While Drammaturgies, the third Biennale Teatro under the direction of the stage director Antonio Latella, is about to begin Biennale Danza 2019 has turned 20 in a perennially crowded, hot and humid Venice, one of the world’s wonderfully unique cities. This year’s edition registered an increase of spectators by 18% - almost all of them young, some participating in educational initiatives defined as ‘colleges’ for budding dancers and choreographers. They expressed the same sense of excitement and joyfulness that festival habitués recall from those beginning editions of this Cinderella of all Biennials, created after an incredible delay of more than 100 years. It was in 1895 that a noble lagoon institution of Venetian intellectuals put an end to what we today could call an injustice, proposing to enlarge the boundaries of the Visual Art market with the support of the city government. No one then ever imagined that Dance would become of international interest. Music, yes, slowly found its place, and a second Biennale celebration was established in 1930.
In rapid succession, the Biennale Cinema (1932) and the Biennale Teatro (1934) arrived, and while the Biennale Architettura (1980) was to wait another 46 years, Dance still needed two striking precedents, even if distanced in time, to convince the then Minister of Culture, Walter Veltroni, to add Body Movement as an Art to the other Biennials. In 1995, the two-time director of the Biennale Musica Mario Messinis, a critic of vast culture and sensitivity, awarded a Golden Lion for a career to the famous and revolutionary American choreographer, Merce Cunningham. Then, there was the experience of Carolyn Carlson’s ‘Theater and Dance La Fenice’, the establishment of the first and only Italian contemporary dance company to date supported by an operatic institution, lasting from 1981 to 1985. Yet, this disbanded company of Italian dancers continued to be talked about lamentably. And so it was that Walter Veltroni called the thin, blond Carlson back to Venice to hand her the first direction of the Bienniale of the sector. It was in November 1999.
Talent scout by vocation, as well as a charismatic dancer and mystical choreographer inspired by poetry and nature, Carolyn immediately developed a three-year project, focusing on teaching and transforming the city into a place where exclusive dance events could take place. With her, the Teatro Verde on the Island of San Giorgio reopened, it being closed since 1975. She also helped the public discover the Teatro alle Tese, a large sixteenth-century hall with three naves and two rows of columns, once used for making the sails of Venetian boats, and also inaugurated the Isola Danza Academy, also on San Giorgio, a school that the American artist of Finnish origins would have liked to remain in operation even after her departure from Venice. This was not to be the case, at least in the formula she had outlined. Carolyn remained in the Lagoon until 2002, obtaining the first Golden Lion of the institution in 2006. It is curious that the current director of the Biennale Danza, the Canadian Marie Chouinard from Québec had been invited by Carlson to present a series of extraordinary solos, furious and instinctive, interpreted by herself clothed in sheaths shaped in the form of prehistoric animals. Until 2020, Chouinard will hold the position as the third woman directing the sector (succeeding the American Karole Armitage), following the Brazilian Ismael Ivo and the Florentine Virgilio Sieni, both of them awarding important Lions, with only one in Silver attributed to an Italian, Michele Di Stefano.
The blonde Chouinard, mystic in her own way as was Carlson, has gone further, and this year, with the approval of Paolo Baratta, twice President of all the Biennials and its Board of Directors, has attributed a Golden Lion to Alessandro Sciarroni, an Italian from the Marche Region, and a Silver Lion to the still unknown French Théo Mercier and Steven Michel. Sounding out the currents of contemporary dance, well represented in the capital and small letters of the title of her Biennale - On BEcOMING A SmART GOd-dess - Marie asserts that in its constant transformation, dance becomes a strategic divinity. Well conceived, yet nothing new here. For at least the last twenty years, research in the field of contemporary dance has denied any possibility of being defined a priori, and generously accepts all kinds of gestures, words, sounds, daily movements, performative acts, or all that originates from the visual arts. On the other hand, one could already ‘dance’ standing still, from the time of Béjart’s dancing on the roof of Le Corbusier's Radiant City in Marseille, surrounded by the electronic music of Pierre Henry. And we were in the 50s.
Today really nothing seems to be able to épater le bourgeois, if not that dense choreographic thought that does not fall into being rhetoric, excessively narrative, appeasing an audience in search of self-satisfaction for having finally understood what dance expresses without having to “put one’s head in his hands", as Erik Satie said when referring to Wagner's music. But let’s not fly too high. Today's simplification leads to ‘social phenomena’, perhaps destined to be consumed quickly as we do when changing smartphones. In this sense, the Golden Lion attributed to Sciarroni is entirely pertinent to the Zeitgeist of the moment. In his Augusto (2018), nine dancers in everyday clothes walk around in circles, then start laughing, moving in space even without respecting their circular course. Two brusque, violent slaps inflicted on one of the two female dancers in the group, and the crying of another performer with his back to the audience breaks the forced joy of the show, and it is easy to understand what they are alluding to. It is the gratuitous violence on women, and the ambiguity of the Augustus clown, a circus archetype who with his giggly, foolish joking is opposed to the seriously sophisticated, often sad White Clown. In his shows, Sciarroni ‘reveals’ only one thing, and this monotony of his is not only a quote revisited from something else - jonglerie, folklore, sports practices, the whirling Dervishes, but it is also repeated in a dilatation, which is, in his words, a vehicle of pleasure and a hypnotic suspension of time. Perhaps at the beginning of his career, Sciarroni had other directorial possibilities. His first work, Your Girl (2007), reappeared in the afore-mentioned Teatro alle Tese, confirming itself to be a poignant reinterpretation of Madame Bovary.
The pièce is interpreted by Chiara Bersani all face and long hair on a dwarfed body trapped within a deformity lived with enviable aesthetic wisdom. Right from the beginning of the performance, she faces us in a wheelchair, abandoning it to reach an industrial dustbin-vacuum cleaner into which she will put cotton roses of her white bodice, and also her other clothes, repeating under her breath "You love me, you love me not". The air from the vacuum cleaner blows her hair up and away, revealing her ecstatic face. The image is endearing, turning our attention away from a beautiful boy upstage, sitting as a real Bovary in a gazebo of flowers, but of cotton, caught up in his sewing. Drawn towards the woman, he too will reach center stage, and, obeying the woman’s mute invitation, he will pass over all his clothes, which piece by piece will be sucked into the vacuum cleaner, he remaining nude in the end. While Tiziano Ferro’s pop tune I can't explain it to myself is heard, she puts her abnormal, sharp-tipped hands into his, and he, in the perfection of his body, caresses her, looking into her eyes. It is not the love story between a prince and his frog princess, but much more. It is the original anti-tragic subversion of a classic of literature, in which no one dies and everything becomes possible. By simply desiring what the other desires, the world now possesses boundless beauties filled with regenerating grace.
In Affordable Solution for Better Living, the Silver Lion duo made up of Théo Mercier and Steven Michel seek instead to build a sort of perfect Ikea cottage, only to then break it up with the help of texts that tell us step by step what to do. Michel is alone on the stage, first trapped in an adherent bodysuit, with an immobile mask resembling the Barbie doll Ken, and then, in the destructive phase, in another bodysuit that unveils muscles, tendons and veins, as in a medical illustration of the human body. Extremely well constructed, the pièce has a political-social inspiration that extinguishes itself through narrative excess.
This doesn’t quite happen in the very carefully measured female duet Habiter, created and interpreted for herself by the Canadian Katia-Marie Germain and her colleague, Marie-Gabrielle Ménard. Here the principle of living in a claustrophobic space means living quietly through small gestures and refined movements, between light and dark, veiled in shadows. The two performers either remain alone or meet up in pairs, sitting in front of a laid table, a slight background drone sound pushing their micro-transformations. The displacement of a plate, a picture frame, a glass all takes place in the dark, and forces the observer to discover what has changed when the light is turned back on. From this sort of ‘still-life that changes’ with extreme precision, an ashen, portentous beauty shines through; in the end, the human presences disappear and only the objects/memories remain. It is a fading away not without clear signs about what and who inspired this piece: from Flemish painting to photography, from the visual works of Bettina Hoffmann to those of Bill Viola. The choreographic thought behind Habiter might not be recognized by all, in comparison to William Forsythe's A Quiet Evening of Dance or Sasha Waltz's Impromptus.
With intelligence, Marie Chouinard wanted to introduce two works to the basket of her On BEcOMING A SmART GOd-dess that, although not very new, marked a change in the path of two champions of diverse importance now on the international scene for some time. In Impromptus, which made its debut at Avignone in the distant 2004, and now slightly transformed in its return to the Teatro alle Tese, the German Sasha Waltz inaugurated unexpectedly her ties to music, indeed more refined when approaching opera. After two remarkable dance trilogies of theatrical formulation, but with very little in common with the language of her compatriot Pina Bausch. Through the notes of Schubert, through his biography, Waltz once stated that she had discovered new reasons for creating a more intimate relationship between the dancer’s bodies of Sasha Waltz & Guests, her company. In fact, like many other choreographers’ vis à vis with music, she worked on pure dance, at least at the beginning. Here, the seven interpreters of Impromptus, always poised on two over-lapping slabs raised from the ground, alternate in solos, duets and ensembles, disappearing behind a large gilded and oscillating panel which serves as a background. Then, however, an irresistible theatrical impulse forces two dancers to wear water-filled galoshes that enervate the silence interposed between the various Schubert pieces, played by live piano. With movements of great contrast, the dancers use paint to dirty the cleanliness of their bodies, while before in magnificent acrobatic duos they aimed to reach the archway of the sky. Love, mutual understanding, the fragility of certain moments of a joyful life become painfully bruised -Schubert composed his Impromptus a year before he died - in the necessary and colored impurity of life (those painted bodies), in the sensation of an irreparable detachment from the world, that not even four compassionate Schubert Lieder (sung by Judith Simons, as she did in 2004,) manage to give comfort to.
More optimistic, also for the caustic and subtle irony that pervades A Quiet Evening of Dance by the American William Forsythe, the Golden Lion awarded in 2010, reinforces yet another turning point in the artistic life of the most important and influential personality on the dance scene of these last forty years, as was Pina Bausch, of whom he was the exact opposite. A Choreographer-experimenter, one who even invented ‘choreographic objects’ to show that dance and choreography are very distinct arts, a freelance Forsythe has returned to investigate that ‘ballet-thing’, the point from which he started in the incandescent and twenty-year experience of his first company, the Frankfurter Ballett. On the bare stage of the historic Malibran Theater, after previous Italian performances and a London debut at Sadler's Wells Theater (October 2018), he again offered an astonishing suite of dances divided into two parts and performed by seven formidable dancers from his second group, the ex-Forsythe Company, featuring hip hop champion Rauf ‘RubberLegz’ Yasit, an electrifying element enriching his language.
As always, his titles are righteous. A Quiet Evening of Dance is pure dance and not choreography, but a powerful choreographic thought concerning the various and contrasting contributions of sound and music. Morton Feldman, in his almost rhapsodic Nature Pieces n.1 of 1950, could never be theoretically put side by side with the Ritournelle taken from Jean Philippe Rameau’s tragedie lyrique of 1733, Hyppolite et Aricie. The choreographer, however, uses this pairing after a good dose of silence and the chirping of birds, as a non-casual transformation of his male and bisexual duos, at first mimic, then didactic and virtuosic, both in the context of leapings and turnings of a danse d'école, and in its comparison between ballet and hip hop, two geometric systems of movement with a not dissimilar mathematical nature. In the end, the courtly excitement of all the bodies reveals how the first part of the ballet is nothing but the continuity of the second: free rationality supervised (Feldman) and ironic theatrical freedom (Rameau). Without ostentation, without effort (which also exists, but cannot be seen), with that natural lack of surface patina typical of Forsythe, A Quiet Evening of Dance appears cultured and joyful, introspective and extroverted with all those colorful gloves and socks worn by its performers, and above all, fiercely contemporary.
We adopt a well-known Forsythe statement to observe other pieces of this varied Biennale Dance 2019: "It is not language that counts, but the use that one makes of it". The feminine and feminist duo of the Brazilian-Berliner Michelle Moura, a tangle of emotions, postures, words and aggressive and delicate looks, animalistic and then amorous movements with Clara Saito, also a Brazilian performer, was followed by a playful solo of Simona Bertozzi. In a gray wig and tight-fitting opaque suit into which she puts a microphone, the Emilian Bertozzi renewed her Ilinx-Don't Stop the Dance (2008). With an athletic, muscular and pensive look, she pursues the suggestions found in Man, Play, and Games by the French sociologist Roger Caillois. Set in the beautiful Weapon Room of the fascinating Arsenal beneath pink, violet, and blue pop light, ideal for this intriguing live music solo. Perhaps, if only to achieve perfection, greater cohesive structure would be needed. Choreographic or dramaturgical? The borders are by now flexible and over-lapping.
As the Biennale Teatro opens (22 July to 5 August), the importance of Drammaturgies is explained by its director Antonio Latella: “A title deliberately left in the plural, precisely so because, in the 21st century, there exist many and different dramaturgies for the stage, and for all that concerns a live show”. This is very true also for dance. In the German sense, for example, the figure of the dramaturg is no longer just that of a writer of theatrical texts. "How could this be - Latella adds - after the breakthrough made by Samuel Beckett in Act without Words, a short play of 1956 which does not foresee words but only actions to be performed?" For some time at the forefront of the Central European Dance scene, this dramaturg, this theatrical author has begun to take root even in his homeland Italy. He is not taking the place of a choreographer but can better channel his follies and fantasies with theoretical contributions, widening his bibliographic and video-graphic sources. The Biennale Teatro launches a beautiful challenge to Biennale Dance. Prosit!