By the end of the 19th century Italy (along with the rest of the Western world) had enthusiastically embraced sport. This love of games and athletics was spurred on by the first Olympic Games of the modern era that had taken place in Athens in 1896, and although Italy did not participate in the event, it (like other countries) was certainly not immune from the athletic movement that had been building from the middle of the 1800s. The first issue of Italy’s great sporting journal, La Gazzetta dello Sport also appeared in that annus mirabilis, 1896. Sporting clubs had also sprouted in all the major cities on the peninsula. The oldest gymnastics society in Italy was founded in Turin in 1844, and it was soon followed by others all over the northern part of the country. By the late 1800s cycling, football, hunting, fencing, target shooting and others had all become very popular activities with the Italian middle and upper classes. Many in Milan’s musical community decided they might celebrate this relatively new fascination with physical competition and gymnastics in balletic form. When the directors of the Teatro Alla Scala decided to produce an entertainment along these lines, they were determined to make it the most spectacular production that anyone had mounted in years. They would host a cast of several hundred dancers, supernumeraries and real sportsmen and women who would display their athletic as well as their terpsichorean skills. There would be eight separate scenes, each one richer and more elaborate than the last, until it would culminate in a huge “March of the Athletes” and a finale to end all finales with 300 performers all participating in a grand “Apotheosis of Sport”. As one critic declared, “La Scala was transformed into a giant gymnasium” for the evening.
Many ballet lovers in the 19th century were fond of big, sprawling spectacles that told a story; these ballets usually had lots of elaborate sets, lush music and costumes that displayed the legs of pretty ballerinas as often as possible. A few of these great narrative ballets have come down to us in the 21st century—works like Copélia, Swan Lake or La Bayadère are still performed today. But these creations were just the tip of the balletic iceberg, and hundreds of other works have sunk beneath the waves of history, never to rise again. Many of these massive and elaborate ballets are simply too expensive to restage, and except for a few they are rarely produced. One of these lucky few is Excelsior (1881), a gargantuan paean to progress—featuring the triumph of light (in this case electrical illumination), transportation (via the Suez Canal) and international understanding. Remarkably, this work is still in the repertoire of Milan’s Teatro Alla Scala. Excelsior was created by three superbly talented 19th century Italians: composer, Romualdo Marenco (1841-1907), choreographer Luigi Manzotti (1835-1905), and designer Alfredo Edel (1856-1912). This ballet is available on YouTube and on DVD, and Italian fans can see truncated versions of it in such films as Cuore (1984) and the 1951 classic Altri Tempi.
Modern viewers are often undecided about where Excelsior registers on the “Taste Meter”; should it be denounced as complete kitsch or celebrated as great art? Most would probably consider it a charming oddity and just enjoy it for the wonderful music, elaborate production numbers and it’s optimistic over-the-top exuberance. It is something of a miracle that it has survived as long as it has. Excelsior was so popular in its day that the three creators got together again five years later and collaborated on another balletic extravaganza. This time it was called Amor, and in 1886 this “choreographed poem” appeared on the boards of the prestigious La Scala Theater. It featured a cast consisting of 614 performers (not counting the 12 horses, two oxen and an elephant)! Fortunately, the Milanese public was sufficiently enthusiastic to permit the creative trio to reassemble about a decade later when they produced their final group effort, the Gran Ballo Sport (1897).
There was a great deal of excitement, and when the premiere of Sport occurred on 10 February 1897, the house was sold out despite very high ticket prices. It was reported that a single seat in the orchestra section (or what the British call the stalls) cost 80 lire and those at the back of the theater went for 60 lire. The average skilled workman in Italy at this time only made an average of 100-150 lire a month, so this was not a performance for the common man. The illustrated papers were particularly rich in their coverage of the ballet, and through the pages the fans of theater could discover just what they would see (if they could afford the price of admission). In January 1897 the weekly journal Illustrazione italiana stressed the massive size and expense involved in this new production. Readers were told that designer Edel had created more than 400 costumes. Composer Marenco and director Alceo Pantaleoni had assembled a huge orchestra of 100 players (augmented by 30 brass bandsmen). If this were not enough, the producers had visited just about every athletic society in Lombardy and recruited real athletes to do walk-on parts in the performance. Among the extras that ballet master Achille Coppini chose to accompany the principal dancers (Cecilia Cerri and Vittorio De Vincenti) were 80 non-dancing acrobats, 40 ice skaters, 16 cyclists, 6 equestrians and also 23 gymnasts from Milan’s two biggest clubs. It is easy to see what all the hubbub was about since this oversized (some might say bloated) piece was so unblievably elaborate that everyone wanted to see this unique performance.
Sport is a narrative ballet, and the plot takes the main characters through just about every athletic activity that was then available. The first scene takes place on the peaks of an imaginary mountain in Quebec. The principal characters are introduced: Miss Bernier, a former ballet star; Lady Waldek and her husband, English aristocrats; and Renato, a handsome young gentleman. The tone of the piece is apparent immediately when La Bernier declares that she wants to be the first woman to conquer the distant peak. The haughty Lady W. does not approve because Bernier’s athleticism draws Renato’s attention away from her, but in a moment of confusion the ex-ballerina slips away. A few moments later she is seen from the top of the distant peak waving her handkerchief in triumph at the squabbling crowd below. Renato immediately feels a great admiration for the lovely alpinist, and this further enflames Waldek’s jealousy.
The next scene takes place on a frozen lake in Montreal where there is an elegant winter carnival taking place for the cream of Quebec society. The three principals are there as well as hundreds of winter sportsmen and women, some are skating, others sledding and some just enjoying the party. Various scenes and dances are performed for the party, but the finale comes with a massive “dance of the snowflakes” when a huge troupe of girls dances in and about the guests. The scene ends with Bernier and Renato riding off in a sleigh as a huge snowstorm obliterates the stage leaving an angry Lady Waldek behind. She vows revenge.
The great racecourse at Longchamps is where the next scene of the ballet takes place. This is the most realistic of all the sets, with an accurate representation of the course, the stands and other structures. It also includes, bystanders, touts and several horses (though they are not in dancing roles). Renato’s horse is the favorite to win, and he bets heavily on Torrent, his entry in the race. What he does not know is that Lady Waldek has bribed his jockey to throw the race, thus effecting her revenge. When Torrent arrives second at the goalpost, Renato sadly discovers that he has been ruined financially, though he suspects that there was foul play involved. Miss Bernier accuses Waldek of causing Renato’s downfall, and unable to let this accusation stand, the English aristocrat slaps her rival across the face and challenges her to fight a duel. After this dramatic scene, there is a celebratory “champagne dance” and fifty ballerinas clad as jockeys all gallop around the stage. The scene ends in a welter of feminine legs, riding whips and a riotous can-can.
The extraordinary duel scene takes place in a secluded garden. The two ladies and their seconds solemnly approach the field of honor. With dramatic music playing, they take up their pistols and prepare to do battle. Lady Waldek fires first, but she misses. Then it is Miss Bernier’s turn, but (despite being a crack shot) instead of shooting her rival, she decides to fire the gun harmlessly into the air. All praise her generosity—all except for Waldek whose hatred for the former ballerina still boils as hot as ever.
The next scene features boating, and it takes place at the famous Regatta of Venice. All is festive and there are many characteristic Venetian dances and traditions that are highlighted in the scene. Finally, the two antagonists enter, and they greet each other coldly. Also accompanying Waldek is Renato’s jockey, and he is dressed much more opulently than usual. He complains that he needs more money, and he is shooed away by the noble lady. Bernier overhears their exchange, and she hatches a plan. She later approaches the jockey and gives him a sum of money on condition that he signs a receipt with the name of Lady Waldek on it. He does so, and the ex-ballerina knows that she now has the proof that she needs. The winner of the regatta is then celebrated with great joy as the scene changes once more.
Now the principal characters are in the forest of Fontainebleau where they all participate in a hunt. It is a very aristocratic affair, and when La Bernier appears riding faster and harder than any of the others, the other participants are astonished at her skill and athleticism. Later during the post-hunt meal, Miss Bernier hands the incriminating note signed by the jockey to Renato. This proves Lady Waldek’s guilt, and the disgraced noblewoman sweeps out in shame. Renato then asks for Bernier’s hand, but she turns him down explaining that she would rather be a queen of the stage than a barely-tolerated commoner in an aristocratic salon. The scene ends as the hunters all participate in a salute to the joys of the chase.
Miss Bernier and Renato next meet at a target shooting competition where the former dancer demonstrates that she can hit a bullseye better than Annie Oakley. Renato watches admiringly from the sidelines, and a warm and tender smile beamed at him by his beloved Bernier tells him (and us) that there is yet hope for the lovesick young man. Next, the scene shifts to a massive “March of the Athletes” in which hundreds of men and women parade on the stage representing the different sports. This is one of the huge set pieces of the ballet that celebrates skill and physical activity on all levels; there are hunters from various regions of the world carrying stuffed versions of their traditional prey (chamois, bear, tiger, and even a buffalo). There are fishermen, aeronautical athletes with a real balloon, gymnasts, weightlifters, fencers, runners, equestrians, cyclists and a hundred other sportsmen and sportswomen.
As impressive as this penultimate procession of athletes is, the ballet’s final scene truly left the audience breathless in wonder and admiration. This is the massive “Apotheosis of Sport” that celebrates the beauty and majesty of human participation in games and activities. The reporter from l’Illustrazione italiana could hardly believe his eyes. Here is his description:
“In the middle of the stage is a long column of gymnasts exercising on horizontal bars; all around these agile athletes run lines of ballerinas; athletes lift dumbbells and barbells; swordsmen fence with one another, and gymnasts do somersaults; cyclists whirl around a track and then descend into the tumult heading downstage as they pass by the dancers; in the background the stands of the arena are packed with spectators. And when the movement, the agitation, the confusion of colors is at its height, there comes a new surprise: now bounding in from the wings as if they were on springs gymnasts swinging on rings unexpectedly appear in the aerial reaches of the stage to perform their exercises, then they swing out of sight, as if on a whim and then finally swing back once more to renew the joyful commotion.”
This magnificent grand finale certainly left spectators stunned by the richness, variety and novelty of this massive production. But there were other elements implicit in this ballet that were even more surprising than the glorification of sport. First of all, there was an exaltation of female athletics. Miss Bernier is a skilled markswoman, an adventurous alpinist, a fearless hunter and a skilled equestrienne. Her lover, Renato, on the other hand is a helpless ornament who can do little to extract himself from life’s problems. In other words, the traditional gender roles have been completely reversed. Women fight over a man, rather than the other way around. Firing at one another in a duel was (with a few notable exceptions) an activity reserved for the male sex, and to turn tradition and gender on its head was quite amazing for the time. Although it is true that most 19th century narrative ballets have women as protagonists (La Sylphide, Giselle, Sylvia), Sport carries this to new and hitherto undreamed-of heights. The heroine of this story can certainly be considered a proto-feminist; in a world where women were expected to be beautiful, graceful and fragile, she is self-confident, strong and independent.
Another revolutionary element of Sport is that the main characters are all costumed in modern dress. One reviewer remarked on this aspect of the ballet, saying that the work’s novelty “is derived by replacing the ballerina’s traditional tutus with modern dress. This is a triumph of the astute [designer] Edel.” By dressing his chorus girls in tights and racing silks, fencing gear, cyclist trousers or gondoliers’ garb, the designer was thus able to display their shapely legs and well-formed bosoms. This undoubtedly added a delightful frisson for many of the gentlemen attending the ballet. It also gave a contemporary sharpness and revolutionary air to the otherwise humdrum story of a lovers’ triangle. There is also a soupçon of revolutionary anti-aristocratic sentiment in the work. Lady Waldek is so clearly the inferior of the lovely and talented (but lowborn) Bernier, and she is shown to be venal, dishonest and conniving. When La Bernier states that she prefers to remain an idol of the people rather than rot in ineffective idleness in a gilded palace, she strikes a tiny blow for democracy—or at least meritocracy—over inherited privilege.
The ballet received generally enthusiastic notices—although one spoilsport reviewer called it “overlong”—and it enjoyed great success with the Milanese public. The work had a respectable run, and there is evidence that it later traveled to Paris (almost certainly in a reduced form) where it was also popular. After that, the ballet disappeared from the repertoire, and it was forgotten by almost everyone. It was just too big, too long and too complex to achieve any sort of lasting place in the ballet troupes of the world. All that remain are a few engravings, newspaper accounts and some cards published by the Liebig Beef Extract Company featuring illustrations of six scenes from the production. This may have been the culminating masterpiece of the three great artists, Marenco, Manzotti and Edel, but it was not fated to last. Unlike Excelsior, Sport has been all but forgotten in the years since it first premiered, and its revolutionary themes have since become rather commonplace. Fortunately, talented, assertive sportswomen are now common, but the initial impulses of that change were first explored in works like Sport. It’s time to remember and celebrate this ballet once again.