La Strada: bringing a film classic to the ballet stage

Alina Cojocaru talks to David Mead about her new ballet, La Strada, with choreography by Natalia Horečná and music by Nino Rota, that premieres at Sadler’s Wells later this month.

Alina Cojocaru first came across Federico Fellini’s 1954 cinema classic, La Strada, when John Neumeier was creating Liliom for Hamburg Ballet in 2011. He suggested the film could provide ideas for how to play Julie, the maid who falls in love with but is mistreated by the title character. “That was many years ago but somehow it stuck with me. I was very moved. It’s so raw, so sad.”

Fellini’s hauntingly beautiful film centres around Gelsomina, a free-spirited but innocent and gullible girl sold by her mother to the surly and brutish traveling circus performer Zampanò as his assistant. Amidst the harshness of her new life, she retains her unconscious goodness and finds a kindred spirit in the kindly Il Matto. But, after witnessing his terrible demise at the hands of the jealous Zampanò, she is left to fend for herself.

The complexity in the tale comes from the relationship of the characters to each other, it’s deeper meaning about something lost, an opportunity missed, and how once gone, it cannot be recovered.

When it came to creating a ballet, Cojocaru recalls being particularly attracted by Gelsomina’s way of thinking. “Her way of being, of seeing the world, which is so naive, innocent and simple, and so not of today.” She also realised that she could create something with value and depth with a relatively small ensemble (La Strada has a cast of eleven).

While the new ballet is very much ‘inspired by’ the film, “We’re not following its script,” insists Cojocaru. “Not once did we aim to copy or to think physically, move in the same way or portray emotions through the face, as is in the film. It’s so different.”

Without giving too much away, Cojocaru, who is dancing Gelsomina, reveals that, “We start with the end, kind of. So, is it my memory before I die? Is it really me going through this?” And, although the ballet is finished, “We’re still discovering things,” she says. “The more I revisit it, the more I see new things in it. It still gives ideas and I love that.”

As soon as Cojocaru spoke to choreographer Natalia Horečná, she says she knew she had found the right person; someone who could capture sensitively the world Fellini created.

She sounds a perfect choice. Horečná’s father, Pavol Horečný, was a well-known cinematographer. Perhaps she inherited something. In a 2022 interview for Slovakian magazine Tanec (Dance), she said she believed she had the ability to see things through the lens of a film camera. “My father was always my greatest role model. As a cinematographer and director, he had an uncanny sense for lighting and atmosphere, as well as for timing, which is so crucial in both film and theatre.”

Alina Cojocaru with choreographer Natália Horečná (right) in rehearsal for La Strada
Photo Vincent Klueger

In the same interview she said, “I look at dancers but I see people; I do theatre with people.” And while her style is built on neoclassicism, she described her take on it as being “just a bit more visceral and dirty.”

Cojocaru describes her movement vocabulary as a fusion. “She was a classical ballet dancer but her vocabulary has a big range. And she’s using it!”

In the studio, she explains how Horečná very much works with the bodies that she has in front of her. “She takes from what we give. You know, it’s wonderful when you work with someone that doesn’t tell you it should be this, I want this, you should be thinking that. We just create scene by scene and it develops. I see what my colleagues are doing and try to fit into that and discover what my place is. And through that, I discover more for myself. We really did have a wonderful creative process.”

Natália Horečná choreographing La Strada
Photo Vincent Klueger

Reflecting on the story and its characters, Cojocaru notes how we tend to be very quick to label people. “You’re good, you’re bad.” Zampanò is to be danced by former La Scala principal Mick Zeni. “When we see him, we’re very quick to judge him as the baddie. But then we see his remorse, when he realises that Gelsomina died.”

She feels there is a kind of sympathy towards him. “An acknowledgement and realization that, at the end of the day, perhaps that’s all we all want. That kind of connection to someone, that kind of love. But maybe life had makes us so hard that we cannot open our heart to it. Maybe it’s a weakness that we cannot acknowledge, and only when something is lost, do we realise what we lost.”

Taking on the role of Il Matto is Cojocaru’s husband, Johan Kobborg. She observes how Gelsomina does want to go with him because finally someone is kind to her. “She’s pulled by him, attracted to him and hopes he’s her way forward. He says she’s better off with him. But why does he say that? Does he see something in her that… I don’t know. Is he just all ego? He wants, he doesn’t want. That’s what I love about it. You can interpret it in so many different ways.”

Alina Cojocaru, Mick Zeni and Johan Kobborg in rehearsal for La Strada
Photo Vincent Klueger

Of Kobborg, she says, “I find the way Johan works really fascinating, the way he thinks and approaches his roles, and the depth to which he goes as we work. It’s wonderful because now I’m a more mature dancer too and I’m able to give more.”

And Gelsomina herself? Cojocaru comes back to how she’s so naive and open. “Even though she’s hurt, she just opens herself again. She somehow goes out there and just sees the world through the eyes of a child. But I think all those hurts, all the naivety, the decision to open up, all come from a deeper choice than a child would know.”

The music for La Strada comes in part from Italian composer Nino Rota’s ballet suite. Created largely out of his original film score for Mario Pistoni’s 1966 ballet for La Scala, it is noted for how it conveys moods from energetic to poignant, and for Rota’s use of musical motifs for each character, including to convey the memory of one person in the thoughts of another. The ballet suite is supplemented by additional music from the film and other of the composer’s work. The challenge for Horečná was to put it together in some kind of storyline that matched how she wanted the scenes to run, says Cojocaru.

Johan Kobborg and Mick Zeni
in rehearsal for La Strada
Photo Vincent Klueger

Sets and costumes are by Otto Bubeníček, who has been able to drawn on personal experience, his choreographer brother Jiří and he having grown up in a travelling circus family. “He was fascinated and most excited to create the circus ambience,” says Cojocaru.

La Strada is Cojocaru’s biggest production to date but she says she never originally saw herself commissioning and presenting work. “You see yourself having a career in a company, retiring, celebration and moving on. Reflecting on dancing with Hamburg Ballet, she says, “For me John [Neumeier] was and still is one of the greats. He’s an amazing inspiration. Every time I am invited and I can, I perform there. But then you realise that you can do more than just be a part of a director’s vision. You can try to create something yourself.”

Her production company, ACWorkroom was originally set up to produce the Alina at Sadler’s Wells evenings that were staged immediately pre pandemic, the plan being to close it immediately afterwards. “But then things happened. I thought, the company is there, maybe it can be a tool and used for other things.”

She says she just wants to create an environment where people have a good time, where they learn, are appreciated, are encouraged to explore. “Everybody has been blown away by Natalia because she’s the most gentle person you can ever work with. Nothing is ever right or wrong. She never let on even when things were perhaps not going how she expected or wanted. But, by not knowing, you can just be yourself, bounce in whatever direction you must and continue exploring without questioning yourself.”

Cojocaru says she’s been able to take some of that into her producing role. “I’m used to challenge. If I don’t do my tendu, nobody else will do it for me. If I want to make something happen, I have to make it happen myself. So, I come with this drive of, ‘okay, we have to do this.’ I’ll keep on pushing and, if I must, I’ll change my approach to get the result I want. But Natalia also helped me see that, instead of constantly pushing, sometimes stepping back lets you see other things.”

Alina Cojocaru rehearsing La Strada
Photo Vincent Klueger

She admits to enjoying it. “I enjoy speaking with people. I enjoy learning new things. This production has been a really rewarding experience.” Yes, she has made mistakes, she says, but adds that the trust between everyone on the team, and how they help each other, is wonderful. “I don’t consider myself a leader as such but part of a different kind of team.”

It hasn’t always been easy. Cojocaru explains that getting La Strada to the stage was delayed by the post-pandemic backlog of other shows waiting to get on. Raising finance has also been challenging. Sadler’s Wells has been very helpful, though, she says. “I’m just grateful that we now have a stage to do it. And it’s London. It’s hometown, a theatre I know so well. It feels a little bit like coming home.”

Looking ahead, and while nothing is concrete, Cojocaru says she hopes to be able to tour the production. And yes, she does have ideas for further works. “Two, actually.”

Whether that is more story ballets we will have to wait and see, although she admits to always having been attracted by them. “For me, story is always one of the most important things in what we do. Galas are wonderful celebrations but if I am going to do something that challenges more, then it has to be a story.”

La Strada by Alina Cojocaru and ACWorkroom is at Sadler’s Wells from January 25-28, 2024.