GENIUS LOCI: Dance, space & guardian spirits

I have just returned from one of my yearly pilgrimages to Italy, where I had occasion to dwell with the guardian spirit of art, for it was all around me, turn whichever way I might. It got me thinking about how so much of Italy is embodied in its art, and in the spirit of the place. This year, the spirit of dance, and of new corporeal conversations, could be found at the Venice Biennale. Can you think of a better place for dance to evolve?

Over time, the Venice Biennale has become a showcase for contemporary art and matured into an arts organization that is open throughout the year. This June, the 14th Architectural Biennale hosted the 9th contemporary dance festival. The festival was comprised of 42 pieces danced by various troupes, out of which six artists — Michele Di Stefano, Jérôme Bel, Saburo Teshigawara, Laurent Chétouane, Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion — were commissioned to create new pieces based on fine art from around the city. The festival opened to the public at the Corderie dell’Arsenale, and presented continuous dance performances meant to capture evolving multidisciplinary works. The dance space itself was conceived by the curator of the Architecture exhibition, Rem Koolhass. Within its seven stages, the exhibition captured the spirit of dance, located in a 15th century space, next to the architectural works of Monditalia, inviting dance to adapt and transform itself to the space it was danced in, and involving  spectators in the process.

Gaia Alari, "Love is not a victory march"

This unique event was launched by the 9th International Festival of Contemporary Dance, in collaboration with the Fondazione Prada, and it was created and directed by the Tuscan choreographer Virgilio Sieni. It is a radical and innovative approach to dance, and to capturing movement in its essence: as it happens corporeally. It also engaged two art forms in dialogue: painting and dance.

Sieni’s project meant to focus attention to dance in process, and aimed to develop a sense of community through dance as a form of gestural communication that connects the inside with the outside, the one with the many.

His vision succeeded in bringing about a dialogue between corporeality and space, where the art of attentive watching and listening moved us closer to internal space, beyond words and into live and experiential laboratories capable of surprising us with their danced language. Sieni’s incredible project, Mondo Novo, manages to do all this while unfolding within Venice and its spaces, involving her as city within the movement of the choreography.

His work reflects on gesture and movement, defining human characteristics which contain our fragility, individuality, and desire for relationships, enveloping a memory of postmodern sensibility that asks us to listen to the body and its pulse as it beats and resonates within urban spaces that are centuries old.

Venice is thus traversed through its very arteries with choreography that enlivens the old while capturing the new.

To wit: Jérôme Bel’s work is based on Tiepolo’s painting Mondo Novo. Bel likes to work with non-dancers, with bodies that are young and old, fit and not-so-fit, helping to represent a human community that is at times inadequate and unable to perform certain movements, but that continues to try and to play with movement. No perfection here, just us common folk, in all of our glory. Or not.

Then there is Burrows and Fargion’s dedication to Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna con bambino e gloria di cherubini rossi, choreographed as a performative reading in their Madonna Project. Part lecture, part gesture, it aims at exploring the cult of the Madonna –the holy, the mundane, the good and the bad. Fargion’s recitation of humanity’s failings via the Madonna image is accented by Burrows mime-like movement, which at times approximates the painting while at others seems to enact a feeling. Their second work, Body Not Fit for Purpose, is set to a mandolin and the melody of La Folia — and it is explicitly political — with both men reciting the names of modern day wrongdoers such as George Bush, Silvio Berlusconi, and the world financial establishment — gesture mimicking words, words initiating gesture.

Laurent Chétouane explores otherness in his Sacré du Printemps, wherethe subject is not sacrificed (as in the original ballet), but instead is absorbed into society despite her differences. Movement here is insistent and repetitive, a didactic appeal to the audience to participate in the building of a future that accepts idiocyncracies and individual particuliarities in their totality.

Sabura Teshigawara, in Lines, dances the space between life and death, fluctuating between generations of old and new to the violin music of Sayaka Shoji, which evokes gloom and bodies possessed. The movement is furious, incessant, and seems to struggle against darkness and immobility. It becomes a danced reflection on our time on earth. In contrast, the work of Cristina Rizzo, including seven children, set to Ravel’s Bolero is a statement of life with a capital ‘L,’ bursting with energy, sweetness, and the promise of youth.

The Corderie dell’Arsenale will also be the special venue for the premiere of Appunti del Vangelo secondo Matteo (Notes on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew): a special project by Virgilio Sieni, that had its debut at the Teatro alle Tese, over the first three weekends of July, as an epilogue to the Festival.

The dance festival of the biennale is pure genius in that it opens spaces, weaves diversity, and interrupts daily life by inviting participation in creation and movement. It shifts movement from the stage and the private to the streets and the public, blurring the boundaries in the process and moving us all.

Dance in polis is indeed genius loci.