Dance Vies With Opera at La Scala

GAZING up into the gilded, six-tier balcony of La Scala Theater causes many a newcomer to shiver with excitement.But on opening night of the La Scala Opera Ballet season, the company received a less-than-excited response to its presentation of Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet." From overture to curtain call, tension dimmed the proceedings, as though audience and performers were not in full sympathy. What could be behind it? Not unlike Shakespeare's immortal tale of feuding families, La Scala Opera Ballet has experienced internal turmoil over the last five years as it tries to maintain its identity in the shadow of its richer sibling - the world-famous opera. Directors have come and gone, and dancers have gone on strike, creating an atmosphere detrimental to progress. Some dance observers are hopeful, though, that with the return this season of Giuseppe Carbone, who directed the ballet more than a decade ago, the company will receive a boost and gain status as an organization separate from the opera. In an interview, Mr. Carbone acknowledges the company's recent troubles. A chief cause is that "the mentality at the opera house is concerned with the opera and not with the ballet," a typical problem for many opera-ballet theaters around the world, he says. For the ballet to be successful, "you must have the director of the theater on your side." Carbone says he feels good about his rapport with director Carlo Fontana, who arrived a year ago and hired Carbone, former ballet director at the Verona Arena and of the Venice Ballet. "Unfortunately, in Italy, culture is very connected to politics," says Maria Elisa Buccella, a freelance dance critic in Rome and arts writer for Rai Corporation, a broadcasting company. Italy's 13 public opera-ballet theaters, including La Scala, are totally dependent upon government funding. Every year, the government gives La Scala, its most treasured theater, 70.75 billion lire (about $56 million), "but almost all of it goes for the opera and the concerts," Ms. Buccella says. "That's the reason why s ome very good [ballet] directors would not stay here." American Patricia Neary resigned as ballet director in 1987 after a one-and-a-half year stint. "I just thought the politics of the opera house, the lack of support for the ballet, and the financial conditions were very cruel," she said by phone from Los Angeles. During her tenure, dancers were paid less than the opera's chorus members, she says. Carbone, however, is upbeat. "The ballet director must forget his own ego and work for the company," he says. "The best thing we have now is the human material. We have some good young talent, and we must try now to build it up. In one or two years we will have some very good prima ballerina soloists." La Scala's primary draws have been Oriella Dorella, age 40, who has been "star" prima ballerina for eight years, and Carla Fracci, Italy's most renowned ballerina (now in her mid-50s), who continues to make "gala" appearances. In addition to the ballet's obligatory participation in the opera productions, Carbone has planned a strong lineup of ballets. Besides "Romeo and Juliet" (running through mid-January) and "The Taming of the Shrew" (which ended in October), the company will perform Manuel De Falla's "Night in the Gardens of Spain," a new production of Ludwig Minkus's "The Bayadere," and a new staging of Donizetti's "Cristoforo Colombo." "I think for a company to develop and become famous, it must have a minimum of 100 performances a year," says Carbone. "That is difficult, but I will fight to have our space." Next season, Carbone wants the company to tour outside of Italy. A highlight in May will be the ballet's performance of works by young Italian choreographers. Carbone says this not only supports the choreographers but hones the skills of the dancers as well. "It's the right time to do this," says dance critic Buccella. "We have good choreography talent in Italy, but they haven't been given space in the big theaters." Other top theaters, such as the San Carlo Theater in Naples and the Rome Opera Ballet are picking up on La Scala's lead and presenting contemporary choreography this year, she says. "The signal Carbone is sending is very important."

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