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October 17, 2006 - January 20, 2007

The Vincent Astor Gallery

The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center

500 Years of Italian Dance:  Treasures from the Cia Fornaroli Collection pays tribute to the multifaceted history of Italian dance and to one of The New York Public Library's richest collections.  Assembled by Walter Toscanini (1898-1971), the Cia Fornaroli Collection documents the full sweep of Italian dance history from the Renaissance to the early twentieth century.  It underscores his belief that Italy played a seminal role in the genesis and development of Western theatrical dance and exerted a profound influence on performance, choreographic, and pedagogical traditions throughout Europe and in the United States, on stages both elite and popular.

Fifteenth-century Italy--a patchwork of kingdoms, duchies, principalities, and states--produced the earliest known treatises on the art of the dance.  Some were manuscripts, others splendid published volumes recording the dances performed at festive and ceremonial occasions by the aristocracy.  (For conservation reasons only a few of the collection's very oldest treasures are exhibited.)  Formal, elegant, and refined, these court dances linked physical control with elevated class status, and laid the foundation for the danza seria or danse noble, the heroic style that gave birth to classical ballet and its ideology.  Still other treatises evoked the popular traditions of the commedia dell'arte, with its tumbling and comic antics, brought to heights of virtuosity by the grotteschi or "grotesque" dancers of the eighteenth century.  In no other country were these styles so highly developed; in no other country would they commingle so freely and create so compelling a synthesis.

For much of its history, ballet existed in tandem with opera, although in combinations that differed from country to country. In France the tendency over time was to link the two arts under the umbrella of a single work.  In Italy, on the other hand, they tended to retain their separate identities, with two self-contained and unrelated ballets--the first "serious," the other "comic"--being performed between the acts of an unrelated opera.  (In the eighteenth century a third ballet sometimes followed the last act of an opera.)  Italian audiences loved ballet.  They might talk through the act of an opera, but they gave undivided attention to the ballet that followed, and if something had to go to shorten a program, it was always an act of the opera.

The eighteenth century was the golden age of Italian ballet.  It flourished in the numerous theaters and opera houses that dotted the pre-unification landscape.  (Italy did not become a single country until 1870.)  Dancers--often in extended families that emerged in the seventeenth century--traveled all over the peninsula, performing with local troupes in Florence, Milan, Rome, Venice, Turin, Naples, and other cities, usually during the Carnival season that began after Christmas and ended in Lent.  The existence of multiple centers gave rise to an exceptionally rich dance culture.  La Scala, founded in 1778, may have been the largest and most influential of Italian opera houses, but it did not dominate national taste or lay the foundation for a national repertory until the nineteenth century.  Scores of ballets were produced in other Italian cities, and individual theaters developed their own artistic signatures.

Influence from abroad, through foreign visitors as well as Italians who had worked outside the country, added to the brew.  Thus, the advent of "pantomime" or narrative ballet in the mid-eighteenth century produced a number of variants, some indigenous (coupling mimetic action and flamboyant virtuosity), others linked to developments in France and Austria, including Gasparo Angiolini's danza parlante ("dance that speaks") and Jean-Georges Noverre's ballet d'action ("action ballet").  Despite bitter controversy between the two innovators, which came to a head in the mid-1770s, the twenty years that followed were a time of wide-ranging experiment and innovation.  Ballets became more complex and scenically elaborate; casts and companies grew.  Before 1740 companies of six to eight dancers were the norm.  By 1820 major theaters such as La Scala, the San Carlo in Naples, La Fenice in Venice, and the Teatro Argentina in Rome had 80 to 120 dancers on their payroll.  The turmoil and uncertainties that followed the French Revolution, coupled with the stultifying artistic policies of the Paris Opéra, led to an exodus of French dance talent, above all to La Scala.  Here in the early 1800s the "pantomime ballet" reached a zenith in the poetic humanism of Salvatore Viganň's choreodramas, the historical sweep of Gaetano Gioia's ballets, and the architectural splendors of Alessandro Sanquirico's stage sets.  The combination of virtuosity and corporeal expressiveness, sweeping narrative and grand spectacle associated with La Scala became defining elements of nineteenth-century Italian ballet.

Although the Romantic ballet of the 1830s and 1840s is regarded as a preeminently French phenomenon, its identity--both in terms of origins and embodiment in performance--is far more complex.  Technically and choreographically it owed a debt to Vienna, an international crossroads where many Italian pioneers of ballet Romanticism worked in the 1820s, and where the practice of pointe reached a remarkably high artistic level.  Many outstanding ballerinas of the first Romantic generation, including Marie Taglioni, the first Sylphide, Carlotta Grisi, the first Giselle, and Fanny Cerrito were Italian.  Italian choreographers, exemplified by Filippo, Salvatore, and Paul Taglioni but also including Pasquale Borri, Antonio Cortesi, Giovanni Casati, Giuseppe Rota, and Domenico Ronzani, worked all over Europe and even in a few cases reached the New World.  Although Italian choreographers at home typically preferred historical themes to otherworldly fantasy and folklore, Italian themes appeared in many Romantic ballets produced north of the Alps.  And, in Italy, unlike France, male dancers continued to share the honors on stage with women.

The virtuosity that transformed nineteenth-century ballet was deeply indebted to another Italian, Carlo Blasis.  Through his writings, his teaching, and as director of the school affiliated with La Scala from 1838 to 1850, Blasis transformed the teaching of ballet technique, systematizing the sequence of exercises and insisting upon the need for a daily class.  The result was a dancer of unprecedented strength and virtuosity.  By the second half of the nineteenth century, Italian ballerinas, usually trained at La Scala but also privately by Blasis or by teachers who had studied with him, were unrivaled in the bravura of their jumps, turns, and pointework.  At once international stars and Victorian fantasy objects, they reigned over the Paris Opéra and St. Petersburg's Maryinsky Theater, originating the ballerina roles in Sylvia, The Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake.  They starred in productions such as The Black Crook that toured the United States for decades and headlined ballets in Europe's music halls until World War I.  The Metropolitan Opera Ballet and its affiliated school, founded in 1883 and 1909, respectively, remained for decades dominated at the upper echelons by La Scala artists.  Meanwhile, at La Scala itself, the monumental works of Luigi Manzotti, exemplified by Excelsior, inaugurated an international vogue for huge ballet spectacles.  By the 1920s, Enrico Cecchetti, a La Scala star of the 1880s who had danced in Russia and toured with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, had ushered Italian technique into the mainstream of twentieth-century ballet pedagogy in Russia, Western Europe, and the United States.

A bookseller by profession, Walter Toscanini began collecting ballet material in his native Italy in the 1910s, ultimately building a huge collection encompassing some of the earliest Italian writings on dance, including one of the very first Renaissance dance manuals, scores of books, letters, programs, and libretti, and hundreds of prints, photographs, and clippings from Italian-language newspapers.  The collection also includes Toscanini's personal research materials, as well as memorabilia documenting the career of Cia Fornaroli, the La Scala and Metropolitan Opera ballerina whom he married in the late 1930s.  In 1938 the couple settled in New York, joining Walter's father, the celebrated conductor Arturo Toscanini, who had fled fascist Italy and was directing the NBC Symphony Orchestra.  In 1955, as a memorial to his recently deceased wife, Walter presented the Cia Fornaroli Collection to what is now the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

This exhibition was curated by Lynn Garafola, with Patrizia Veroli, after a project conceived by José Sasportes and Patrizia Veroli. The Tarantella led by Amalia Ferrais and Louis Merante in Pasquale Borri's ballet L'Etoile de Messin