Sadler’s Wells, London
January 25, 2024
Inspired by Federico Fellini’s 1954 cinematic masterpiece of the same title, La Strada tells of Gelsomina, sold by her mother to circus strongman Zampanò, and how their relationship is interrupted by the arrival on the scene of tightrope walker Il Matto. It’s a haunting, heartfelt tale. But while it has a simple narrative arc, at a deeper level it’s a complex exploration of love and humanity as the main characters search for themselves.
Those characters aren’t just a part of the essence of La Strada, they are La Strada. It helps when you have such wonderful dancers as Alina Cojocaru (Gelsomina), Mick Zeni (Zampanò) and Johan Kobborg (Il Matto), of course. Narrative ballet is not only about the steps, it’s about what lies beneath them; the depth of character. And we get that in spades from all three.
It starts at the end, Gelsomina, having died, appearing as a ghostly figure in Zampanò’s dream. Cojocaru shows us someone broken but still light. We see her childlike nature. She flies with the help of two angels who accompany her throughout the ballet. When Zeni dances out Zampanò’s despair at discovering she is dead, it immediately shows him as being something more than a mere brute.
That brutishness is immediately to the fore as he strongarms Gelsomina’s mother into selling her daughter. Although the mother is in black and apparently mourning, there’s no mention in the programme or on stage of the death of her other daughter, Rosa, who also worked for him. Am I alone in thinking those two facts might be linked?
Zampanò and Gelsomina immediately find themselves in a cycle of tenderness and violence . But while he is anything but loveable, Zeni and choreographer Natalia Horečná show us that the leather-jacketed, unshaven strongman has hidden depths. Whether in dreams or in real-life moments, we see time and again that, under his exterior shell, are what are probably more authentic feelings. It’s not that he doesn’t care or even come to love Gelsomina, it’s that he doesn’t know or has forgotten how to show it, or, taking up the road analogy (‘La Strada’ means ‘the road’), left it by the wayside somewhere.
As Gelsomina, Cojocaru presents a naive, innocent young woman fascinated and intrigued by her new surroundings, although she becomes more soulful as the ballet progresses. There’s a Chaplinesque feel about her, helped by her slightly awkward, occasionally ataxic gait, oversize man’s coat and hat. Even though he abuses and brutalizes her, she stays by Zampanò’s side. In return she gets control and repression, his way of making sure he keeps her because he needs her, and not only for his act. But for all that, her deep spirit is never broken. Although we see her misery, fear and confusion, her underlying optimism and spirit is never too far away.
When Kobborg appears as Il Matto, the contrast with Zampanò is immediately apparent. Here is a man easy going and full of life. He even rides a unicycle and juggles. A fine solo is full of leaps that come with soft landings. There’s some great batterie too.
But La Strada really lights up when he and his real-life partner Cojocaru come together. In contrast to her duet with Zampanò, which is full of rough handling, Gelsomina’s pas de deux with Il Matto is delightfully light. He’s like a beacon shining when she is at her most disillusioned. She doesn’t just smile her way through their duet, she radiates happiness. It’s like all her dreams have come true.
The playing out of the relationships between the threesome is interspersed by atmospheric circus scenes with the ensemble, set and costume designer Otto Bubeníček’s circus background clearly bringing much to the table. Act I ends with one such scene that includes a couple of large clown puppets manipulated by Zampanò and Il Matto. For all the colour and life, they feel darkly ominous. And so it proves.
If Il Matto had earlier lit a fire by mocking Zampanò, Gelsomina’s fascination for him throws petrol on the flames. It comes as no surprise that the two men eventually set to, although I can’t help wondering of there is an element deep in Zampanò’s head that thinks he’s protecting his charge. Whatever, their fight ends with Il Matto dead. That is dramatic enough. But for sheer power and presence, look no further than Cojocaru. Standing on the spot, she turns very slowly, staring into space as though in a daze. It’s a marvellous moment when time almost stands still.
But even after she’s witnessed all that, Gelsomina shows she still has feelings for Zampanò, taking her coat off and laying it caringly over him as he sleeps. It’s a very tender moment although it does leaves you wondering why. For all his menace, does she crave the security he provides? Does she see it as fate?
There is much to like about La Strada although the ballet does lose its way around halfway through Act 2 when the narrative gets set to one side. The end feels a long time coming. And for all the heartbreak and depth of the story, for all the wonderful performances of Zeni, Kobborg and Cojocaru in particular, I found it somewhat less emotionally stirring than expected. That may be in part a function of Horečná’s modernist fusion of classical ballet and contemporary dance, and in part down the soundtrack. While each excerpt in the patchwork of Nino Rota music, including from his ballet suite from La Strada and the soundtracks from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Il Casanova, works well, it doesn’t have a great deal of flow.
If La Strada has a message, it’s that the world can really tear you down how ever nice and kind you are. But kindness must prevail. Because the alternative is to be like Zampanò, angry and ultimately regretful.
La Strada is at Sadler’s Wells to January 28, 2024.