Cullberg Ballet
Cullberg Ballet in Deborah Hay's “Figure a Sea.” Photograph by Urban Jörén

Venice Dance Biennale

Highlights from the ten-day celebration of contemporary dance

Ah, Venice—one of the world’s most gorgeous cities. Known for its spectacular art, music and architecture, the town with its famed Grand Canal and Rialto Bridge, also plays host to an edgy international dance festival. The terpsichorean portion of the Venice Biennale—the doyenne of contemporary art exhibitions founded in 1895, one that has also included a film sector since 1932 (cue A-list movie stars each August)—is now celebrating its 12th edition. Currently under the auspices of the eminent Canadian-born dancer/choreographer Marie Chouinard, whose troupe Compagnie Marie Chouinard, was founded in 1990, the festival proved a worthy showcase for performers and dancemakers alike. (Past directors have included Carolyn Carlson, Frédéric Flammand and Ismael Ivo, with Chouinard in the second year of her four-year appointment.)

Titled rather enigmatically, “Breath, Strategy and Subversion,” the ten-day celebration of international contemporary dance lived up to its theme, with productions both large and small exploring the magnificence of the body through movement. The festivities also included a ceremony honoring American-born, Belgium-based dancer and choreographer Meg Stuart with a Golden Lion award for lifetime achievement, while Cape Verdean dancer and choreographer Marlene Monteiro Freitas received the Silver Lion for emerging artist.

And not for nothing has Venice been called the Queen of the Adriatic, where the famed 16th-century Arsenale—the historic docks and shipyards that once employed an army of 16,000—has been home to the Biennale since 1980. In 1999, parts of the Arsenale’s vast warehouses were converted into theaters, which is where some 18 performances took place. In addition to concerts, there were press conferences with invited artists, as well as numerous film screenings, including those featuring Louise Lecavalier and as well as one with Simone Forti, and a showing of Wim Wenders’ Oscar-nominated film, “Pina.”

But it was the flesh-and-blood dance presentations that were the stars, with another American, Deborah Hay, and her collaboration with Sweden’s Cullberg Ballet, that was one of the festival’s most outstanding offerings. “Figure a Sea,” a 60-minute work that premiered in 2015, featured an original score by Laurie Anderson, with 14 Cullberg dancers and three guest artists. A member of the radical Judson Dance Theater in the 1960s, Hay has kept her rebellious ideas of validating everyday movement with everyday bodies, but has transformed them onto trained dancers.

Hay has said that this work is a “suggestion for how to look at a stage…that when we look at a performance, we zoom in on one performer.” She wants us to consider, instead, the stage as a sea of possibility and a meditation on seeing, which it certainly was. Seemingly improvisational—but choreographed to a plié, as well as an arabesque and entrechat—with the group onstage nearly the entire time, the work flows by as if in a dream: There is much skittering across Minna Tiikkainen’s beautifully lit stage, as well as a number of unisons, crouching walks, lunges and duets and trios.

Men hugged to the whooshing sounds of Anderson’s mystically ambient score, torsos appeared both stiff and relaxed (can there be a kind of serene freneticism?), and the leaps were lovely. A stillness also permeated the piece. Indeed, this is a deep dive into another world, a cocoon of comfort—something badly needed these days.

Roman Guion
Roman Guion in “Animale.” Photograph courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia – © A. Avezzù

On a decidedly smaller scale was Romain Guion’s world premiere solo, “Animale.” Choreographed by Francesca Foscarini—and a tour de force at 48 minutes—Guion went through a series of body slammings (ouch!) and self-flagellations, emitting grunts and groans to Andrea Cera’s original, guitar-heavy score. Guion also executed several powerful yoga poses, including crow and tree, before an extended finale in which he was nude, his bare chest serving as a screen upon which to project Maider Fortune’s “Licorne” (“Unicorn”) video.

Throughout the performance, Guion contorted his body in ways both painful and beautiful, bringing to corporeal life the Biennale’s thesis of breath, strategy and subversion.

Before Guion’s bravura performance, Foscarini and Andrea Costanzo Martini offered her 2016 opus, “Vocazione All’Asimmetria” (“Praising Symmetry).” Thirty-five minutes of neo-Butoh, the work showcased Martini’s pliability—his backbends were extraordinary—with the duo mirroring each other in both militaristic moves and Bojangles-like walking. Cera’s music accelerated as did the splay-toed dancers, with Martini occasionally executing Yaqui deer-like jetés, and the duo displaying supreme control of their bodies in moments of trance dancing.

The world premiere of Xavier Le Roy’s “Le Sacre du Printemps,” set to Sir Simon Rattle’s recording of the Stravinsky score with the Berlin Philharmonic (Rattle conducted his final concert with the orchestra in June), ran a very long 60 minutes (the average “Rite” runs between 40-45 minutes), with a trio of dancers—Salka Ardal Rosengren, Eleanor Bauer and Scarlet Yu—doing little more than mime-conducting the iconic work that was composed for Nijinsky’s choreography and was first performed in 1913 to a near-rioting audience in Paris.

And since danced versions of the “Rite” have been plentiful—from Martha Graham and Pina Bausch to Maurice Béjart, as well as the Joffrey Ballet’s 1987 Nijinsky reconstruction—Le Roy’s rendering proved to be both peculiar and confounding. While his dancers’ conducting skills appeared to be decent (but who could really tell?), this reviewer was waiting for some actual dance, as the performers took the stage separately to “interpret” the ferocious polyrhythms, the haunting bassoon motif and the exhilarating, tympany-driven finale.

Waving their baton-less arms and punching the air à la “Rocky,” the gals’ sweeping gestures needed comparable footwork. Alas, there was none, not even when the threesome finally came together in a kind of battle of the batons where, unfortunately, there was not a Chosen One to be found, much less one who would dance herself to death.

Marlene Monteiro Freitas
Marlene Monteiro Freitas in “Bacchae – Prelude to a Purge.” Photograph by Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia – © A. Avezzù

As raucous as Stravinsky’s music was (and remains groundbreaking to this day), so, too was the Italian premiere of “Bacchus—Prelude to a Purge,” Monteiro Freitas’s 2017 piece that featured five live trumpeters, 11 dancers, including the choreographer and a Boy George look-alike known as Cookie, whose singing mesmerized but was all too brief. At an overly long 125 minutes, this bacchanal, coincidentally, used much of the music from the Diaghilev era, such as Satie’s Gnossiennes (with Cookie compelling in a quasi-geisha routine), Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun, and Ravel’s Bolero, a war-horse composition that had originally been commissioned by the Russian dancer and actress Ida Rubenstein in 1928.

“Bacchus” opened with promise, as a dancer, seen from behind and bent over, appeared to be singing out of her rear end, a microphone placed strategically to enhance the image, one reminiscent of the ventriloquist Señor Wences and his talking hand, as seen on The Ed Sullivan Show in the 1950s and 60s. In fact, the floor show had the hallmarks of a Weimar cabaret, what with the use of stools, the ghoulish, smeared-lip make-up, Chaplinesque moves and spoken word, including “Stop this fucking music right now or I will kill you.”

Also included in the action was a bizarre black-and-white video of a Japanese woman giving birth while a young child looked on, the sequence set to Henry Purcell’s Dido’s Lament. And the strangeness continued, as this journey that caromed from the sensual to the macabre was punctuated with animal sounds (frogs, sheep and kittens), the Righteous Brothers, and goose-stepping with castanets at the 2-hour mark, the work then climaxing with “Bolero”—the entire 17 minutes, though who was counting at that point? Yes, the trumpets were stellar and the dancers committed (indeed, the performance veered into “Cuckoo’s Nest” territory), but the show needed editing, as there was no director or dramaturg credited. Still, Freitas is an artist to watch.

Frédérick Gravel and Grouped’ArtGravelArtGroup in “Some Hope for the Bastards.”​ Photograph by Volker Derlath

Also on the extravaganza side: The Canadian-born Frédérick Gravel (described in the program notes as the “polyhedral choreographer, dancer, musician and lighting designer), and his Grouped’ArtGravelArtGroup presented the Italian premiere of their 2017 piece, “Some Hope for the Bastards.” Clocking in at 90 minutes, this rock music-infused opus featured nine dancers (including the divine Frédéric Tavernini, who has performed with Louise Lecavalier), with an original score by Philippe Brault, who performed live along with Gravel and José Major on guitars and drums, respectively.

Threaded with a punk sensibility mixed with zombied moves, the work’s hard-charging music was also juxtaposed with Baroque choruses (sound design by Marc-André Duncan), the dancers opening with an extended sequence of small but mighty unison torso contractions.

Alexandre Pilon-Guay’s terrific lighting, coupled with the ear-splitting score, suggested a clubby rave vibe, with sneakers squeaking and the performers maintaining a high-octane pace calling to mind the dance marathon that was the heart of Sydney Pollack’s 1969 film, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Also on display: an assortment of male duets and a push-pull motif that didn’t interfere with the group’s overall “look-at-me” theme of narcissistic preening.

Other performances of note: Irina Baldini’s world premiere, “Quite Now,” and her 2017 work, “7 Ways to Begin Without Knowing Where to Start,” proved effective studies of contact improvisation—without the contact, but with pleasing bodily configurations; and several concerts featuring students from the Biennale College of Dance, including a restaging of “24 Preludes of Chopin” (1999), by Marie Chouinard, with 15 girls giving it their all in a 45-minute number that required fluttering hand motifs and Rockette-like precision.

Less successful, and also performed by students, was Daina Ashbee’s world premiere, “Like a Trail Through A Forest Which Becomes More and More Faint and Finally Seems to Diminish to a Nothing.” An excruciating exercise in rocking, bouncing, crawling and occasional yelling with 15 dancers, many topless and in various states of harming themselves, the work vaguely recalled, The Co(te)lette Film a collaboration with Oscar-nominated director Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas) and Dutch choreographer Ann Van den Broek, who earned the Swan, Holland’s most prestigious dance honor, in 2008 after touring the concert piece, which literally means “piece of meat.”

Faye Driscoll
Faye Driscoll’s “Thank You For Coming: Attendance.” Photograph by Maria Baranova

And while Meg Stuart opened the Biennale with her work, “Damaged Goods” (this reviewer hadn’t yet arrived in Venice), another American closed the festival. Faye Driscoll brought “Thank You for Coming: Attendance” (2014), with five fierce dancers and us—the spectators/cum/participants. The first work in a series in which Driscoll explores how people experience themselves in relationship to others, “Thank You” was another endurance test at 75 minutes long.

Asked to remove our shoes before sitting on the floor of the cavernous space for 20 minutes, the audience was then treated to watching five marvelous dancers assume a variety of sculptural poses with interconnected hands, feet and shoulders on a small platform stage. This was a Rubik’s Cube of bodies meshed with the #MeToo movement, the girls pushing the men away while continuously morphing into different shapes. A Fight Club element also permeated the scene, with dancers slamming and rolling themselves around the platform until said stage (designed by Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin) was revealed to be benches—for the audience’s use.

After the dancers passed out props—gold foil shower caps, flowers, a flashlight—the composer Michael Kiley began playing guitar and singing a very long series of names, including those of some onlookers, while the performers moved about in a furious fashion, one that, at times, managed to resemble court dancing. This child’s play continued, as dancers began whipping the floor with pieces of latex in a game that was quickly descending into S & M, but devolved, instead, to Maypole dancing: Fabric dropped from the ceiling and was strung across the stage held by audience members, after which there was a collective hug, and, well, all seemed right with the world.

A fitting end to the evening—and the festival—with physical connections and not merely digital ones—being made. And while Venice is hot, crowded and very expensive—if this writer were to pen a travel book, it would be called, “Venice on Five Euros A Minute”—there’s a reason that hordes keep coming to the achingly beautiful town. For this scribe, it’s not only to walk through history, where the continuously mellifluous sounds of tolling church bells are like a call to personal prayer, but to experience the dance sector of the city’s famed Biennale.

Sasha Janes
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