Culture

Dance

Teatro alla Scala Ballet Company is bringing light and shade to Australia

By Steve Dow
A conversation with members of the Italian company ahead of their tour to Brisbane

Ballet dancers do have bad habits, even those who are physically perfect. Blond Timofej Andrijashenko, 23, born in Riga, Latvia, for instance, says he smiles too much, which is fine if it’s at the right moments. The brunette Nicoletta Manni, 26, born in Galatina, Italy, nominates her perfectionism.

But when these two principal dancers are matched as Romeo and Juliet or perform, say, the lyrical duet in Le Corsaire, great skill meets bold gestures, and chemistry courses between them because they are a couple off stage as well.

As young stars of the Teatro alla Scala Ballet Company, Adrijashenko and Manni will dance the thematically light-hearted but technically challenging Don Quixote as well as the great romantic Giselle in Brisbane in November.

Its roots dating to the 1778 inauguration of the famous La Scala opera house in Milan, the ballet company is finally making good on 17 years of mulling the idea of staging its first ever performances in Australia.

The company’s Nice-born ballet director, Frédéric Olivieri, spoke English with a heavy French accent during an Australian promotional tour ahead of the planned suite of performances here. He referred to each of the tour’s guest performers – Maria Eichwald of the Stuttgart Ballet, Leonid Sarafanov of the Mikhailovsky Theatre and David Hallberg of the American Ballet Theatre – as an “étoile”, the French equivalent of star.

Olivieri has an eye for new étoiles, too. He has known Nicoletta Manni since she was 12, and taught her when he was director of the La Scala Ballet School. He made Timofej Andrijashenko a principal in April this year.

“In this kind of couple life, it is good, because you can talk about the problems,” says Olivieri, adding a note of caution about mixing love and work: “But sometimes it is not good if you’ve got only ballet in your life. So, it must be the right balance.”

“It’s amazing to share with the person you love the stage and all the experience of going on tour,” explains Manni. “But sometimes it’s hard when you bring it home: maybe the rehearsal was not good. Of course, when we travel around the world, it’s much easier.”

“Sometimes when you have an important performance you have to do and maybe you’re stressed,” adds Andrijashenko, “you continue to think about how to dance it, how to make it better.”

Manni chips in and owns the flaw: “I am the one who thinks about it,” she says, and laughs at her partner’s chivalrous use of “you” as if to deflect attention from her. They exchange glances. “I’m getting better,” she says, good humouredly.

Meanwhile, their director’s broad ambition for the Teatro alla Scala Ballet Company is drawn from his own wide history. Olivieri danced for the Paris Opéra, a state company for which he was a soloist when Rudolph Nureyev was appointed its artistic director in 1983. Olivieri was also a principal with the Hamburg Ballet, led by auteur John Neumeier, and took part as leading dancer in the creation of the Ballets de Monte-Carlo, which was organised around touring. A back injury ended his dancing days.

The version of Don Quixote to be seen in Brisbane uses Nureyev’s choreography, part of La Scala’s repertoire since 1980. After the Kirov Ballet star defected to the West in Paris in 1961, the role of Basilio was often cited as his signature. His version of Don Quixote was also filmed in Australia in 1972, with Australia’s Sir Robert Helpmann as Quixote and New Zealand-born prima ballerina Lucette Aldous as Kitri, dancing alongside Nureyev.

“I knew him very well,” recalls Olivieri. “He changed completely the rules of the Paris Opéra. He changed the repertoire, he changed the way to teach, the way to dance. He was in the class every day. He’d say, ‘I want the line more this way’.”

Olivieri most admires the Russians’ dedication to the art form of ballet, which may have been partly what alerted him to young Timofej Andrijashenko’s bold talent, which one critic attributed to his Russian blood. Echoes of Nureyev?

“Sometimes you can see in my gestures on stage something of Russia,” says Latvian-born Andrijashenko. “I have a little bit of Russian spirit because my parents are Russian, so I’m a little bit influenced by that.”

Nicoletta Manni will dance as Kitri across the arduous three-act Quixote and as the eponymous Giselle, which uses the original Jean Coralli–Jules Perrot choreography. The Queensland Symphony Orchestra provides the live score for both ballets.

“They’re really opposite. I danced Kitri for the first time in 2014, so it’s four years I’ve been dancing Don Quixote. I danced with Sarafanov in it three years ago, and last year. He helped me so much; he’s a really good teacher. I’m so glad to be dancing with him again in the Australian tour.

“But you cannot even compare it to Giselle, which is completely different. Giselle is the most romantic ballet, and the challenge is to give into the style, which is really hard. Quixote is difficult because it’s technical and harder to stand because it’s really long. It is funny, always with something strange happening to keep the audience’s attention.”

 

Teatro alla Scala Ballet Company performs Don Quixote on November 7–11 and 17, and Giselle on November 14–15 (two performances), 16 and 18 at Queensland Performing Arts Centre.

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is a Sydney-based arts writer and the author of Gay: The Tenth Anniversary Collection.

@dowsteve

Teatro alla Scala Ballet Company’s Frédéric Olivieri (left), Nicoletta Manni and Timofej Adrijashenko

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