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The 13th Venice Dance Biennale

Leaving Venice after nearly two weeks of watching dance at the 13th Biennale Danza, our water taxi hurtled over the wakes of other boats darting from the airport. The Adriatic, a dancing sea of oscillating currents, provided an exhilarating ride along its shallowest tip. I would miss the dance, our lovely flat above a narrow canal and filled with musical toy-like gondolas each morning, the people and conversations. Maybe not so much being lost among the narrow, shaded alleys, the only escape from the brutal heat. The Biennale, and all of Europe, endured a few days of the “Sahara Wave.” If you survived it (and some did not,) you can look back and see the ominous poetry of that phrase—the arid desert air turning humid as it passes over the Mediterranean and Europe, heavy with minuscule droplets of sea, so dense breathing becomes arduous.

Alessandro Sciarroni's “Dance Me to the End of Love.” Photograph courtesy of Venice Biennale

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How, I wondered, in some of the un-air-conditioned venues, did the dancers manage to perform? Of course, as well-trained athletes, superior in breathing techniques and muscle memory, they rely on body-cooling sweat and strong-willed heart. They seemed super-human.

In her third year as artistic director of the dance department, Montreal choreographer, Marie Chouinard themed this year’s festival “ON BEcOMING A SmArt GOD – dESS.” With some 20 indoor performances, eight outdoor freebies, 13 countries represented, and numerous naked bodies, it was well organized, technologically perfect, and very well attended even to the midnight hours. Along with others, I hope to mention in future reviews the French/Croatian duo, Giuseppe Chico and Barbara Matijevic with “Forecasting” their cleverly executed solo with laptop in and its polar opposite, “Habiter,” an overlong, but beautiful conceptual work by Canadian Katia-Marie Germain—a duo still-life with painting.

Were they smart? Yes. Did they become gods and goddesses? No. They were just dancers.

The first is Silver and the Other Gold

The Biennale Danza Festival began with the Golden and Silver Lion awards ceremonies. Théo Mercier and Steven Michel received the Silver Lion (their show “Affordable Solution for Better Living” opened the festival) and Alessandro Sciarroni, for Lifetime Achievement, the Golden Lion.

Sciarroni’s “Your Girl,” a duet with Chiara Bersani and Matteo Ramponi, included Bersani’s wheelchair and a vacuum device. Ramponi sits upon a pile of socks while Bersani slowly plucks the sock rosettes off of her chest and feeds them into the machine. Eventually, it sucks up all of their clothing and they stand together, hand in hand, Ramponi stroking Bersani’s hair.

Venice Dance Biennale
“Augusto” by Alessandro Sciarroni, winner of the Golden Lion. Photograph by Andrea Avezzù

Laughter, Tears

“Augusto” is Sciarroni’s study on how prolonged laughter affects the body—and a tribute to the clown, August. His nine dancers walk in circles, throwing their heads back, convulsing shoulders and torsos uncontrollably. Clowns can be more scary than funny, and I found this disturbing at times, yet compelling in its daring. Until finally, one dancer breaks down crying and the others watch helplessly. This is what it means to laugh until you cry and the body is totally spent.

Just dancers?

In some works, the performers were super-human wheelchair users. Doris Uhlich’s “Every Body Electric,” wheelchairs, canes, crutches became extra-corporeal tools for her eight dancers, showing how bodily kinaesthetic intelligence transcends the lack of limbs, or of their use. A nod of the head, a wink, direct eye contact with an audience member, the slyly hilarious flapping of a flabby torso, jiggling tits, and unabashed nudity all displayed an endless variety of dexterity and performative ability. Dancers clearly exhibiting the joy of performance made for a tenderly different viewpoint of singing the body electric.

At 70 minutes, Nicola Gunn’s performance art, “Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster” may have been a tad too repetitive. But repetition can build to real meaning. Her narrative, which often poked well-deserved snark at artist Marina Abramović and her concern over her legacy, was hilarious. She’ll be performing it again at Tanz im August in Berlin.

Venice Dance Biennale
Esther Gaudette, Simon Renaud and Mathieu Campeau in “Quatuor Tristesse” by Daniel Léveillé. Photograph by Denis Farley

Skin, Sweat

With “Blink Mini Unison Intense Wail,” Brazilian-born, current Berliner, Michelle Moura performed with Clara Saito in black tunics. They kept to a tight square, as if breathing themselves into awareness of their surroundings. Their bodies connected and twisted with each other until they disengaged, and sat caterwauling, stripped off the tunics to just multicolored bralettes. Whatever their intent, they were riveting as performers.

I first saw Daniel Léveillé Danse's “Amour, acide et noix” in Toronto in 2004—an argument between life's hardship and sweetness. “Is not the skin the one true body costume?” he’s said when asked why his dancers often perform in the nude. Yes. There simply is no way to see the visceral dancer’s body other than to see the sinews, veins and muscles moving without the obstruction of costumes. His 2018 “Quatuor Tristesse” was another tour-de-force of melancholy sans bathos, but with determination to transcend it through rational movement. Stillness’s follow action, as if a moment of mindfulness is needed to determine the next movement phrase.

Sweat, Laughter

Argentina’s “Un Poyo Rojo” (A Red Stone Bench) has toured the world as a work in continuous evolution for ten years. Each year Nicolás Poggi and Luciano Rosso add some ingenious new shtick to their 60-minute show. The sheer whippiness of their dancing could give you the kind whiplash from watching a Wimbledon match. Set in a sparse locker room, the two create a powerhouse that caroms from ballet to tennis to soccer, as the two flirt, charm, challenge and seduce each other in front of their lockers.

Venice Dance Biennale
Nicolás Poggi and Luciano Rosso perform “Un Poyo Rojo.” Photograph by Andrea Avezzù

Under the direction of Hermes (now there was a clever god) Gaido, they impale flamenco, derail hip hop, and upend all things “male.” And how do you parody vogueing, already a parody? Poggi and Rosso just do it. They make their American debut at Philadelphia’s FringeArts in September and should not be missed.

Wonder, Passion

William Forsythe put together “A Quiet Evening of Dance.” The dancers wore vari-colored opera length gloves to Morton Feldman’s “Nature Pieces,” twittering birdsong that played to the birdlike ballet moves. Many in the audience liked the second half better. It featured Rauf “Rubberlegz” Yasit (who I recently saw in Scottsdale, AZ with BODYTRAFFIC.) Yasit, a choreographer and dancer with Kurdish roots forms the Los Angeles-based Wewolf with James Gregg. They created MESH, a fluid, continuously embraiding of two dancers’ bodies with popping, locking and other movements born in breaking and B-boy idioms. The Forsythe dancers became birds of a feather with him.

Venice Dance Biennale
“Impromptus” by Sasha Waltz. Photograph courtesy of Venice Biennale

And blood.

Sasha Waltz’s 2004 “Impromptus” remains timely. One of the few shows with a set—geometric plywood, pitched, cantilevered and raked at risky angles by Thomas Schenk and Waltz, its seven dancers braved it for 75 minutes. Cristina Marton played several Schubert “Impromptus” on the pianoforte as Judith Simonis sang some of the lieder. A duet kept the arms and legs straight while still projecting a romantic longing. Men confronted each other nose to nose. They draw black circles on the white mylar and step into rubber boots that act as weights for a woman to swing a man around by his armpits. Eventually they mix red paints on the mylar with water dribbled from the boots. Rolling through the paints they look like seriously injured victims of some cataclysm, a word derived from the Greek, which combines down, or against with wash over, surge. An opening appears on one deck and the women bathe in it. Have they been cleansed? Finally, a couple parts, slowly backing away from each other as if the distance between them holds a past of pain and joy they can never reclaim.

Wonder, Heart

Aside from “Un Poyo Rojo,” the young students selected from hundreds of applicants for the Biennale College Danzatori danced two pieces that truly sent my heart leaping. Over a couple of months, the 15 chosen ones learned Trisha Brown’s “Set and Reset/Reset” and Sciarrone’s new work, “Dance Me to the End of Love.”

Venice Dance Biennale
Biennale College dancers in Trisha Brown's “Set and Reset/Reset.” Photograph by Andrea Avezzù

All danced with maturity and élan, but some couldn’t help but stand out from the crowd. Ramon Vargas, a New Yorker and recent graduate from Philly’s University of the Arts, and Australian, Benjamin Hurley. But, in both dances, Milan’s Vanessa Loi personified lucency. The moment she stepped onto the stage, all eyes locked on her and there was a palpable intake of breath.

“Dance Me to the End of Love” had little to do with Leonard Cohen’s iconic song except the borrowing of the title and an equally unrelenting tempo by Telemann Rec., which builds from a quiet metronomic pulse and adds notes like bubbles that correspond to the additions of steps. As the dancers loop hypnotically around the stage it ends in an overlay of a pensive sonar pulse. Very visceral.

The polka chinata is a Bolognese duet danced by men on the street or in ballrooms—a dying art. The dance originated in the early 20th-century and is so athletic that usually only men did it, often to show off for women. Only a handful of men now are capable of performing it. Sciarrone, who’s worked with Bavarian-Tyrolean dance and other folk styles, is saving it from extinction by turning it into one of the most stunning and emotionally wrenching dances. It is a reckless dance with the feet of the two dancers planted between each other’s while circling themselves as they revolve around their performing space.

Sciarrone slows it down and formalizes it so it looks modern, crisp with couples of mixed and same genders paired. Its power comes from its repetition, and finally, when the chinata—a bent-knee descent with the feet, and now the knees, also thrust between each partner’s, so that they make a centrifugal force that keeps them balanced even at top speed. The partners must trust each other to keep up the momentum or they will surely fall. Again all eyes were on Loi, with her lovely port-de-bras and relaxed attitude that made this 25-minute rigorous work look almost like a cakewalk. She could have danced all night. And we would have stayed.

Venice Dance Biennale
Alessandro Sciarroni's “Dance Me to the End of Love.” Photograph courtesy of Venice Biennale

Merilyn Jackson

Merilyn Jackson has written on dance for the Philadelphia Inquirer since 1996 and writes on dance, theater, food, travel and Eastern European culture and Latin American fiction for publications including the New York Times, the Warsaw Voice, the Arizona Republic, Phoenix New Times, MIT’s Technology Review, Arizona Highways, Dance, Pointe and Dance Teacher magazines, and Broad Street Review. She also writes for tanz magazin and Ballet Review. She was awarded an NEA Critics Fellowship in 2005 to Duke University and a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship for her novel-in-progress, Solitary Host.



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