Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Afrofuturist Degas essay

My essay, "Afrofuturist Degas" has been published on the visual arts magazine Roots - Routes. It is an Afrofuturist analysis of Ken Browar and Deborah Ory' photographs of Misty Copeland posing as Degas's ballerinas, photographs that were published on Harper's Bazaar in 2016.
I had been wanting to write about those photographs for a long time and am very grateful to Roots - Routes for having allowed me to do that. I cover different topics throughout the essay, such as the absence (until fairly recently) of black ballerinas in ballet history, blackface and the notion of both ballet and photography as technologies. I wish I could have explored these aspects a bit further but I could not due to reasons of space.
The essay is available online here.

Monday, 16 September 2019

Presentation of Spadolini documentary

On Tuesday 27, August 2019, in the Pinacoteca in Jesi (An), I presented an evening dedicated to dancer painter Alberto Spadolini where Riccardo De Angelis and Romeo Marconi' documentary, Spadò - Il danzatore nudo (2019) was showed, followed by a chat with the directors and Spadolini's nephew, Marco Travaglini. Here is my review of the documentary.
The Pinacoteca is becoming a reference point for the rediscovery of Spadolini as, thanks to my collaboration with them (mainly thanks to Simona Cardinali) on November 10, 2012, I organised and presented another event to celebrate Spadolini, Dalla tela al palco - Vita, pittura e danza di Alberto Spadolini, which consisted in a lecture performance done in collaboration with dj Nooz and dancer and choreographer Roberto Lori, and an interview with Travaglini and sculptor Massimo Ippoliti.
In February 2017, the directors shot the video interview they made with me in the Pinacoteca as well.
I therefore thank them for their help and kindness.

Martha Graham's Letter as a dance adaptation essay

My essay, "Martha Graham's Letter to the World: A dance adaptation of Emily Dickinson" has been published last June on the Journal of Adaptation in Film & Performance, Vol 12, Ns 1-2, 1 June 2019, pp. 33-48. 
In it I analyse Graham's Letter as a dance adaptation, to show how she converted Dickinson's poetic (and not just poetic) material into dance. I also briefly focus on the notion of dance adaptation itself.

Thursday, 20 June 2019

Spadò – Il danzatore nudo: a documentary on Alberto Spadolini

 Official trailer of the documentary.

Attics sometimes reveal entire worlds, dusty and long forgotten. Spadò – Il danzatore nudo [Spadò: the nude dancer] opens in an attic, with a dusty, somewhat vintage atmosphere and a double bell alarm clock. Because this is a journey through time, the time when Alberto Spadolini, (1907-1972), a young boy from Ancona, Marche, went to live in Rome in the 1920s, where he studied painting and then moved again to France, where he became a famous music-hall dancer in 1932.

Spadolini’s rediscovery began in 1978 precisely in an attic, where his nephew, MarcoTravaglini found a box filled with documents of all sorts (photographs, articles, posters etc.) about his uncle’s life in France. Spadolini did not really talk of his role as dancer and Travglini was surprised at what he discovered. He went back to this material in 2004 when he methodically started to search for his uncle’s secret past. The documentary creates an evocative atmosphere as Travaglini speaks in the attic, “every now and then our particularly mysterious uncle would come (…) he was very loved and would come to visit us once or twice a year. He would come in a big enormous American car" with presents for his nephews.

Riccardo De Angelis and Romeo Marconi have directed the first documentary on this little known artist, in collaboration with Marco Travaglini, who is also the director of Atelier Spadolini. Spadò was the nickname with which Spadolini was called by his friends and sometimes by the press. The title also refers to the fact that he often danced almost nude and should not be confused with Travaglini’s homonymous 2012 book title. This documentary is a fascinating journey divided into three intertwined planes: one centred on material on and by Spadolini, another represented by people who either knew him (his nephews and a friend) or know about him (a journalist, a writer, an art historian, myself as dance historian etc.), and the third one made by the Nicoletta Fabbri Quartet’s Paris-inspired music (one member of the Quartet is Stefano Travaglini, Marco's brother).  

Journalist and writer Alberto Bignami brings us to Spadolini’s birth as a love child: his mother, Ida, was working as a maid in the house of an aristocratic family, had an affair with her master, got pregnant and was fired because of that. She was about to leave Ancona, when railway worker Angelo Spadolini, earned her trust and welcomed her and her baby in his house.

Writer and philosopher Antonio Luccarini tells us that young Alberto showed a gift for drawing and started studying painting with local artist Armando Bandinelli. He then moved to Rome to study with Vatican painter Giambattista Conti. In the capital he attended Anton Giulio Bragaglia’s Teatro degli Indipendenti where many avant-garde artists were. According to art historian, Stefano Papetti, Spadolini “surely deserves (...) to be better investigated”. There is a dynamism pervading his painted figures that may come from his contact with the futurist painters that he probably met at the Teatro.

A good part of the documentary is devoted to the supposed friendship betweeen Spadolini and Gabriele D’Annunzio, about which Travaglini has talked since his first book on his uncle, Bolero-Spadò: Alberto Spadolini, una vita di tutti i colori (2007). Art historian, biographer, illustrator Philippe Jullian thanks Spadolini in the acknowledgment page of his 1971 book on Gabriele D’Annunzio, “Spadolini, the famous dancer, has told me about the trip he made to the Vittoriale when he was very young”. The Vittoriale degli Italiani is a set of constructions promoted by D’Annunzio in Gardone Riviera in the North of Italy. There he spent the last part of his life and there he apparently met Spadolini in 1924. Jullian does not explicitly name him, in the book, but when we read of a young decorator who becomes D’Annunzio’s friend and then goes to France, we can easily make the connection with the reference the author has previously made in the acknowledgment page. This connection has been corroborated by one of Spadolini’s friends, Patrick Oger who has confirmed to Travaglini that the young decorator in Jullian’s book is Spadolini. In the documentary, historian and biographer Giordano Bruno Guerri, who has written on D’Annunzio, highlights the possibility of this encounter even though the sources are not consistent enough.

Poster of the documentary.
Another aspect of Spadolini’s life which lacks consistent sources is his possible role as secret agent. Writer and essayst Fabio Filippetti, states that when one talks about the secret service “it is difficult to gain information”. However, Spadolini was a known artist and could move in different places without arousing suspects. And the intersting thing is that “we find him (…) in strategic cities in particular during the [Second] World War”. Travaglini explains his view on the matter quoting, among other elements, the friendship between Spadolini and codex enthusiast Ives Gilden. It is possible that further material will emerge with time.

I had the task of speaking of the role of Spadolini as dancer. I was quite nervous during the interview and did not say as much as I wanted. I called Spadolini a primitivist dancer as he performed in various acts inspired by those cultures that at the time were seen as primitivist. Primitivism is a complex, colonial and controversial notion that invests various fields such as art and literature. At the turn of the twentieth century it had to do with Westerns’ fascination for the Others whose works began to be considered as art and inspired many Westerners’ artistic forms. Pablo Picasso’s Les demoiselles d’Avignon is the recurrent example, in this sense. I did not refer to these aspects in my interview, but De Angelis and Marconi focused on one of Spadolini’s few recorded primitivist performances, his solo in 1936 Pierre Caron’s film, Marinella. There Spadolini moves nearly nude on a small stage in the shape of a drum, recalling perhaps a primitivist culture ritual and mingling diverse dance techniques such as classical dance and flamenco. Spadolini was also famous for his Bolero that he probably presented in 1933 and that was set to Maurice Ravel’s music and was noted for his interpretation in Gigue to Bach’s music, the same year.

In the documentary Luccarini emphasises how Spadolini became a dancer “without any technical knowledge” and before that I quote Jenny Josane’s 1941 article where Spadolini himself confirms that. However, there are other sources that state otherwise and it is very likely that he studied dance during his Roman period. Furthermore, after his 1932 debut at the Casino de Paris, he also started taking classes from two ballet teachers, Alexandre Volinine and Blanche D’Alessandri.

Of particular interest is Sergio Sadotti’s testimony. He knew Spadolini in the years 1957 and 1958 when the artist would go to Porto Sant’Elpidio to visit his sister who lived under his flat, “Alberto immediately stood out for his personality, a great personality and elegance (…). I saw him paint paintings that he would quickly roll and send to his gallerist in Paris.”

These and other interviews are all blended in with beautiful images of Spadolini’s statuesque presence and of Paris. More specifically, video fragments from his own black and white 1950 documentary, Rivage de Paris, flow and reveal monuments of the city such as the Eiffel tower as well as its musicians, like an accordion player whose image is elegantly juxtaposed to that of the Nicoletta Fabbri Quartet. One of the songs the Quartet plays is Josephine Baker’s 1930 “J’ai deux amours”, which is apt for Spadolini too, as it recites, “I have two loves, my country and Paris”.

De Angelis and Marconi have done a really significant and at times superlative job thanks also to Travaglini’s archival support. Spadò – Il danzatore nudo, which is also available with English subtitles, is an important work, another step towards a better comprehension of Spadolini’s enigmatic figure.

Sunday, 21 April 2019

"Not I": Autobiography by Wayne McGregor

A scene from Autobiography, photo Andrej Uspenski.

“What does it mean to write one’s own story?” recites the programme of Autobiography (2017) by contemporary dance Company Wayne McGregor. It is a complex question and dancers and choreographers have responded to it in different manners. Modern dance pioneer, Isadora Duncan, introducing her 1927 autobiography, remarked on the difficulty of writing, “it has taken me years of struggle, hard work, and research to learn to make one simple gesture, and I know enough about the Art of writing to realise that it would take me again just so many years of concentrated effort to write one simple, beautiful sentence”. More recently, ballet dancer and choreographer Carlos Acosta has dealt with the question of autobiography in various ways, that span from his semi-autobiographical 2003 work, Tocororo, to his 2008 book No Way Home to the weeks-old release of a film about his story, Yuli, where autobiographical elements intertwne with the film narrative.

McGregor has opted for another path, that of science, technology, fluid kinetism and some ‘seeds’ from his past. The genesis for this choreography, as David Jays from The Guardian has pointed out, began with his fascination for artificial intelligence and with what role could it have in his work. This brought McGregor to focus on his genetic code and on how he could transform it into another form. He also took some personal aspects from his life, “family things, photographs, poetry I have written” and turned them into what he calls ‘volumes’, sections that are assembled at every performance according to an algorithm created by Nick Rothwell. In this way, every performance has a different sequence.

The one presented at the Ponchielli Theatre in Cremona, Italy, on Saturday 13th of April, began with “1 avatar”, where a bare-chested male dancer moves across space, articulating his arms up and down, kicking one leg backwards, extending his legs and then going down in deep second. It is an intense solo that seems to create a sharp contrast with the geometric structure above him. Designed by Ben Cullen Williams, it covers the whole stage ceiling and it consists of metal poles in the shape of pyramids pointing downwards. It is a huge structure that will move down and up during the performance. As in “6 sleep”, when it dramatically moves down almost touching the stage floor and ‘forcing’ the dancers to assume a horizontal position (the one we take when we sleep).

The dancers are all exceptional. I remember watching McGregor’s work years ago (probably around 2008) in London. I think the choreography was Entity (2008). His company at the time was called Random Dance and was again made of great dancers. However, I noticed a kind of unsmooth quality in their movement, something that disappeared when I saw his Infra (2008) performed by the Royal Ballet. In Autobiography, the dancers command both the grammar of classical dance and that of more torso-oriented techniques. The arms, for exmple, cut the space in numerous directions, taking the shapes of balletic port de bras or magnetic and quick unfolding and retracting lines. It is a real pleasure to watch this fluid approach to movement.

The other aspect that stroke me is the masterful light design by McGregor’s long time collaborator, Lucy Carter. In some moments one can only say “Wow!” to what she has elaborated. Like in volume “19 ageing”, when a pink-haired female dancer, arms in second, is enveloped by a beautiful red light or in “8 nurture” when blinding lights from the back of the stage are repeatedly turned on dirupting the audience’s sight.

Autobiography is and is not about McGregor. It is about his genetic code, fragments from his life transmuted into movement, lights, music, set, dramaturgy and so on. One of the volumes is called “13 not I” and is paradigmatic of his approach. It is not about his own individual self in traditional narrative terms. In the programme note he talks about the body as archive, a notion that has been under scrutiny by dance scholars for some time now. One of them, André Lepecki, has analysed it in relation to some examples of re-enactment, stating that it is “a system of transforming simultaneously past, present, and future”. And McGregor considers it along these lines, “not as a nostalgia-fest but as an idea of speculative future. Each cell carries in it the whole blueprint of your life.”

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Long Live the Wilis: Dada Masilo's South African Fearless Giselle

Teatro Storchi, photo Rosella Simonari.
The Storchi Theatre in Modena is a late nineteenth century theatre with a nice simmetrical façade. It is a beautiful evening and people are gathering together to see Dada Masilo’s adaptation of Giselle (2017), a work on changing the symmetries of gender relations. The poster of the performance shows Masilo as Giselle in a high kick with her flex foot in front of a red dressed dancer with a whisk in one of her hands. Masilo’s kick is emblematic of her version as it exemplifies her intention to focus on the wilis’ viciousness, their strength and deadly power.

The story of the ballet Giselle (1841) is the quintessential Romantic story of love and loss. The countrygirl Giselle falls in love with Albrecht who hides his noble origin and his noble fiancée. When Giselle discovers the truth thanks to Hilarion, her would-be lover, she goes mad in an epic dramatic scene and dies only to be born again as a wili, a nightly spirit destined to kill those who enter her realm in the forest. However, Giselle loves Albrecht after all, and decides to save him from death when he ventures into the forest to pray at her tomb.

Poster Giselle, photo Rosella Simonari.
Masilo’s Giselle is the fruit of numerous changes. Firstly, her Giselle is not as fragile and shy as the classic one. One example is when she rejects Hilarion (Tshepo Zasekhaya)’s flowers. Secondly, there is the style through which the choreography is organised: contemporary, mingled with classical and African. It is an explosive mix of energy that give shape to vibrant ensemble phrases, Masilo’s best achievements, lyrical duets, especially between Giselle and Albrecht (a stunning Lwando Dutyulwa), and piercing solos. Third, there is the fundamental story twist in the second part of the work: Giselle’s revenge against Albrecht.

Masilo works on characters and narrative in response to today’s society, its injustice, violence and discrimination. She has decided to set her work in rural South Africa and has drawn elements from its culture and tradition. The revised role of Myrtha, the queen of the wilis, is compelling and revealing, in this sense. Powerfully danced by a male dancer, Llewellyn Mnguni, dressed as the other wilis, Myrtha is a Sangoma, a South African healer, who confers a sacred tinge to the role. Mnguni has long light-coloured braided hair, and holds a hairy stick, a sort of whisk, which is traditionally used in ceremonies and which enters into a visual dynamics with his often whisked hair. His movements are curved and dense with his rear end off-axis. Other South African elements include the funeral hymn chanted after Giselle’s death at the end of act I, “go to heaven my heart, for there is no peace on this earth”, highlighted by a slow paced procession of the members of her community.

Dada Masilo and the other wilis in Giselle, photo Stella Olivier.
The queer element is also implemented by the presence of male wilis among the female group. Masilo has already dealt with homosexuality in her Swan Lake (2010), but here it is as if the theme is inserted underground in a kind of implicit statement whch make it discerete and consistent at the same time. Male, female, neither, both, whatever...gender fluidity seems to be one possible answer.

For the revenge theme, Masilo has pushed the “original narrative”, highlighting the wilis’ “vicious, dangerous” character. A chromatic anticipation can be discerned in the choice of deep red instead of ghostly white for the wilis and Myrtha’ costumes, “I wanted the Wilis to look like they had been drenched in blood”, affirms Masilo, recalling in this the connection that sometimes is made between wilis and vampires. Designed by Songezo Mcilizeli and Nonofo Olekeng, the costumes consist of a patterned sleevles top, a below the knee wide skirt and short layers of tulle sewed at the back. This contrasts with the vitreous green lights by Suzette le Sueur that appear with the wilis’ arrival.

When Albrecht arrives in this uncanny place, he briefly dances with red-dressed Giselle, but the tone is rather different from the pas de deux they interepreted before. In this case, Giselle is angry and pushes him away. It is the beginning of the end, Albrecht dances with three wilis a beautiful pas de quatre where they remain grouped together and he stands apart either to the front or the back. Soon he suffers from acute fits, and is then surrounded by the wilis, until Giselle kills him with a long whip. His body lies down lifeless, while the wilis move from right to left (he is on the left) throwing white dust in the air. Giselle is the last, lights go down and she leaves him there, alone. Revenge has been accomplished and a perverse justice given to all those women who have been wronged by men. The often percussive music by Philip Miller and William Kentridge’s rural-inspired drawings which at times is projected at the back, complete this choreography, profoundly thought-provoking in style, interpreters and narrative.

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Inside the Gesture of Nature - Celeste by Raffaella Giordano

Raffaella Giordano in CELESTE appunti per natura, photo by Andrea Macchia.
Round arms, slow-paced steps, torquise, yellow and blu dress-shaped surface. These are some of the snapshots we are left with after watching CELESTE appunti per natura [CELESTE notes for nature], the solo choreographed and danced by Raffaella Giordano, co-director of Sosta Palmizi

Sosta Palmizi is one of the historic contemporary dance companies in Italy. It had its debut in 1985 with Il Cortile [The Courtyard] and, as Ambra Senatore has noted, it emerged as “a turning point phenomenon” in Italian dance history. CELESTE appunti per natura throws an imaginary lasso to Il Cortile because its music is composed by the same musician, Arturo Annecchino.

Created in 2017, the choreography was presented at the Mecenate Theatre in Arezzo (near Florence) on Sunday March 17th as the last performance of a series titled “Invito di Sosta" (XI Edition) [Sosta Invitation] that took place from October 2018 to March 2019. A “closing for an opening”, affirmed Giorgio Rossi, co-director of Sosta Palmizi together with Giordano. The auspice refers to the Company’s intention to organise a new calendar of performances for the autumn, but also and mainly it refers to the solo itself which represents the opening towards a rich microcosm of steps, gestures and images. For instance, when Giordano knees down placing her hands and head on the stage floor, or when she puts the wooden log characterised by two holes (one of the three props) behind her neck, recalling perhaps medieval tortures like pillory, it is a moment, but a really striking one.

And then there is silence, the grades of silence alternated with music and sounds (these last ones by Lorenzo Brusci). Giordano often shows her back to the audience and covers her face with her hands, until she wears a mask made of paper, a simple page with three holes, two for her eyes, one for her mouth. As she explains in the after performance talk, she has worked a lot on invisibility, on the sense of drawing away in order to leave room for something else: a gesture, a calm rhythm, the moving body, the crossing of space.

CELESTE appunti per natura is in part based on an unusual book, The Hill of Summer (1969) by J. A. Baker, an almost unknown writer who “only talks about and describes nature”. Giordano follows the author’s intention to remove himself from the text in order to let nature emerge. The dancer choreographer’s reiterated gesture of covering her face appears curious and intimate at the same time. And in today’s intemperate world of facebook (the book of faces, we could say), this gesture becomes dense and offers a different gaze, a gaze focused on details and embodied identities where faces are just one component among many, not social media’ directive.

Last but not least, her dress, the movement of her dress and inside her dress. Painted by Gianmaria Sposito, it has a round neck, long slightly puffed sleeves and a bell-shaped skirt with side slits. It glows, gets compressed and expanded during the choreographic path, interacting with Giordano’s bare feet and emphasising the posistion of her hands, often joined or placed on the fabric. It is a microcosm within the microcosm, another “service to the action”, the careful attention Giordano has for her work.