After living on the Italian Riviera for about five years, I was offered a job in Milan I couldn’t refuse: editor and writer for The Informer, Italy’s only national English language magazine. I could write about whatever caught my interest and one of the first interviews I did was with Signora Anna Maria Prina, who was the Director of the La Scala School of Ballet at the time. It was quite an experience to go behind the scenes of La Scala, one of the most famous opera houses in the world, and learn just how the kids you see dancing up on the stage in the various operatic and ballet performances got there.
THE DAY I SHOWED UP for my interview with Signora Anna Maria Prina the school secretary was not there and there was no record of my appointment. I was told the Signora was not available at the moment. She was busy interviewing chaperones to accompany the young dancers when they take their performances on the road, as they did last year when they went to Japan. Could I please wait? I waited.
When you go backstage, or dietro le quinte, of the Teatro della Scala theater in Milan, you enter a warren of hallways and stairways going off in a dozen different directions. The building is old and faded, worn out by more than a hundred years of use. The hallways are painted institution tan and decorated with colored drawings of period costumes and photographs of the dance students in various performances.
|Stretch, Stretch and Stretch Some More|
The waiting room just outside the secretary’s office is sparse, four or five long tables, no chairs. What strikes you as you walk in are the girls, little ballerinas all chignon, leg warmers and of course perfect posture, sitting on the tables, stretching and talking. The boys are nowhere to be seen but they are around somewhere. On the bulletin board are schedules for costume fittings, auditions and rehearsals, all the business of dance. Falstaff will open the dance season at La Scala and auditions were being held the following week.
I can see and hear the substitute secretary talking on the phone trying to get in touch with the Ukrainian ambassador. It was a matter of obtaining certificates for one of the students but the Ambassador was busy, could she call back later? The look on her face told me this is not her first attempt to contact him, but she politely says ok, and puts the phone down. A young assistant, sitting at a small table nearby, is busy addressing light blue envelopes with Teatro della Scala written in italics on the upper left hand corner and stuffing them with exam date notices. This is serious business, no dilettantes allowed.
When the Director, Anna Maria Prina, finally comes into the office I am surprised by how she looks. I was expecting someone more, I don’t know, “artistic” looking, whatever that means. Instead I am faced with an elegant, perfectly groomed woman dressed in a simple black suit, most certainly Armani, with several diamond and sapphire rings as her only jewelry. I confess I have never been so self conscious of my posture and bearing as I was during those forty-five seconds it took to walk from the secretary’s office into the office of Anna Maria Prina.
|Anna Maria Prina|
Once seated she tells me she has been the director of the school since 1974, but her involvement with the school began when she was nine years old and attended school here herself. She tells me the School of Dance has a rocky history. Unofficially it was started in 1778 with the inauguration of the New Ducal Theater alla Scala in Milan, and officially in 1813 when Benedetto Ricci, the then manager of the theatre, formed the Academy of Dance. Four years after the school opened there were 26 students, 22 girls and 4 boys.
But over the years, under a succession of ballet masters, their numbers grew. In 1917 the City of Milan ordered the theater closed and along with it, the dance school - World War I had broken out. A few years later the famous Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini began twisting arms in Milan’s city government and he finally succeeded in setting up the Theater of La Scala as an autonomous entity. When that happened, the School of Dance was reinstated under the direction of Russian ballerina Olga Preobrajenska.
La Scala’s School of Dance has hosted some of the most famous names in the dance world, including George Balenchine, the father of American ballet and director of the New York City Ballet. When he chose Signora Prina to dance a major part in a program being performed in Milan that season, she was thrilled. “Working with George Balenchine was heady stuff for a dreamy 15 year old ballerina”, she says.
When I asked her what characteristics she looks for when interviewing students for the school, she replies without hesitation, “esthetics”. She explained that proportion is extremely important and what they look for are children who are physically harmonious, preferably with a long neck, a small head and long arms and legs.
To go along with these attributes she says, the child has to be “elastic”, that is a dancer must be able to move, to bend, to jump. In addition to the physical attributes they must also be intelligent, have the ability to concentrate, a certain amount of determination and discipline, and last but not least, musicality.
Their basic scholastic education is provided by the City of Milan, but that is only part of the education they receive. “Since children come to us at such an early age, it is our duty, actually our responsibility to educate them properly. Their education must take on many forms, not just dance but other things like hygiene, how and what to eat and drink, discipline, how to behave, to have good manners. It’s really quite complex. Most of all, these children have to become responsible adults, if they become dancers, all the better.”
|So You Think You Can Dance|
Admission tryouts usually take place in June each year, but the requests for admission start arriving from all over the world as early as January. Those who make it face eight grueling years of training but if they pass the final exam, they receive the much coveted diploma of “Professional Dancer” they then become eligible to audition for a permanent position with the La Scala Corps di Ballet. That is their goal, that is what they have been working toward for eight long years. Not everyone makes it, but those that do will go on to have a career in dance.
“If they are accepted by the Corps di Ballet, then the work really begins,” says Signora Prina, a small smile playing at the corners of her mouth. She speaks from experience and I have the feeling she wouldn’t have had it any other way.