Claudia Castellucci's “Fisica dell'aspra comunione.” Image courtesy of La Biennale Danza

Muted, but Live

The 14th Venice Biennale Danza

With the hidden conviction of attending the last Italian dance performances, we went to Venice at La Biennale Danza festival: a kind of resistance, before our new, imminent lockdown. Despite the enthusiastic title, “And Now!” the 14th edition was an undertone: a few critics and journalists, no one from abroad, the audience halved because of the distance rules. Neither was the director, Marie Chouinard, able to arrive from Canada. Instead British choreographer Wayne McGregor was there, attending all the shows: a few days after he would be appointed new director of dance at La Biennale.

The melancholic beauty of the Arsenale (the ancient docklands of the city), venue of the dance festival, was the same, unchanged since Venice’s golden age. Like a premonition of the incoming sad times, people gathered in the theatres of the area with unnatural gaiety, not always respectful of the rules, as everywhere in the city, not packed as usual missing tourists from U.S. and Asia, but crowded with Italians and Europeans. In this early Autumn of rainy and sunny days, a breathtaking sunset on the city’s skyline every evening, we caught an all-female program with four choreographers: Italians Claudia Castellucci and Chiara Bersani, Spanish Jone San Martín and Belgian Lisbeth Gruwez. All of them were artistically raised besides or under a mentor—maybe a Pygmalion—and all of them were able to free themselves and take an independent path. Some in a more original way: we will see who.

Claudia Castellucci, this year awarded with the Silver Lion, is a 65 year-old artist who reached the élite of the avant garde theatre in Europe with her brother, Romeo, with the company Societas Raffaello Sanzio.

Claudia Castellucci’s “Fisica dell’aspra comunione.” Image by Ridotta

The Castelluccis from Cesena (a little city on the Adriatic see) have revitalized an ancient Italian tradition of ballet and circus with a new generation of talent: namely Teodora, Demetrio and Agata (Romeo’s son and Claudia’s nephews) lead Dewey Dell, one of Italy’s foremost contemporary dance troupes. In parallel, Claudia turned herself in a choreographer, without having a specific education in dance. She said: “I neither sought nor found anything in tradition, not out of hubris, but due to a truly primitive access. I relied on music alone as the source of the rhythm to follow. My admiration for gymnastics led me to ask experts about the physiological rudiments of human movements.” Following these principles religiously, Castellucci founded a school and a company called Mòra, running her initiates like a priestess, in a severe, almost monastic way. Quite disaffiliated in the Italian dance scene, she created “balli” (balls) based on the prosody of the ancient Greek poetry or on the sound of bells. In “Fisica dell’aspra comunione” (Physic of harsh communion), her new piece that premiered in Venice, the choreography follows a pattern of movements taken from Catalogue d’oiseaux, a piano score composed around 1958 by Olivier Messiaen after observing and annotating bird’s songs. Dressed in black, five dancers-monads without gender connotations dance swarming like a little flock, in a rigorous yet hypnotic way, only a pianist on stage, in an austere set. A piece to see and see again, in order to understand its inner scheme and exterior poetry.    

Chiara Bersani performs “Gentle Unicorn.” Photograph by Alice Brazzit

A rising name on the Italian scene, 35 year-old Chiara Bersani began to perform with Alessandro Sciarroni, “it boy” of the European performing arts, who was in 2019 awarded with the Golden Lion by La Biennale Danza. Now independent but still linked to her mentor, Bersani identifies her work with her own body: a baby girl’s body of 98 cm affected by osteogenesis imperfecta. At La Biennale she performed her signature piece, “Gentle Unicorn,” where she claims the political value of her body, if not that she looks more like a mythological creature, dressed in white, delicate and poetic. While she waits for the audience to enter, she lies on the floor on her stomach, or nearly crawling, she holds herself on her arms like crutches, her little feet arched like a ballerina. Her lovely face is smiling; her look at us, the audience, is glad, as though asking: “why are you looking at me with compassion?” while we would like to run to her and hug her, talk to her to know her.

Having danced more than twenty years for William Forsythe, Jone San Martín, now 54, conceived together with her master Legítimo/Rezo, a sort of lecture in dance. Keeping the audience with great ease and empathy, San Martín, now a teacher with a body that is a living archive, explains by speaking (half Italian, half Spanish) and dancing Forsythe’s philosophy and method, demonstrating some of his choreographic sequences where improvisation and style are mixed. Involving the audience in repeating little movements (with an enthusiasm repressed by distance rules), San Martín leads a masterclass-show as a brilliant teacher and an excellent dancer instead of staging a true performance as a new author and choreographer, she reveals that she has not yet freed herself from her master.

Lisbeth Gruwez’s “Piano Works Debussy.” Photograph by DannyWillems

A warrior of beauty for Jan Fabre, unforgettable naked and oily in his solo “Quando l’uomo principale è una donna” (When the principal man is a woman), Lisbeth Gruwez left her Pygmalion long time ago. After some original pieces, more theatrical then danced, she turns towards pure dance with “Piano Works Debussy.” An unexpected transformation, showing the performer dueting with pianist Claire Chevalier, on stage with her. An athletic body, masculine with charm, Gruwez appears on stage in a bon ton outfit (a feminine blouse, sequinned shorts, golden earrings) dancing as she likes, actually not so originally. On the contrary when Gruwez chooses to quote and stylize Hungarian dances (even from “Raymonda’s” variation), she finds a flair that well fits her rebel vigour. Continuing in this vein, she could well reach new artistic heights.    

  1. Thanks to Ms. Bonelli for this little eyewitness account of the La Biennale Danza festival. it broke my heart not to be there this year, but it gladdened my heart to know all the brave people, artists, audiences and administration, who forged ahead to make this happen despite all the risks. I wish all of you have made it through unscathed and able to do it all over again next year under Wayne McGregor. I can’t wait to see what he’ll cook up.

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