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Ballet in Naples
di Jeff Matthews
The season program always reads “Opera and Ballet at San Carlo (year),” which reflects the fact that in Naples, as in most places in Italy, the ballet company is part of the same organization that provides opera—in this case, the San Carlo Theater. As elsewhere, dancers in Naples serve two ends: (1) to provide incidental dancing called for in many operas, and (2) to perform independent ballet. In Naples, there is both a ballet school and a ballet company. You start as a child in the former and hope to get good enough to move up to the latter.

Dance has always had a place at San Carlo. On opening night, November 4th, 1737, together with Achille in Sciro by Domenico Sarro, the first-ever opera at the splendid new theater, there were three short ballets (one before, one between acts one and two, and one after the opera) composed and choreographed by Gaetano Grossatesta. He worked at San Carlo for 30 years and was replaced by one of the most important names in the history of classical ballet: Salvatore Vigano (1769-1821), a Neapolitan dancer and choreographer who also studied and worked in France and Germany and who even collaborated with Beethoven on the ballet, Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus. (And wouldn’t that look good on your résumé!) Vigano is considered the father of a new kind of performance called “coreodrama” about which I know nothing except that dance tells a story and is not simply moving around to music.

In 1812, the French, under Murat, opened the first real ballet school in Naples. The number of pupils admitted to attend the new ballet school was 32 (16 boys, 16 girls), all between the ages of 7 and 12. Boys were then required to study the violin, as well; girls had to study solfeggio (sight singing). Once admitted to the school, they were not allowed to leave Naples and once they had completed the school were bound by contract to dance in the Royal Company for adequate pay. Once students were engaged and had performed for the first time, they were “graded” and paid accordingly.

At the same time as the ballet school, a "scenography" school—i.e.,for stage and set design—was opened under the direction of the great Tuscan architect, Antonio Niccolini (1772-1850), the person who restored the San Carlo theater in 1816 after a disastrous fire and whose other works in Naples include the construction of the villa Floridiana. As director of the school, Niccolini supplied scenery for as many as 146 operas and 115 ballets. In 1858, the school was incorporated into the Institute of Fine Arts.

The ballet school suspended activities in 1841, reopened in 1860 and stayed open through the shaky transition from “Naples as Capital of a Kingdom” to “Naples as just another big city in united Italy.” The school and company closed again shortly thereafter, but Naples remained a venue for ballet companies from elsewhere.

Ballet school and company were resurrected after WWII in 1951 under the direction of choreographer, Bianca Gallizia. Since then, the company has played the Covent Garden in London as well as at the Paris opera and has hosted in Naples the American Ballet Theater and the New York City Ballet. Names who have appeared in the last few decades have been Margot Fonteyn, Carla Fracci, Ekaterina Maximova, Rudolf Nureyev and Vladimir Vassiliev. Fracci directed the company in the 1980s and Nureyev and Vassiliev did special choreography for the company. Currently, the ballet company is directed by Elisabetta Terabust and the ballet school by Anna Razzi. For the 2007/8 season, the company performed Tschaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet.

Photo: The Dance by Henri Matisse.
31/3/2008
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