If you ever wondered why we haven't seen much ballet dancing from Italy in this country in the face of the current terpsichorean boom, the answer was to be found in the Italian Ballet Festival which opened last night at Constitution Hall and concludes tonight with a single repeat performance. Despite an extremely illustrious balletic history -- the art is generally considered to have seen its birth in Italian court entertainments of the Renaissance -- ballet in Italy is in a low estate by today's international standards, if one is to judge from last night's sampler.
The country has managed to produce, with help from foreign teachers, particularly in Russia, some very distinguished individual dancers, a few of whom were on hand last night. But that is where the distinction seems to end. wPerhaps the Italian dance genius of earlier eras has simply yielded its energies in recent times to such other artistic domains as opera, architecture and filmmaking.
The present performances were organized, doubtlessly with the loftiest of intentions, by Bruno Fusco, an Italian dancer-choreographer who now resides in Washington and has been seen as Drosselmeyer in the Wasington Ballet's production of "Nutcracker." Fusco enlisted 10 "stars," principal dancers from the opera houses of Milan, Rome, Naples, Bologna and Florence. Only one of them is known to audiences in this country -- Palo Bortoluzzi, who was with the Bejart troupe for a dozen brilliant years, and has guested here with American Ballet Theatre and the Fonteyn-Nureyev "specials." The festival program consisted of a string of 14 unrelated and stylistically polyglot solos and duets -- basically, an "encore" program in the manner of the old Bolshoi presentations.
The evening was dubbed a "festival," but it was also part circus, sitcom and quiz show. For starters, once you had been persuaded to part with $80 for a pair of prime spots (the range for single seats was $15 to $40; about 600 patrons were scattered throughout the hall's 3,600 chairs) you found the price did not include a program. If you forked out an additional $1.50 for that amenity, however, you then discovered that what was happening on stage bore n relation to the printed page. It wasn't until after intermission, for instance, that an announcer disabused the audience of the notion that the gloppy electronic mush which accompanied the first dance was Berlioz's "Romeo and Juliet."
One could forgive the lack of scenery, for which Constitution Hall is not outfitted. One could even overlook the poor audio reproduction, and the music itself, much of which was junk. But the choreography (not all of it by Italians, it ought be noted) is something else again, and it ranged from the harmless kitsch of "Souvenirs," to the paltry exhibitionism of "Excelsior" to the undiluted schlock of items like "Flowers" and "Convergence." Perhaps the biggest disappointment was the concluding classical pas de deux from "Sleeping Beauty," which was not only shorn of most of its technical difficulties, but also converted into a pas de quatre, the other two participants besides the dancers being a pair of photographers down front who stood erect every three seconds to pop flash bulbs, with the evident approval of the management.
Was there a silver lining to all this? Well, copper, more like. The saving grace was the occasional personal magnetism and flair which radiated from a few of the dancers despite the choreographic hindrances. Bortuluzzi is still a viscerally exciting, precise and glamourous dancer, as he demonstrated in the tolerably interesting, Nikolaiss-like solo, "SPAR," by Carolyn Carlson. Gabriella Cohen, of La Scala, is a ballerina of beautifully stretched line and elegance, as she showed in a schmaltzy solo called "Lo Spectro de la Rosa." And Marga Nativo, whose two solos, "Density" and "Kindertotenlieder," were a cut above the rest in taste and construction, has a lean intensity that sticks in memory. Except for the lyrically cultivated but uneven Lilian Cosi, however, the others displayed only varying degrees of mediocrity. The patently synthetic "awards" cermony at the evening's close, both comical and pathetic, was perhaps the only fitting end to this anomalous spectacle.