A slightly different version of this text has appeared on vibewire.net.
1. dance in is the air
It is impossible to adequately explain the artichoke-like nature of Venice, with its layers beneath layers: paths for American tourists, paths for Italian tourists, paths for cultural tourists, paths for temporary residents, paths for real Venetians (those rare creatures). The path to Biennale is hardly close to the heart of this strange city: ensconced in Arsenale, the gigantic medieval shipyard in Castello, the poor and least picturesque of the six sestieri, where most inhabitants live oblivious to the two-week clamour of the cultural elite attending the dances. Going through the maze of makeshift laneways within this enormous industrial emptiness framed with the tall Arsenale walls, one cannot help noticing that highbrow culture today is a restricted-access good, just like the wealth within this phenomenally important shipyard once was. Walled away from this city, Biennale della Danza Contemporanea is a curiously generic, place-unspecific, mid-Italian / pan-European event, its audience all high heels, expensive clothes, melange of accents. Despite the tentative Choreographic Collison, a workshop with young local choreographers, now in its second year, it feels very much like the local people have nothing to do at this Biennale. Coming out into the bleak calle [street] outside, containing nothing but a single, generic, Bangladeshi-run bar serving pasta and mediocre coffee, one could be in an industrial anywhere in Europe.
The theme to this year’s Biennale, directed by Ismael Ivo, is Beauty, understood in the least cynical, least sardonic way. “Today beauty is used to promote the trade, the commercialization of the image”, says Ivo, adding: “It is thus not an expression of an interior virtue, but a purely external manifestation.” His is a provocation to rethink aesthetic pleasure, taking into consideration our emotive, energetic responses to beauty.
2. francesca harper
The dangers of the theme are best exemplified by Francesca Harper’s Fragile Stone Theory 2K8 / Interactive Feast, a compilation piece created specially for Biennale, on the theme of the relationship of a person to beauty, freedom and anxiety that a female artist feels in relation, again, to beauty. A mixed-media piece, Fragile Stone would have worked infinitely better if there was more dancing, and less of everything else. Harper’s dancers are a beautiful group, svelte, strong and precise, and the second act, exclusively danced, was a pleasure to behold. Not enough, however, to shake us awake after the endless first act, which was a burlesque of a kind, a headless melange of live signing, video performance, short bursts of dancing interrupted by conceptualising fluff. Too much of the time was filled with inspirational songs, snippets of autobiographical cocooning, and well-meaning messages, to realise the concentrated energy that a dance work needs.
Fragile Stone Theory was an attempt at fusing two very different kinds of energy: the liberated, empowering r’n’b of a strong-minded African-American woman, and contemporary dance that works its magic best when restricted, when struggling to find the way out, when in pain. The combination is always forced, and Fragile Stone Theory ended up resembling a rock concert way too much (a similar mistake was made by Robert Wilson in The Temptations of St Anthony, also filled with simplistic messages). When not achingly literal, when aiming to be an aesthetic knock-out, contemporary dance is fundamentally an art of condensed abstraction, and there is nothing evasive, nothing in any way indirect in the kind of music that Harper performs. While the monochrome, feminine strength of Duet, Trio and Solo, complete with bondage-like costumes, led towards a strong-minded exploration of the concept of beauty, the overall effect was deflated by the literalness of the large part of the performance.
3. wayne mcgregor
I first encountered Wayne McGregor’s Random Dance Company in 2003, when they performed Nemesis at the Dance Week Festival in Zagreb. A bit of a geek choreographer, in the widely anticipated Entity McGregor has teamed up with neuroscientists and cognitive scientists to explore the relationship between the brain and the moving body. The piece developed from the idea of an artificial intelligence that assumes the choreographing role, a software that generates movement through independent thought.
There are visible preoccupations in the piece with the random, accidental nature of movement, yet defined and born by naturally occurring mathematical equilibrium and order. The performance opens and closes with a Muybridge-like video of a running greyhound, a strange and beautiful perpetuum mobile, enchanting in its rhythmic repetitiveness. Mathematical formulas and laws are referenced in the sparse video projected onto the three wings of Patrick Burnier's construction enclosing the set, reminiscent of Leonardo’s machines. Two music choices, a modern classical piece by Joby Talbot, performed by the Navarra Quartet (sadly, not live in this performance), and the electronic clubscape of Jon Hopkins, are both products of creative processes fuelled by the appreciation of randomness as much as the alignment with strict mathematical rules. Burnier's costumes are decorated with their own DNA codes.
However, Random also dance a terrific dance: it is possible to be blissfully unaware of these intellectual preoccupations and still enjoy the performance. McGregor’s signature vocabulary has not changed since 2003: it is still a dance concentrated firmly in the hips, shoulders, ankles and wrists. It has by now been consolidated into a system, paradoxically not dissimilar from the classical vocabulary. Trios are prevalent over duets, quartets and loose group movement abound. 60 minutes of this diptych are filled to the brim, and the space absolutely activated, with rapid movement, dense arrangement of limbs into most exquisitely unexpected combinations, bodies arching, contorting, kicking, curling, coiling, closely conversing with the music.
In the phenomenal first half, lithe, androgynous bodies seem to bounce back and forth from the thoughtless, inhumane particles into feeling, touching creatures seeking comfort of another human being in a series of groping, tender, desexualised duets. The second part is more legible, but less engaging. Bodies, sexualised back by the stripping of their unisex singlets into black underwear, undergo a series of transformations: from brainless, unconscious blubber into individualised bodies, connecting with one another on an instinctive level, gaining apparent consciousness and re-connecting with genuine emotion, separating to finally achieve intelligence. Entity closes as the monophonic, glorious frenzy of our data-streamed, hyperactive present. The final images of these re-humanized bodies, dancing each one to its own logic connected the chaos of brainless matter to the chaos of a thousand souls, yet the overall effect was somewhat flat, somewhat tiring, no doubt also due to the monotone electronic white noise.
Where McGregor excels is the minute choreographic detail: the exquisite duets, both asexual and emotionally needy (there is no more sexual tension in his male/female duets than there is in the fine-grained interaction he creates between two male bodies); and the complex relationships between the dancers on stage. One moment, a motionless duet in the background of a solo: man lying down, his head in her lap; in another, the power balance of two dancers disrupted by the third, merely standing on the stage. The all-female group seems to perform a rapid, randomized shuffle of movement, every so often settling into one classical feminine pose, as if directed by an accelerating, virus-infected computer; and finally, a rapt, frantic duet is paused for a mere second, and a soft kiss exchanged.
This is Beauty with capital B, for sure. It is, also, a spectacle. However brutal, the slick and shiny surface of Entity is never broken by anything as disruptive as a mistake, a question. From beginning to the end, it is a harsh, yet unfliching statement on human relationships.
4. the beast within
There is no more uncertainty in McGregor’s worldview filled with smooth, young androids than there is in Francesca Harper’s comforting song-and-dance. What Biennale Danza presents with these two pieces is a set of clinically precise pictures of what we may find beautiful, asking us to feel more widely, perhaps, but certainly to suspend judgement. Gliding along the canals of this beautiful city, among other beautiful, stylish theatre-goers, it is easy to do so, and yet flatter ourselves to be doing something courageous, something daring. We are shielded not only from the multiple quotidian problems Venice faces, not only from the social reality of this troubled country, but from the entire remaining world. Kicking the mounds of rubbish piling up along the sides of the Venetian street as I walk home, it strikes me all as somewhat indulgent.
6. Festival Internazionale di Danza Contemporanea. Venice, 14-29 June 2008. www.labiennale.org.
Fragile Stone Theory 2K8 / Interactive Feast. Artistic project, direction and choreography: Francesca Harper. Video: Shaun Irons and Lauren Petty. Music: Wynne Bennett and Francesca Harper. Performers: Francesca Harper, Hattie Mae Williams, Josh Johnson, Julius Hollingsworth, Clement Mensah, Dominique Rosales, Giulia Fedeli. Dramaturgy: Julius Hollingsworth. Costumes: David Grevengoed, Gabi Mai, Carmen Wren. The Francesca Harper Project, June 19-20; Teatro Piccolo Arsenale;
Entity. Concept/ Direction: Wayne McGregor. Choreography: Wayne McGregor in collaboration with the dancers: Neil Fleming Brown, Catarina Carvalho, Agnès López Rio, Paolo Mangiola, Angel Martinez Hernandez, Anh Ngoc Nguyen, Anna Nowak, Maxime Thomas, Antoine Vereecken, Jessica M Wright. Original Music 1: Joby Talbot, performed by Navarra Quartet. Original Music 2: Jon Hopkins, performed by Jon Hopkins. Lighting Design: Lucy Carter. Digital Video Design: Ravi Deepres. Set / costumes: Patrick Burnier. June 20-22; Teatro alle tese – Arsenale; 6. Festival Internazionale di Danza Contemporanea, Venice.