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Italian Dances

( Originally Published 1924 )

Couple Dancing
Past are the splendid pageants of the Medici, nor do the floors of Castel San Angelo remember the caress of the winged feet of choral dancers. The classic ballet, heir of the dances and masques of courts, preserves their stately charm; while their choreographic wit lives on in dances that are at once their ancestors and their survivors. An intermediate generation of dances represented the day of a society cultivated to artificiality. The dances of the people, on the contrary, are rooted in the soil and cared for by wholesome tradition. Including, as they do, many of the steps from which the ballet was derived, there is material for interesting speculation in their continued vigour.

In the Forlana of Venice, with its old-fashioned steps, is found a delicate mimetic synopsis of the world-old tale of the young wife, the elderly husband, and the dashing interloper; the theme immortalised by the pen of Boccaccio, in his collection of the stories that passed the time during the ten days when the court exiled itself in the hills to avoid a. pestilence in Florence. The accompanying illustrations of the dance have the benefit of the knowledge of two graduates of the academy of Ia Scala, both children of teachers in that institution: Madame Saracco-Brignole and Stephen Mascagni. Both are enthusiastic performers of their country's character dances; Mascagni, indeed, with his wife as partner, makes the Tarantella an important feature of his repertoire. The trio in la Forlana was completed with the assistance of Mlle. Louise La Gai, as Columbina, Madame Saracco-Brignole and Sr. Mascagni representing Doctor Pantalone and Harlequin, respectively, completing the little cast.

As a stock character in other pantomimes and farces, Doctor Pantalone's characteristics, both mental and physical, are so clearly defined that he has the reality of an acquaintance. In brief, he represents self-sureness and self-importance, with a weakness of revealing complete misinformation through indulgence in a habit of correcting the statements of others. Light-headed Columbina and mischief-making Harlequin are their familiar selves. The Forlana is a composition essentially of tableaux, with steps of the dance serving to lead from one picture to another.

Harlequin's freedom with Columbina is resented by the elderly husband, who threatens the intruder with a cane. The frivolous young people dance away, after a mock-heroic pretence by Harlequin of protecting his inamorata from her husband. They begin a series of groups made to tantalise the dotard, whose possession of the young woman has clearly ceased to exist. Harlequin embraces her, gazes into her eyes, raises her to his shoulder, kisses her, and is otherwise familiar, while Pantalone storms and pleads. Perching aloft with her partner's support in the various ways known to dancers of an acrobatic genius, Columbina reaches out to her spouse the tip of a finger, in smiling sarcasm. Pantalone later is reduced to kissing the little foot that from time to time kicks upward as the lovers play. When at length even that is the occasion of a dignified protest from Harlequin, the defeated one withdraws from an unequal competition and gives the couple his blessing.

Pantalone, apart from his relation to the Forlana, is one of a group of characters attached to the various Italian states as allegorical representatives. To Sardinia, for instance, pertains a soldierly looking youth called Maschara Sarda. Bologna has its Doctor Balanzone, Florence, Stenterello ; Rome, Rugantino ; Naples, Pulcinella—and this is to enumerate only a few out of a number slightly in excess of the number of states. These mythical beings are neither heroes nor caricatures, nor are they supposed at all to portray the qualities typical of the population they represent. Their associations seem to be without underlying significance, but they are none the less indissoluble in the mind of the Italian. Those who have most cause to love them are the writers of popular comedies; the simple device of putting a Balanzone or a Rugantino among the characters of the play makes possible a direct expression of ideas purporting to be those of the state itself. Such lines, regardless of the literary tone of the play, are customarily delivered in the local dialect of the region represented.

It "is the Tarantella that the world at large accepts as Italy's national dance; and rightly enough, since there is none whose popularity is more nearly general through the land. It is rather identified with Maples. There it is said to be the amusement that the younger working people think of first, when leisure allows the thought of any amusement at all; but it is very popular, too, through the South.

It is a breezy, animated dance, varied with panto-mime not very profound, to be sure, but at least merry with character. The mimetic action concerns the varying luck of la morra, that game that consists in guessing at the number of fingers open on the opponent's suddenly revealed hand; perhaps the only gambling game for which every one is born with full equipment of implements. To a votary, every glance at his own five fingers must seem a temptation to seek a game. For whatever reason, it seems to be a necessary element in the life of the Italian labourer. The moment of the Tarantella given over to la morra is, as it were, an acknowledgment of its place among the people's recreations.

As castanets are to the dances of Spain, the tambourine is to those of Italy. Like castanets, the tambourine produces an amazing variety of tones when handled by an expert. The effect its jovial emphasis of tempo has on the enthusiasm of dancer and spectator need not be dwelt upon; again sobriety succumbs before rhythm's twofold attack on eye and ear together. Vivacity is insistent, too, in the colours of the Neapolitan costume. The tambourine is dressed in ribbons, characteristically the national red, white, and stinging green. Stripes as brilliant as caprice may suggest adorn the girl's head-dress, apron and skirt. Nor must her more substantial finery be forgotten; until a responsible age is attained by children of her own, she is guardian of an accumulating collection of necklaces and earrings, bracelets and rings that are as a family symbol of respectability. just as in other nations the inherited table silver is brought out to grace occasions of rejoicing, the Neapolitan young woman on like occasion exhibits gold, silver and gay red coral in adornment of her person—adding much to the sparkle of the Tarantella.

The boy (in these and the pictures of la Ciociara represented by Mlle. La Gai) has a necktie as red as dyes will yield, and a long fisherman's cap of the same colour. It is Italian stage tradition, by the way, that the Neapolitan fisher boy's trouser-legs should be rolled up to slightly different heights.

The dance itself is full of pretty groups, well spiced with moods. The steps are happily varied and well composed. There are many turns, the boy frequently assisting with the familiar spiral twist of the girl's up-raised hands—a device that, with any execution back of it, always produces a pleasant effect. The turns also are highly enhanced in value when, as they frequently do, they terminate so as to bring the dancers into an effective embrace. Preparation for a pirouette by both dancers is utilised, at one point, as a pretext for some delightfully grotesque poses.

It is a dance worthy of study and performance by artists, and of the enthusiasm of appreciators of good work. In Corinne occurs a passage reflecting its impression on Madame de Stael. The following selections seem most suggestive of the effect produced: ". . . beating the air with her tambourine—in all her movements showing a grace, a lissomeness, a blending of modesty and abandon, which gave the spectator some idea of the power exercised over the imagination by the Indian dancing-girls, when they are, so to speak, poets in the dance, ex-pressing varied feelings by characteristic steps and picturesque attitudes. Corinne was so well acquainted with the different attitudes which painters and sculptors have depicted, that by a slight movement of her arms, holding the tambourine sometimes above her head, some-times in front of her, while the other hand ran over the bells with incredible swiftness, she would recall the dancing girls of Herculaneum, and present before the eye of the painter or artist one idea after another in swift succession. It was not French dancing, so remarkable for the elegance and difficulty of its steps; it was a talent much more closely related to imagination and feeling. The mood was expressed alternately by exactness or softness of movement. Corinne, dancing, made the on-lookers share her feelings, just as if she were improvising, playing the lyre, or designing figures; every motion was to her as expressive as spoken language."

The similarity between the words Tarantella, and "tarantula," a large and poisonous spider, causes endless speculation to the end of establishing a more than etymological relation between the two. One author seriously affirms that the dance is a standard rural remedy for the bite of the insect, the energetic movement starting a perspiration that relieves the system of poison. Various German physicians have written reports on the subject, generally ending with a statement that the said antidote for poison is of doubtful efficacy! Approaching the subject from another angle, the word tarantismos is discovered: a species of hysteria common in Calabria and Apulia, and (by etymology) attributed to the bites of tarantulas to be found in those parts. But along comes another learned person who finds that tarantismos is not due to tarantula bites, but to certain molluscs that Calabrians and Apulians customarily include in their food regime! He harks back to a certain dancing mania that was more or less epidemic in Europe during a period of the Middle Ages, a hysterical condition found curable by violent dancing. Whence he induces that the Tarantella derives its name from tarantismos, and that it originated as a cure for neurasthenia. Still another finds that the ailment causes hysterical movements, "similar to dancing!" and flatters the Tarantella with this spasmodic origin. Again, a grave experimenter finds that tarantulas, placed on floats in water so that they will be disinclined to run away, will move their feet in time to music. He does not ask us to infer from this that the steps of the dance were so originated and composed, but in the cause of general joyousness he might have, and that without much damage to the accumulated erudition on the subject.

All the Latin countries, no less than Scotland and Ire-land, have their Jig. In Italy, as elsewhere, it is a composition of rapid clog and shuffle steps. More than most Occidental countries Italy has a lingering fondness for pantomime; doubtless as a heritage from the theatre of Rome, and increased through centuries of political intrigue that sometimes made the spoken word inadvisable. Like the Forlana, la Ciociara of Romagna is an example of choreographic pantomime carried to a high pitch of narrative quality. It represents a heavy-footed shepherd and his wife, and their unpaid efforts to collect coins for music and dancing during their visit to the village.

After a little promenade to the music of the pipe, or piffara, that has descended unchanged from the days of the shepherds on the slope of Mount Ida, and the tambourine of equally venerable age, the tambourine is passed before an imaginary circle of auditors. The imaginary coins failing to come forth, the couple impulsively decide to dance anyway, for their own amusement. The dance proper is of the flowing style of the Tarantella, but includes only the simpler steps. An important contribution to the amusing character of the performance is a bit of by-play that begins after the work has apparently terminated: the shepherd, oaf though he is, expresses an interest in a pretty face in the audience, and even a belief that his interest is reciprocated. He is roundly scolded by his wife, soothes her feelings, and at last retires under a not misplaced surveillance.

The Saltarello, an old and lively step-dance identified with Rome, and including several steps of the Tarantella, completes the list of popular dances for which Italy is famous. Other names there are in abundance, but of dances identified with their localities. La Siciliana is a delicate but insufficiently varied product of the island from which it has its name. Messina has a pantomimic dance known as la Ruggera; Florence its Trescona, and so on indefinitely. Of these, such as have any choreographic interest are said to owe it to the Tarantella. Of many the interest is chiefly historical, since they are woven into one tissue with old songs and old legends. Poetic and altogether fascinating as such compositions frequently are, however, their prevailing lack of the essential qualities of dancing makes discussion of them inappropriate to a book on that subject. On the other hand, the highly characteristic flavour of the music and the words of their accompanying songs makes them a fascinating study under the heads of folk-lore and folk-music, in which connection they are the subject of several writings of great interest.

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