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Venice Biennale 'Degree Zero'

International Colloquium of Contemporary Dance

by Rosella Simonari

June 26-27, 2009 -- Auditorium Santa Margherita, Venice

This year the dance section of the Venice Biennale has taken a pause and, instead of presenting a festival characterised by numerous performances under a single theme, it has focused on training a group of selected dancers, named the Arsenale Danza project, and on organizing a colloquium to re-think the issues in contemporary dance. Only two premieres were scheduled: Ismael Ivo’s “The Waste Land” and Michael Clark’s new two part piece “Swan Lack” and “Thank U Ma’am”. In this sense, the title of the project, “Degree Zero”, is exemplary as it suggests the idea behind this initiative of re-setting the field of contemporary dance. Its second part will be the 7th International Festival of Contemporary Dance in 2010.

Paolo Baratta, the Venice Biennale director, opened the colloquium and Ismael Ivo, the artistic director of the dance section, together with dance critic Francesca Pedroni, who collaborated on the organisation of this event, presented the importance of choreographers meeting and talking for once, sharing their views and hopefully preparing the soil for the development of new ideas and new creations. Choreographers including Carolyn Carlson, Tero Saarinen, Cesc Gelabert, Emio Greco / PC, Robyn Orlin, Lloyd Newson, Virgilio Sieni, Michele Di Stefano, Gilles Jobin, Jin Xing, Michael Clark and Enzo Cosimi were invited to discuss questions such as the relationship between choreographer and performer, the relationship with the audience, the transmission of the inner intention and the role of dance for tomorrow. Before each colloquium, a video of dance extracts was presented, in order for the audience to have actual examples to refer to during the talk. This was followed by the conversations of the choreographers, moderated by dance critics and scholars.

With regards to the first one, Carolyn Carlson and Tero Saarinen were asked to speak about their experience. They had already collaborated in the past, with Saarinen interpreting Carlson’s “Man in a Room”, but recently their collaboration reached a new level as Carlson revived for him her trademark solo piece “Blue Lady” (1983). She chose the male Saarinen because she did not want another woman to dance that piece as people would automatically make a comparison with her 1980s performances of the piece. Furthermore, she wanted a choreographer for the role, somebody who could maybe then pass it on to others. Saarinen shares Carlson’s poetic vision and Carlson sees Saarinen as her “artistic son”, so he was her natural choice. In this way, the piece has been revived, but, at the same time, it has been recreated by Saarinen’s intense interpretation.

Cesc Gelabert talked of his interactive relationship with the audience. Introduced by Roger Salas, dance critic of El País, Gelabert underlined his vision of the performance as “a dream in a waking state” and, most of all, as “a dream that can be shared”. He showed a video extract from his documentary “A day with the audience” where he experimented with different interacting modes, like working with the audience towards the creation of a piece. He then performed a short solo piece on acceleration, and finally he asked the audience to perform a simple movement. This involved myself too, and it brought his discourse to life.

Emio Greco and Pieter Scholten presented their complex work on intention, a work developed over the years and based on their “Seven necessities” 1996 manifesto. These necessities focus on the way they perceive their body, the way they relate to it, the way they are it and, most of all, on their need to formulate, as Sholten said, “a specific language” which is not “fixed.” This language has produced the “Double Skin/Double Mind” workshops and then a book and a cd-rom, “Capturing Intention”, published in 2007. According to Greco, “The reason why we move is a necessity”, and with their project they are trying to “document the body” following this vision. They developed five parts based on five body actions: breathing, jumping, expanding, reducing and transmitting. After talking, Greco showed a practical section with the aid of six female dancers from the Arsenale Danza project. Capturing a choreographer's intention is almost impossible, but Emio Greco / PC’s research showed some very stimulating results.

Of totally different tone was the conversation between Lloyd Newson and Virgilio Sieni, moderated by dance critic Francesca Pedroni and ballet-tanz editor Arnd Wesemann. In this case, the two choreographers appeared so distant that the talk worked through a series of contrasts. First of all, in regards to their respective work, Newson’s is viscereal and controversial, while Sieni’s is subtle and elegant. Second of all, they have different ways of speaking of their work – Newson being direct and concise, while Sieni is almost philosophical. When Wesemann asked them about the sometimes difficult relationship between dance and religion, Sieni did not go into the obvious problematic theme of being a choreographer in a Catholic country, but he highlighted the particular aspect of dancers who have the ability to transform what belongs to every day life into something extraordinary, reaching a “spiritual metrics”. Newson spoke of his anger towards religious intolerance which has, in part, inspired his current work, “To Be Straight With You”. He is against movement for the sake of movement. For him, it is important that dance expresses and questions assumptions we have about our culture, and that “it has some relevance to the world”.

Other questions addressed during the colloquium had to do with the so-called ‘non-dance’ issues of identity and the hyper-virtuoso dancers’ body. All in all, it was an interesting two-day event, and it was, in some cases, revealing to hear these great artists speak.

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