after unification, it remained and remains a country of distinct regions with their own regional dialects,culture, history and tastes, and their own theatrical culture and tastes.


Perhaps the real problem is that we don't know enough about balletic activity in nineteenth century Italy. If ballet was only ever able to play second fiddle to opera, by providing diverting dances during the course of an opera performance, which is the impression we tend to have of ballet on the peninsula how do we explain how Luigi Manzotti came to create Excelsior  or its international success?  What we can say is that the development of Blassis' system of  technical training combined with later advances in shoe construction which occurred in Milan enabled dancers trained in Northern Italy to achieve a technical level that seemed beyond the capabilities of their Russian contemporaries. 


During the 1880's and 1890's the  Imperial Theatres imported a series of Italian trained dancers as guest artists who arguably changed the  course of dance history in Russia and the rest of Europe. Brianz and Legnani are the most famous of them but there were others such as Antoinetta Dell'Era who today is all but forgotten, although I suspect that there may be considerably more of her technical skills recorded in the Stepanov notation of Sleeping Beauty than is generally acknowledged today.


The first of the late nineteenth century Italian guest ballerinas was Virginia Zucchi who probably had a greater influence on the long term development of ballet in Russia than either Legnani or Brianzi because she persuaded a generation of young ballet goers that the art form was capable of doing far more than merely entertaining. Her dramatic range as a dance actress convinced those who saw her that  "a dancer as an artist could be the equal of a Bernhardt or a Duse". She was as  successful in portraying Fenella in La Muette de Portici which had been one of Elssler's great roles, as she was in playing Lise in La Fille Mal Gardee which Petipa revived for her. Alexandre Benois described her performances as revelatory.  Among the ballet goers who saw her were the men who were some who went on to collaborate with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes.


As far as ballet in Italy in the twentieth and twenty first century  is concerned it continues to produce very fine dancers although the resident ballet company at La Scala is in a losing battle with the opera company as far as stage time for performances is concerned.


|I leave it to you to read about court masques in the renaissance courts of Italy especially Mantua and how they fed into court entertainments elsewhere in Europe .


Here are a couple of suggestions for further reading;-


1) The Divine Virginia : A Biography of Virginia Zucchi by Ivor Guest.


Unless you are an Italian speaker you will need an Italian dictionary for the following book. 


2) Storia della danza italiano dalla origini ai giorni nostri  edited by J. Sasportes pub 2011


Once you have identified a few people whose activities in dance interest you whether as dancers or ballet masters then you could try the on-line Dizionario Biografico.     Again an Italian dictionary will be required.



Edited by Ashton Fan
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Look for work by Giannandrea Poesio -- dance historian and critic.  Alas, he died recently, but did a great deal of work on Italian ballet history.  Here are a couple of articles that you can see online.


Cechetti and the Ballet Russe


The Gesture and the Dance

The Irish and the Italians


You may have to go to the library for some other materials.


Poesio, Giannandrea.  "Blasis, the Italian Ballo, and the Male Sylph."  In Rethinking the Sylph:  New Perspectives on the Romantic Ballet.  Ed. Lynn Garafola.  Hanover:  Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England, 1997, pp. 131-141.

--------.  "Enrico Cecchetti:  The Influence of Tradition."  In Dance History:  An Introduction.  Ed. Janet Adshead-Lansdale and June Layson.  Rev. ed.  London:  Routledge, 1994, pp. 117-131.


And a bibliography from a NYPL exhibit on Italian dance

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