There is no image that epitomises the woeful state of the arts during this age of Covid more than the funereal melancholy of a full curtain call in complete silence. In Rome, as mostly everywhere in Europe, empty auditoria are the only way in which performances are possible and we must be grateful that the Ballo del Teatro dell’Opera di Roma is making and live-streaming new work. In this case, there were 1,278 viewings during the live performance and no doubt that number will grow exponentially while Pandora remains available on demand (until 13th February).

Rebecca Bianchi in Pandora
© Yasuko Kageyama | Teatro dell'Opera di Roma

Italian choreographer Simone Valastro has enjoyed a successful dance career at the Paris Opera Ballet where he cut his choreographic teeth, under both Brigitte Lefèvre and Benjamin Millepied, before joining forces with Alessio Carbone to form their own itinerant company, Italiens de l’Opéra, in 2016. In September 2020, his work Just was premiered by the Bolshoi, this rapid elevation in reputation being aligned to the oldest journey in all of ballet: from France to Italy and onto Russia. 

This choreographic return to his homeland (although Valastro hails from Milan, not Rome) was inspired by Greek Mythology and American minimalism in a marriage of the Pandora myth with the nonchalance of John Adams’ dreamlike Grand Pianola Music. In any word association test, one might confidently assume that Pandora would inevitably be followed by ‘box’, although that was a 16th-century mistranslation of the Ancient Greek, which has now stuck for good, since the original mythology suggests that it was a human-sized funerary jar that Pandora opened to release all the evils of humankind! There is neither box, nor jar, in the stage design of this Pandora. Instead all eyes are fixed on a large circular band which hovers above the stage, lit from beneath as if a round fluorescent tube. 

Damiano Mongelli and the Ballo del Teatro dell'Opera di Roma in Pandora
© Yasuko Kageyama | Teatro dell'Opera di Roma

This was in stark contrast to the gloomy imagery that went before, with performers clad in grey, hooded clothing against a bare, dark stage. Anna Bagiotti’s costume style mixed modern urban chic with medieval tunics. Four widows with their heads covered in sheer, dark net and wearing long dark robes loomed large from the otherwise drab ensemble. 

The fast, shaky single-note repetitions in the first part of Adams’ music segued into a more melodic sequence when the woodwind (flutes to the fore) brought a sense of dawn and awakening: the dancers responding by rhythmically opening and closing their arms while rising and falling like plants reacting to the sun. When the ring of light first appeared, it engendered an initial mood of inquisitiveness, bystanders staring up in amazement, which quickly morphed into consternation. One woman ran manically back and forth; two men collided and fought. Into this grim and anguished crowd, an old man (Damiano Mongelli), hooded and heavily bearded, mysteriously arrived to create order out of chaos.    

Following a brief sequence of six dancers performing on and around a long rectangular table, Valastro’s third section opened with a fast solo, full of rapid spins, performed by Claudio Cocino, as Epimetheus (brother of Prometheus and, later, Pandora’s husband), which led to sudden bursts of light that introduced Pandora (Rebecca Bianchi), more than halfway through the ballet; bare-legged and swathed in diaphanous layers of white tulle. Initially frightened by Epimetheus, she collapsed into a dead faint in his arms.

Claudio Cocino and Rebecca Bianchi in Pandora
© Yasuko Kageyama | Teatro dell'Opera di Roma

Her awakening led to a melting duet in soft lyrical choreography, punctuated by a huge presage lift, embossed into Adams’ divine, watery music; staccato splashes of piano notes and meandering strings with three female voices in the ascendancy.

Towards the end of this 30-minute ballet, the ring of light took off, like a very slow rocket, fired by downward jets of colourful smoke. A female trio of fast fluid footwork gave way to four “lords a-leaping” and then a rapid unified dance for the whole ensemble. The final part of Adams’ music grew through a dramatic crescendo, and as the thunderous music and flashing lights reached a climax, the dancers collapsed violently into a void of immediate silence and darkness.

Valastro’s Pandora is much like one of those earthenware, funerary jars... only smashed into fragments. Each shard has an arresting, if uneven, quality but there is nothing to be gained in trying to piece it all back together. In particular, this is a triumph for the orchestra, under the direction of Carlo Donadio embellished by  the three female singers from the Theatre’s Young Artist Programme: Agnieszka Jadwiga Grochala and Marianna Mappa and Angela Schisano. One hopes that they have fine careers and rapturous applause ahead.

This performance was reviewed from the Opera di Roma video stream