The Cloak of the Dragon proves that with enough money you can put anything on stage – and still make it look cheap. In association with the Italian Trade Agency, the Lineapelle leather fair has cobbled together this unedifying spectacle starring La Scala principals Sabrina Brazzo, Andrea Volpintesta and Antonella Albano along with ten other dancers. A trio of nonsensical tales set around a ‘magical tannery’ are intended to show off the possibilities inherent in Italian cowhide. So, even if the entire event put dance in the service of commerce, I was hoping at least for some inventive and interesting costumes. As it turned out, the leathery garments on display looked worse than the choreography.
Poor Brazzo bourrées around the Palladium stage draped in something that bears more than a slight resemblance to one of those extra-durable garden waste bin bags from Wilko’s. A bit later she turns up in a pale version of the cape in order to give some red leather boots to someone, executes a few pirouettes and partakes in some incomprehensible stage business. There are sub-prime Coppelias and knock-off Nutcracker dolls. A chorus of perky tannery workers prance around in taupe jerkins and breeches, occasionally slapping chamois leather cloths against the stage. Then there’s Volpintesta as a low-rent devil whose dignity is totally undermined by a tawdry combination of patent trousers and red waistcoat.
The whole thing is unremittingly grim, and moves from banal to offensive when a (presumably real) bearskin is brought on and foisted onto a dancer, who then gets kicked by some children. It felt like a moment for chucking red paint, or worse. Artistic endeavour aside (well, there isn’t any), The Cloak of the Dragon fails as an extended advert for Italian leather goods not just because of the unremarkable costumes and leaden dancing but also because every other element in the production is so poorly done. The taped excerpts of music (by Khachaturian, Bizet and Shostakovich, among others) are blasted so loudly through the sound system that every flute trill becomes a painful aural ordeal. At the end of each scene the music is brought to an abrupt halt, like someone’s just prodded the stop button on a CD player, leaving the dancers to trundle offstage in silence.
We’re also treated to a grainy video that shows the cogs turning in a tannery and regurgitating the odd drooping portion of leather while a voiceover murmurs something inane about a princess and a dragon’s epidermis. Even if the whole process wasn’t historically soaked with urine, faeces and animal brains, I can’t think of many things that are less magical than leather tanning. But if this is the way of things, perhaps the British milk industry could try to bolster falling prices by staging a ballet set in a ‘magical dairy’ in which members of the corps de ballet are trussed up as a winsome Guernsey herd, delightfully free of mastitis, with fake udders that squirt glittery milk in fancy patterns across the stage. The theatre air thick with the stench of crass market forces, it made me long to sit through a Soviet ballet about tractors and bureaucracy on a collective farm. That at least might pay some respect to the humble cow.