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Joel Kasow
Fanfare, July 2010

Kitsch comes in many forms, from the repugnant pandering to audiences to amusing folderol that allows us to visualize the entertainment of an earlier era. Excelsior has a long history, emphasized by the fact that the name in largest type on the cover of the DVD is that of the original choreographer, Luigi Manzotti. The version under review is a 20th-century re-creation by Ugo Dell’Ara, using—as best I can tell from the description in Cyril Beaumont’s Complete Book of Ballets—Manzotti’s original scenario. A spoken introduction sets the scene, followed by the battle between Light and Darkness (or Obscurantism, as he is called in the cast list). A first dancing scene glorifies the genius that brings enlightenment, followed by the first steamboat invented by Papin with more dancing, this time more folk-like. An interlude shows us the Brooklyn Bridge, then Volta’s laboratory at Como where once again Light overpowers Obscurantism, and we see a polka danced by telegraph messengers in Washington, D.C. As if this were not enough, act II opens in the desert and we then go to the opening of the Suez Canal, another opportunity for dancing, the meeting of the tunnel diggers under Mt. Cenis, and a final Festival of the Nations. It is all rather silly, but lots of fun, in addition to showing a type of spectacle that would find its apotheosis in 20th-century musical comedy or Las Vegas. Romualdo Marenco’s music is modeled on two maligned 19th-century ballet composers, Ludwig Minkus and Riccardo Drigo, providing the choreographer with bouncy rhythms where required, and suitably eerie music for the battles between Light and Obscurantism. In a large cast, Marta Romagna and Riccardo Massimi set the tone as the opposing forces, she showing strength in her lyricism and he despair in his tortured movements. Isabel Seabra’s Civilization is an imposing figure who shows no fear despite some fearsome choreography. Roberto Bolle once again displays his easy perfection, reminiscent in many ways of the young Peter Martins. Raffaella Benaglia’s Thunderbolt is perfect in its quicksilver execution, while the languor of Elisabetta Armiato’s Indian is virtually the sole moment of repose during the performance. David Coleman and the La Scala Orchestra seem to be enjoying themselves.



Ballet Review, June 2010

Excelsior was the theatrical sensation of the 1880s, a ballet-spectacle employing hordes of dancers, mimes, and supers in theaters across Europe. Its influence was felt in elaborate dance pageants and spectacles at least down to Busby Berkeley. Staged in 1881 at La Scala by Luigi Manzotti, its subject was Progress, the triumph of light and invention over darkness and ignorance, exemplified by scenes celebrating the steamboat, the battery, the telegraph, the Suez Canal, and the tunnel through Mount Cenis linking Italy and France, with allegorical figures joining historical figures before closing with a festival of the nations honoring Light and Peace.

In 1967 the Italian dancer-choreographer Ugo dell’Ara successfully recreated Excelsior in Florence and staged it in other Italian opera houses, and in 2002 it was finally filmed by the La Scala forces in the company’s temporary quarters in Milan. Manzotti’s original cast featured the company’s principal mimes as Darkness, Light, and several other characters, while Civilization was the prima ballerina, a distinction lost here, where all are dancers. But the work’s structure is respected, with suitably elaborate sets and costumes to recapture the right flavor. Nothing here is subtle, but all throw themselves into their parts and it’s all great fun, with Isabel Seabra, Marta Romagna, and Roberto Bolle leading the large cast.

Supporting it is the enthusiastic bounce of Marenco’s music, prefiguring film music in dramatic moments and setting the feet tapping with his vivacious waltzes, polkas, and galops. What must the Manzotti-Marenco spectaculars Amor and Sport have been like? However, a silent glimpse of Excelsior—the opening fourteen minutes of a film version made in 1913-14 (but not included here)—suggests the style, with a cast of hundreds,where now we have only dozens: a fascinating glimpse of dance history.






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1:26:34 PM, 12 July 2014
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