MILANoLTRE, Milan's festival of contemporary dance, now in its 33rd edition, presented 24 works at Teatro Elfo Puccini this year, and 19 were by Italian companies.
I saw three productions of outstandingly quality during the 17-day event, which also includes masterclasses, interviews, and lessons.
Susanna Beltrami, who runs the company, academy and performance space, DanceHaus in Milan, presented the premiere of her latest work: Ballade, preghiera profana.
The Night Just Before the Forests by French playwright Bernard-Marie Koltès was Beltrami's starting point after being inspired by a production she saw in Madrid. She has plucked words and moods from his monologue to create a dance work for thirteen male dancers and a vocalist. Words such as ‘night', ‘forest', ‘the last breath' – all suggesting places or moments of transition, when time is in limbo, a passage towards something new. But during those moments there is the unknown and the possibility of uncovering the greatest happiness… and the greatest fear. There is anger in the piece too, primarily as expressed by the singer, but the dancers show a wide range of emotions. Ballade by turns seduces the spectator and grabs them by the throat and, though little over an hour, the immersive intensity creates the sensation of having lived through something significant.
Composer Cesare Picco is onstage throughout playing an amplified grand piano. His marvellous music is varied and effectively mixes rap, jazz and mood music, and he adds percussive effects by knocking at the piano's strings and interior.
Beltrami is endlessly inventive. There is an extended sequence where everything possible is done with the simple teeshirts the men wear. A unicycle comes on at one point. A series of large silver bowls with dry ice or water in each make a diagonal across the stage balanced on the head of each dancer; they glow enticingly under Matteo Bittante's meticulous lighting before the water is sprayed across the stage, whipped out of the bowls with the dancers' hair, and squeezed out of sponges over their bodies. Her vocabulary is varied, but her strength is instilling commitment to each move in her dancers, who perform with astonishing power and sureness. A stunning sequence towards the end has one dancer lying down and rolling phenomenally fast in a big circle around the others as though he is tracing the bezel of a watch. The dancers understandably looked drained but satisfied as they took the enthusiastic applause.
Italian choreographer Diego Tortelli brought his work Shifting Perspective to Milan from Germany for its Italian premiere (it's a collaboration with Tanzbüro München). Having been issued with headphones, the audience enters with the three dancers already onstage armed with earpieces and smartphones. A searchlight turns continuously as the spectators meander to find a spot around the dancers. Instructions are given. There are three audio channels: one with a voice, in German, Italian and English; one is with ‘classical' music, especially composed by Francesco Sacco; the third, electronic. The performers' earpieces allow for everything to be coordinated. After toying with Sacco's attractive electronic soundtrack, I settled on the ‘classical' which was the electronic with some string effects over it – or at least in the first five minutes, while I was still playing with my new toy. We were also encouraged to take photos or videos and share them on social media – there is a dedicated Instagram account – and to move around the performance space.
The curious thing was that people are not all that bothered about finding new perspectives but want to find a comfortable position, leaning against a wall or sitting on the floor, where they are offered a good view. Three or four keen participants continually shifted their point of view, moving enthusiastically from one side of the space to the other, though their energy appeared to flag after the initial novelty had worn off.
Three people who had no problems with energy levels were the dancers – Jin Young Won, Christian Cucco, and the amazingly long-legged Corey Scott-Gilbert. They worked feverishly, tackling the many rapidly evolving and complex sequences, occasionally in couples or as a group, but most interestingly when alone. Tortelli has a classical dance background, having graduated from La Scala's academy, and the mix of classical with sports movements (the dancers were dressed as though ready to play baseball) and contemporary, was fascinating.
Fascinating and completely satisfying was American choreographer Richard Siegal's piece, brought over from Germany with his Ballet of Difference company, which pays tribute to Merce Cunningham on the 100th anniversary of his birth. New Ocean (the natch'l blues), is based on ideas and structures from Cunningham's 1994 work, Ocean.
Cunningham created a work that was rigorously mathematical using the number of hexagrams in the I Ching, (64), and it was performed in the round. Siegal has his piece divided into interchangeable sections and the order for each dancer changes at each performance – maybe this dictated why there is no contact between his dancers throughout. He doesn't place the audience around a circular performing space but has a large, low circular wall on stage which lights up at one point. A song from Taj Mahal's The Natch'l Blues is heard as the lights come down and three grey walls descend to delineate the performing space, but on the recorded thud as they touch the floor, the music of the title is, strangely, never heard again, and there is just silence or the use of an atmospheric electronic score using compositions by Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto.
The dancers are an eclectic bunch of truly talented performers. I'll name them all: Margarida de Abreu Neto, Jemima Rose Dean, Gustavo Gomes, Mason Manning, Andrea Mocciardini, Claudia Ortiz Arraiza, Zuzana Zahradníková, and Long Zou. They walk on calmly, perform their sequence, often sustained and slow-moving, and walk off. The effect is hypnotising.
In the first part, three transparent tubes rise and fall from the flies, ‘injecting' smoke into the scene, like needles above a Petri dish. Or maybe they represent the bubbles in the ocean. These disappear for the second part, where the whole of the stage is lit by a powerful overhead projector which occasionally acts as a lighting rig, but magically uses projections to animate the floor and reveal the dancers in new ways. It is technically perfect and expressively compelling. The music has more urgency now, and as the dancers leave the stage, white smoke builds and builds, as does the music and a bank of 30 backlights, which gradually begin to dazzle the audience. The back wall falls, pushing the smoke out into the auditorium, revealing a blinding light before there's blackness and silence.
Siegal has created a seductive and winning work.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.