It is a minor miracle that the MilanOltre contemporary dance festival managed to present its 34th edition this year. The organisers made many changes to the original programme – the company from China were not present, for example – but some excellent shows were on offer. Milan’s Teatro Elfo Puccini could only sell 40% of its capacity and, of course, the anti-covid paraphernalia that has become part of our lives was everywhere.
The maxim ‘save the best until last’ was ignored as the best show was at the beginning of the month-long festival – at least of the five programmes I saw. Compagnie Hervé Koubi brought fifteen exceptional dancers from its base in Cannes – though the dancers are from Morocco, Algeria, France and Italy – to perform Koubi’s work Les Nuits Barbares ou les Premiers Matins du Monde (Barbarian Nights or the First Mornings of the World).
Koubi discovered as an adult that some of his ancestors were not French but Algerian. In a talk before the piece, he explained how his outlook on the world had changed after finding out about his Arab-speaking grandparents. Les Nuits Barbaresillustrates, in an understated way, how around the Mediterranean basin there are the very countries that have produced the dancers of this company, countries often in conflict, yet “this feeling of belonging is much more ancient than the concept of nations”. A piece fundamentally about the fear of the stranger could lead to cuddly, ‘let’s be better people’ messages about tolerance, or lack of, toward migrants from Western Asia and North Africa, yet this is something that it is possible to see or not. It could be about any ‘barbarian’ and ‘civilised’ tensions. His choreography was never preachy.
Koubi has a ballet background, but in this piece he mixes in hip-hop and breakdance (the barbarian dances) and the dancers exuded impressive energy. How hard must it be to spin on one hand while slowly extending your legs straight into the air like a candle? How doubly hard when two or three are doing it together, perfectly coordinated, starting and stopping together. On stage, people are attacked and saved, oppressed and championed, with contrasting moments of extreme muscular strength and silent stillness. The music is a mix of Mozart, Fauré, traditional Algerian melodies, Wagner and original music by Maxime Bodson, which may sound crass, but the pieces are interwoven so cleverly that even excerpts from the requiems don’t appear like clichéd ways of underlining a death. The piece is beautifully lit by Lionel Buzonie, making a poetic frame for this virtually spiritual dance creation.
The Compagnia Zappalà Danza performed part of a project called Liederduett. Come le ali (Like Wings) is for two dancers who represent Cain and Abel, though it is unnecessary to know that. From a technical level – lighting and scenic elements – it was beautifully put together, but the choreography seemed inconsequential on occasions. Things picked up when the two dancers – Adriano Coletta and Filippo Domini – began a very long section when they performed the same choreography in parallel. It was a sequence that was detailed and complex, and it was a tribute to the seriousness of the company and the hard work of the performers.
Balletto Teatro Torino was founded by the ballerina Loredana Furno in 1979, and she is still at the helm. The company presented the premiere of Studio su Anemoi with choreography by Manfredi Perego. It didn’t grab my attention all the time, though the choreography could be inventive and Paolo Codognola’s music was seductive, but the dancers in the company are uneven. Much better was a piece with Perego himself called Primitiva (Primitive). His curious caveman put his hands out towards the four walls of vertical light that he was caught in, afraid as though touching fire and apelike in the inquisitive twitches of his head, crouching, and scraping at the floor. It was a tour de force performance which kept its surprises for the final moments when the black and white atmosphere was broken with a coloured glow, his confining walls disappeared, and a shaft of light led the cavemen to a new place. Simple and effective.
Ballo Excelsior premiered at La Scala in 1881. The stage was chock-a-block with 508 dancers, mime artists and children along with camels, elephants and horses. It celebrated the progress of science with scenes about a steamboat, Alessandro Volta’s battery, the telegraph, Thomas Edison’s light bulb, the opening of the Suez Canal, and the creating of the Moncenisio tunnel – it is about the triumph of Humanity (Light) and Civilisation over Darkness, and these are also characters on stage. The ballet begins with Light throwing off Darkness’s shackles.
However, the Suez scene especially has problems: it shows the civilisation of a slave (who transforms from semi-naked loveliness into a dapper military officer), and children in blackface and fezzes, clap symbols and crouch prostrate on the ground. There’s even a clichéd chinaman with a conical hat and raised index fingers.
The ballet is positive as it celebrates nations coming together and collaborating – but they must conform to Western civilisation, of course. There are even regiments of prancing (female) soldiers waving national flags crossing the stage, and the poor British soldiers dance with bearskin hats. Oops, another no-no: bearskins are literally made from the skin of American black bears. Without going into the rights and wrongs of throwing paint on statues of Christopher Columbus, my long preamble was to show why Salvo Lombardo has chosen this as his starting point for his Excelsior, which is critical about how the West has forced its view of what civilised is on other nations. In this, his outlook has much in common with Koubi’s Les Nuits Barbares, but visually and musically they are world’s apart.
In Excelsior, the lighting can be quite stark, leaving the performers – literally at one point – nude. The company Chiasma, based in Rome, has some superb dancers who are strikingly different in their individual look and way of moving. Fabrizio Alviti’s music is a variegated collage that contains Smetana’s Má vlast, a blast of reggaeton, a sexually explicit rap, sound effects, and the cast singing Romualdo Marenco’s score from 1881. Then the visuals: vertical strip lighting, dozens of houseplants during one scene, a football, a rifle, one dancer in a pair of Union Jack shorts, there’s a tutu, 19th-century costumes made from foliage print fabric, a black and white top with ‘Odile’ printed on it, a leopard print top with ‘Barbie’, a white top with a red cross which is taken from the design of Civilisation’s tutu in Ballo Excelsior… and projections. Projections of military flypasts, wolves ripping a flag apart, pop videos, war, black and white news footage. As my grandmother would have said, “Everything but the kitchen sink.” The choreography too is a mishmash. It certainly kept your attention, and the idea of the show wasn’t to teach but to allude and reveal, and the juxtaposition of so many contrasting elements brought up some interesting – if sometimes banal – considerations. Ecology, environmentalism, capitalism, colonialism, exploitation… it ticks all the PC boxes, but in the current, often aggressive and offensive, political climate they are themes that can’t be repeated too often.
The festival finished in glory with Spellbound 25 celebrating Spellbound Contemporary Ballet’s silver anniversary. The company was founded in 1994 by choreographer Mauro Astolfi and Valentina Marini, and Astolfi has contributed some marvellous pieces to the company’s repertoire over the years. Strangely, Wonder bazaar, which was the last work in the programme, and the longest work of the evening, was the weakest and a little repetitive. However, the dancers were precise and expressive, everything surrounding them was detailed, and occasionally there were some fascinating moments. It looked like a 1950s sci-fi film with a dangling tube that seemed to aliment the aliens like an umbilical cord and a giant computerised device with Dr Who lights was pushed around the stage. Later, reading the programme, Astolfi says,
Wonder bazaar is an outpost of a servant humanity assisted by outdated technology, a cheap emporium where you can try to repair the damage of a life you cannot understand and control.
Everyone is turned in on themselves, where human relationships are reduced to a minimum and leave room for a blind and meaningless trust in a machine that, even if turned off and not working, gives security.
So there you have it. It’s not a ‘50s’ view of the future, but it is today with ‘50s machines. Maybe it was the atmospheric soundscape that made it drag, and some rhythm or music may have changed the impetus of the piece entirely, but it overstayed its welcome.
Astofli’s solo Unknown Woman for the wonderfully expressive Maria Cossu was like a love letter to a dancer who has been with his company for twenty years. This was so gripping that it was disappointing that the evening didn’t finish with this, or one of the other works presented. Another solo was Marco Goecke’s Äffi, created for Marijn Rademaker in 2006. Mario Laterza starts with his back to the audience; his muscles rippling under the vertical light. He spends most of the piece with his face away from the audience, yet he was captivating throughout. The rapid movements, primarily by the upper body, with a mix of swan-arms, body slapping, contortions and twitches, was boldly contrasted with almost no movement whatsoever. The last of the Johnny Cash songs that accompany the work was a version of Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again that was particularly emotional in this bizarre time.
The most impressive piece opened the programme and showed the company in peak form. Marte (Mars) has the dancers doing wonderous synchronised movements, dressed and lit in blue, where they appear almost as a single being. They remove their head coverings now and then to show themselves as individuals before rejoining the group. Here the names of the other first-rate Spellbound dancers should be mentioned: Lorenzo Capozzi, Riccardo Ciarpella, Linda Cordero, Giuliana Mele, Mateo Mirdita, Caterina Politi, and Aurora Stretti. Catalonian Marcos Morau has been making ever bigger waves in contemporary dance over the last five years or so, and this new creation shows why. He often names his pieces after places, so choosing Mars is certainly setting it in the abstract – it’s not even a red Mars. But in the beauty of the movement, there is also meaning, intentional or otherwise. It was like seeing the birth of a new civilisation, creating form out of chaos. This work was created with the Spellbound dancers after lockdown, so maybe there were thoughts of a new beginning. The dancers often move their bodies closely together, making wave-like movements, and it sprang into mind that it was acknowledging the evitability of a second wave of coronavirus, ready to suppress the creative process once more. I doubt that it was saying that, but that’s the beauty of abstract art. Now this piece was truly spellbinding.
Top photo: Les nuits barbares © Frédérique Calloch