The Spy with License to Dance
… and Paint
This isn’t a fictional book by Ian Fleming, nor an imaginary film about the world’s most famous secret agent. The “James Bond” we’re talking about here is Italian, and his name is Alberto Spadolini (1907 – 1972). He was sexy and daring like 007, surrounded by fascinating women and celebrities of the international jet set, continually moving between different milieux – showbiz, politics, sophisticated circles, and war scenarios. The only difference is – he was real.
The 1930s were an age of pyrotechnics and Spadolini had recently arrived in Paris from Italy, having left his country when Mussolini closed down the Teatro degli Indipendenti. This was a privileged venue for the Italian artistic avant-garde where Spadolini had been working as assistant set designer, alongside artists like Giorgio De Chirico.
The adventurous Spadolini, who had also worked as Gabriele D’Annunzio decorator; arrived in Paris surrounded by much gossip and sporting a nickname, “The New Nijinsky”, given to him by an impresario who had seen him moving like the “God of Dance” while he was painting the walls of a ballroom on the French Riviera. His arrival caused a whirlwind: he gained early acclaim as Premieur Danseur de l’Opéra de Monte Carlo, ran away with Jean Renoir’s wife, gave benefit performances, and received praise from poets such as Paul Valéry who described him as “mythological, mystical, faunlike”, or from critics like Fernand Divoire who called him “a phenomenon”.
But the person who really turned the handsome Spado into an international star was Josephine Baker, who was his partner at the Casino de Paris until a tempestuous tour of London which marked the end of their passionate love story. No matter. His adventures included the Folies Bergère, a meeting with the young Jean Marais who introduced him to the film world, and his first film, L’épervier with Princess Natalie Paley, a cousin of Tsar Nicholas II who was romantically attached to Cocteau.
Not to mention his activity in the Resistance, his “generous, dangerous and reckless war” (as Jean-François Crance called it), his mission to Berlin in 1940 on the occasion of Franz Lehar’s 70th birthday and where Spadolini danced before the Führer and his officials.
The following year he was in Stockholm with the mysterious Yves Gyldén who headed a group of French cryptanalysts. In Sweden, Spadolini danced alongside Betty Bjurstrom. They made an odd couple: Bjurstrom was the wife of Renato Senise, a double-crossing agent whose uncle was the head of Mussolini’s political police, Ovra.
At the end of the war he returned to Paris in triumph where his never-forgotten love of painting became a prime activity once again. According to Jean Cocteau, Spadolini’s art consisted in “dance paintings with ballerinas and danseurs whirling in the sky as transfigurations of the soul”.
And then there was his true love, for the Countess Yvette de Marguerie, ballerina/actress and an active member of De Gaulle’s anti-Nazi association Mouvement National des Croix de Lorraine. Together, the two of them took up residence at the Château de Brignac in the Loire Valley which became a meeting place for aristocrats, intellectuals, and international politicians. Guests included Prince Felix Yusupov, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and the future Italian premier, Giovanni Spadolini (a distant relative of Alberto’s).
It is possible that his espionage days were behind him, yet his sojourns in Algeria, and later in Vietnam while the battle of Dien-Bien-Fu was raging, are somewhat suspicious. The mystery has never been solved …
Spadolini The Dancer
“Spadolini, an Adonisian poseur.” Chicago III Daily December 1934
“Spadolini, is a sensational novelty … such as you will seldom see on an American stage.” Boston Daily Record, April 1935
“Spadolini, extraordinary dancer.” Boston Evening American, April 1935
“Spadolini combines a remarkable body with an extraordinary talent for dancing.” Variety, New York, December 1935
“Spadolini, a young Italian dancer, is reported as having ‘achieved renown at the Royal Opera, Rome, and the Casino de Paris’. His New York début recital is to be made up of excerpts from various Italian ballets, and such independent items as a modern machinery number, Toscanini and Chinese Opium Smoker.” John Martin “The Dance Importations”, The New York Times, July 1936
“Spadolini, brought here under contract to MGM, will bring his principal dancers, costumes and orchestrations from Paris.” The American Dancer, 1938
“I don’t know why Spadolini reminds me of a Cagliostro of the dance. Is it on account of his appearances in wigs and costumes that often look like disguises? Is it because he entrusts his dancing to some kind of reincarnation phenomenon? I don’t know. Spadolini’s dancing has something unique about it. One can see that his body is groomed in a powerful, strong manner. One can see perfectly that he aims at what Lifar calls expressionism. How does he achieve it? Simply with his senses. Unlike Torrès, he is not sustained by a national technique, nor does he, unlike others, have the serene confidence and wise control of ballet technique. He has to invent everything to avoid falling into monotony, whether he happens to be performing Spanish or Hungarian dances, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, or a Bach Toccata. His re-inventing of steps leads him towards eclecticism.” Fernand Divoire “Spadolini”, Paris Midi , December 43
“His choreography is in harmony with my Boléro score!” Maurice Ravel
“Mythological, mystical and faunlike! Visions of Spadolini” Paul Valery
“Had I been a ballerina I would have chosen you as my partner!” Marlène Dietrich
“Spadolini has brilliant technique and great beauty of movement and pose.” Vogue (London)
Spadolini The Artist
“Spadolini dances his dreams. His dreams as a painter… His concept of Art is linked via his soul and his muscles to our sister the Dance, and to Painting. His canvases show us faces which we would have loved. Nature resembles the dream of an almost holy world. Here is Spadolini, a tireless sportsman, who faces life as if it were a race, and gathers flowers whilst running. Flowers amidst laurels.” Max Jacob
“Spadolini’s pictorial research is the transfiguration of the soul of Dance. This psychological testimony transmits to us the inner vibration of his characters, but essentially the emotional inspiration he receives from moving human bodies. For, truly, this artist works on this subject inspired by the sentient universe and he expresses it with a genius of his own which springs up from his heart and his soul.” Jean Cocteau
“Oscar Wilde used to say that Nature imitates art. Is not Spadolini the wondrous juggler who whets our curiosity and sensibility and invites us into his personal universe where that which we alone have been unable to perceive is revealed? In his compositions, Spadolini carries us away with him to his discoveries and reveals to us our own Universe. He will have delivered us as he delivers himself.” Prince Felix Yusupov
“Mystical, mythological, faunlike … that’s Spadolini”, is what Paul Valéry has written. The same adjectives apply to the paintings by this artist who was a pupil of Giorgio De Chirico, and later of Paul Colin, before making his début as a principal danseur at the Opéra de Monte-Carlo. On opening night at the Casino de Paris on rue de l’Université, this young man was Mistinguett’s partner and she was the most enthusiastic of all, to the point that she even purchased a painting. Which, knowing her…” Pierre Barlatier “Les Lettres Françaises”, November 1948
“This is dance, as seen through the eyes of a dancer – and that dancer is Spado who has astounded the world of ballet and music-hall. He started painting portraits, landscapes and religious art when he was very young and now concentrates on dance, depicting his dancers under spotlights on stage. His science of movement is admirable, the ballerina on pointe is always marvellously balanced, the unreal colours of the sets are perfectly rendered.” La Revue Parlementaire, Paris, November 1954
“What a pleasure once again this year to meet Alberto Spadolini, whom I knew as a student of Vlaminck and Derain, at the Salon des Indépendants, ‘where his art becomes a magical conscious dream, where reality is transfigured by rapture …where to understand is to limit the object, where to guess is to discover its extension …’, as per his own words!” Marcel Rouault, La Semaine à Paris, April 1972
Spadolini The Actor
Spadolini made his film début in L’épervier (1933), directed by Marcel L’Herbier and starring Charles Boyer and Jean Marais. Director Pierre Caron had him dance on an enormous drum in his film Marinella (1936), starring Tino Rossi, and cast him in Le Monsieur de 5 heures (1938) where he danced with the beautiful Mila Parély. Spadolini also played a gangster role in Marcel Carné’s film masterpiece Le jour se lève (1939), starring Jean Gabin and Arletty, and that of a rowdy miner in Le pavillon brûle (1941) by director Jacques de Baroncelli, starring Jean Marais.
After the War Spadolini was both the director and screenwriter of documentary Rivage de Paris (1950), with music by Django Reinhardt and singer Suzy Solidor, as well as of another documentary in which he also danced, Nous les gitans (1951), on the origins of tzigane music (it featured the singer Line Monty). In addition, Spadolini directed “Souvenir d’Espagne” (1952), a documentary currently awaiting restoration.
Contents by “BOLERO-SPADO’ : SPADOLINI, UNA VITA DI TUTTI I COLORI” Copyright of Marco Travaglini
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