Tutus, tiaras and displays of academic virtuosity may currently dominate the international ballet repertory, but choreography that creatively adapts and even deliberately distorts the classical vocabulary to reveal character has a long and proud tradition of its own.
That's exactly the tradition championed by the venerable Teatro alla Scala Ballet of Milan in its calling-card program Tuesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center: works that use the resources of a huge, skilled classical ensemble to explore human emotion and behavior.
To be sure, a lust for vulgar showpiece technique infects Luciano Cannito's "Amarcord" and diminishes it. But this 50-minute version of his two-act 1995 tribute to film director Federico Fellini also has moments of transcendent beauty--moments when naturalistic gestures or simple walking steps suddenly bloom into the heightened reality of character dancing.
Framed as a dance summary of Fellini's semi-autobiographical 1974 film of that name, "Amarcord" also uses the film score by Nino Rota along with vintage songs such as "Stormy Weather" and "In the Mood." Recorded accompaniments merge with orchestral playing (David Garforth conducting the Pacific Symphony) just as reminiscences of fascist-era Italy merge with fantasy sequences onstage. Cannito even manages to evoke the image of a peacock in the snow.
In an essay in the program, he says that "Fellini doesn't look for, nor does he use, special effects as Americans are wont to do." As long as he holds to the same vision, his ballet offers not only the charm of its village characters but a cohesive portrait of a community interacting with fascist power. But all too often Cannito pumps in special effects of his own: dreadful lifts, and outbursts of bravura steps that prove wrong for the music, people and world of "Amarcord."
Danced under Carlo Sala's hanging cluster of more than 40 life-size dolls, the large cast faultlessly vanquishes every challenge, with Maurizio Licitra (Titta) and his chums executing enough easy, soaring jumps to give La Scala technique a 24-carat monument. Vittorio D'Amato makes a sympathetic victim of Titta's father, while Biago Tambone, and Raffaella Benaglia effectively personalize essentially featureless roles.
One could wish that Sabrina Brazzo seized her opportunities as Gradisca more forcefully, but her volatile pas de deux with a cross-dressing Nazi (set to music by Schnittke) represents Cannito's most successful attempt to fuse character issues with in-your-face technique.
The dancer who played that Nazi also turned out to be the evening's big news: a lanky firebrand named Massimo Murru, born and trained in Milan, who brought his distinctive charisma, technical flair and partnering prowess not only to "Amarcord," but also to Roland Petit's familiar 1949 version of "Carmen" on the same program.
The sets by Antoni Clave may look shabby here, and the adaptation of Bizet's score may sound feeble in the Garforth/Pacific Symphony performance, but Petit's choreography still tweaks, teases, inverts and subverts the rhetoric of ballet to superb dramatic effect.
Murru's Don Jose traces the arc from witty, intricate display dancing to the final murderous, mime-based confrontation with deep authority. In addition, Riccardo Massimi solos strongly as the toreador while D'Amato, Benaglia, Gianluca Schiavoni and Beatrice Carbone lead the energetic riff-raff entertainingly.
But it's not enough. Unfortunately, in the title role, guest artist Viviana Durante has no interpretation to offer--just a powerful, detailed presentation of her assigned steps and gestures.
Durante has been memorably feral, intelligent, sensual in the MacMillan repertory at the Royal Ballet in London, but Carmen releases nothing in her except icy expertise, and the result is ruinous.
Yes, Carmen can be an enigma, but not a blank--and that's all we get in this efficient but inexplicably remote performance.
Teatro alla Scala Ballet dances the full-length "Giselle" at 8 p.m. Friday. Also Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $20-$80. (714) 556-ARTS.