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Grace Lyell in 1 Meter Closer by Aterballetto. Image courtesy of the company

Alone Together

The moving screendances of Italy's Aterballetto

Aterballetto, contemporary dance company based in Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy, was among the first to release a dance film in response to the pandemic. The region was particularly hard hit by Covid-19, and 1 Meter Closer, which aired in April, tells the emotional story of this dark period, and reflects on the changing nature of body language and gesture in times of crisis. At 20 minutes in length, 1 Meter Closer is paced like a short dance work, and is a significant piece in itself, not only for quarantine times.

Founded in 1977 as the ballet company of the theatres of Emilia-Romagna, Aterballetto has been a driving force of contemporary dance in northern Italy. Mauro Bigonzetti directed and choreographed for the company for over a decade from 1997, and their repertoire includes work by William Forsythe, Johan Inger, Jiří Kylián, Cristina Rizzo, Hofesh Shechter, and Ohad Naharin. The 16-member troupe is currently led by program director Gigi Cristoforetti and company director Sveva Berti.

Diego Tortelli, resident choreographer for Aterballetto, recalls Berti coming to him with an idea for a screendance, to be made in isolation. Tortelli, speaking via Zoom from Milan, explained the process of creating the film, and challenges of creating in quarantine.

“For the first time in history, we are analyzing human contact in this way,” says Tortelli. The pandemic has affected our body language, and everyday gestures are taking on new meanings. He gives the example of a simple hug: “until a few months ago it was beautiful to walk in the city and see people hugging, but now that’s terrorism.”

Before joining Aterballetto, Tortelli trained in classical ballet at La Scala Academy in Milan. He began his dance career in Valencia, Spain, and gradually expanded his repertoire to include neoclassical and contemporary dance. He spent three years with Luna Negra Dance Theater in Chicago, before returning to Europe to join the National Ballet of Marseille, France. Tortelli has created work for numerous dance companies in Europe, and is associate choreographer for the MILANoLTRE festival and the Tanzbüro München production centre. He was appointed resident choreographer with Aterballetto in 2018.

1 Meter Closer has a visual elegance and harmony, in spite of being made under quarantine conditions. “My imagination goes to directly to images, to colours, sometimes even before the concept,” Tortelli says. “But here, the concept was so clear.”

The film is divided into three phases. It begins with dancers floorbound, and a caged, claustrophobic feeling, invoking “lockdown, the isolation, being lonely and alone.” The second phase “is the moment when you start to look out of the window.” The camera tracks the dancers from overhead, catching their direct eye contact. “It’s the moment when you start to connect again with the public, but the public, in this moment, becomes the world around you.”

The third phase projects the idea of a new future. We see dancers moving in outdoor spaces, exposed to natural light and wind. “Now, for sure it’s a really bad situation,” Tortelli says, “but it’s also giving us time to think—to think about a lot of things that we didn’t give enough attention to. Like, why did this happen?”

In compliance with the isolation rules, contact with the dancers was entirely virtual. Tortelli gave choreographic direction using various cues, from texts, images and visualization, and via Zoom. Similarly, the camera work was done by the dancers themselves, with editing done by company’s resident filmmaker, Valeria Civardi.

“The recording, editing and composition of music were done in parallel,” Tortelli explains. “I trust the music a lot and in the importance of the music, but it depends how you use it.” Federico Bigonzetti, based in London, created an original composition for the film, which was overlaid at the final edit.

“The difficulty of doing a work like this is creating the emotion that you want the public to feel,” Tortelli explains. “At the moment we’re living in, the emotions we have are extremely personal. But for the film, we want to achieve a collective feeling.” He adds, “the body remains abstract, but with the music, you receive a clear emotion.”

Estelle Bovay in Aterballetto’s The Other Side. Image courtesy of the company

Following the success of 1 Meter Closer, Aterballetto commissioned a second film. The Other Side, released on June 25, a co-production with La Toscanini of Parma, and the Ravenna Festival similarly deals with loneliness and isolation, and pays tribute to 250 years of Ludwig van Beethoven. The Other Side imagines dancers hearing music played by an unknown musician next door. The dancers and musicians are never able to meet—in reality or in the film, but share a connection through the music. Choreographed by Saul Daniele Ardillo, dancer and choreographer with Aterballetto, joined by dramaturg Simone Giorgi, the film features a new composition by Fabio Massimo Capogrosso performed by three musicians of the Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini. It also highlights artwork from the Maramotti Collection in Reggio Emilia; Love is a large-scale painting by Luisa Rabbia, an artist who reflects on the existential condition, and on the connection between human beings and the environment that surrounds them. 1 Meter Closer and The Other Side are available to watch on Aterballetto’s YouTube channel.

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