Experiencing the Art of Ballet, Italian Style

Contributing Writer

DANCERS ABROAD: Tulsa Ballet Board Chair Billie Barnett and her husband, Howard, joined the dancers on stage following a knock-out performance in Mestre.

Courtesy Tulsa Ballet

There is a reason that tourists worldwide cannot get enough of Italy. It’s a country where history is deep, where food is a revelation and where the land is both breathtaking and bountiful.

I have visited Italy three times previously, but when I heard that Tulsa Ballet had scheduled a tour there for the spring of 2016, I recruited my “balletomane BFF” for a road trip. This wasn’t the first time we have traveled together to see Tulsa Ballet dance internationally. In 2002, my friend Crystal Stovall and I had gone to Portugal to see the Ballet perform in Sintra. We talk about that experience still.

One added benefit of this Italian trip was Crystal’s familiarity with Italy and its language. Being with someone who can explain a travel-related glitch to a local and direct a cab driver, or who knows what you’ll be served if you order “fegato” from the menu, can keep travel mishaps to a minimum. We could concentrate on the important things, like celebrating Tulsa Ballet on an international stage.

Spring is a good time to visit Venice. Crowd numbers are down, and the temperature is comfortable. There are many touristy things one can do in Venice, but people-watching in a piazza, and certainly from a table in St. Mark’s Square, is something you want to experience.

Wandering was my favorite activity in Venice. I was compelled to duck into every church we walked by, and there were many I set out on foot to find. I couldn’t help but think about movies I had seen filmed in Venice, like the old Donald Sutherland/Julie Christie thriller, “Don’t Look Now,” or James Bond’s “Casino Royale.” Venice feels like one big film set, and you have to remind yourself that what you are seeing has been there for centuries.

Venturing from the city, we took trips to the Venetian home of glassmaking, Murano, and the colorful island of Burano, where family dynasties make lace, and then to Mestre where Tulsa Ballet was dancing at the third venue on their multi-city Italian tour.

Mestre is a cab ride from the canals of Venice and home to impressive structures built by the architect Palladio. The Teatro Toniolo is located there in a charming city square. Our theatre seats were close up on the main floor, and we enjoyed telling the people next to us that the dance company they were about to see was from our hometown.

Evidently, sustained applause took place at every stop Tulsa Ballet made in Italy, and Mestre was no exception. Following an exquisite performance, and countless curtain calls, the curtain was reopened so that a Tulsa Ballet company photo could be taken with the theatre as the backdrop. Young dance fans who had hung around waiting for a chance to get an autograph rushed the stage. I wish I could have had a flashing sign over my head proclaiming, “I am from Tulsa, and these are our dancers.” I was that proud.

Halfway between Florence and Rome is the hillside town of Perugia, the capital of the Umbrian region of Italy. Every example of architecture can be found there, from Etruscan walls to Roman aqueducts. Crystal and I discovered unexpected beauty and a mecca of culture in Perugia, along with tasty gelato. The Umbrian strangozzi (pasta) topped with locally sourced black truffles was incredible, and the Montefalco wine was some of the best we enjoyed on our trip. We packed in a couple days of sightseeing in Perugia and visited the better known nearby towns of Assisi and Spoleto, but that wasn’t enough time for everything. There is an annual jazz festival in Perugia, so I know I’m going back.

Tulsa Ballet’s performance at the Teatro Morlacchi in Perugia’s ancient city center exceeded our expectations. This is a majestic, horseshoe-shaped theatre that was built on the site of an old convent in 1781. We were lucky to land seats months in advance at the very top level, but in the center. Sharing our box were two Italian women, ballet regulars, who had journeyed 80 miles to see the performance.

Approaching curtain time, I was very nervous for Tulsa Ballet, because I knew the stage had a 6.5 percent rake. A slant like that is very difficult for dancers to adjust to and tricky for prop stability. The work “Petite Mort” incorporated swords that at one point are placed by the dancers onto the stage. During the performance, two of the six swords rolled slightly, and we held our breaths hoping that no one would trip on them, or that they wouldn’t tumble into the audience. Thankfully, the moment was fleeting and soon forgotten, and the dancers never showed a moment of hesitation under the most difficult circumstance.

Seeing the ballet perform “Classical Symphony” from a high vantage gave me a new perspective on the work. I had not previously appreciated the precision of line and space. I found more to love about this piece and had a deeper respect for the strengths of Tulsa Ballet. “Petite Mort” and “Rooster,” were just as strong and loved by the audience. Our loge mates stayed for every one of the multiple curtain calls and congratulated us when the curtain closed after the final bows. I am grateful to Marcello Angelini and to the staff and dancers of Tulsa Ballet. As pre-eminent cultural ambassadors, our Tulsa Ballet threw a big spotlight on Tulsa throughout this seven-city tour.

After Perugia, Crystal and I travelled on to Florence and then to Rome, spending time in the Tuscan countryside and going as far afield as Ravenna to see its famous mosaics. After nearly three weeks, we were ready to travel home, but I also knew that we could not stay away from Italy for long. I hope our Ballet will venture out again, perhaps to different Italian cities, although I’m sure those host theatres from the recent tour would fight to have Tulsa Ballet return!

Updated 06-27-2016

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