It's normal for people to giggle when they feel uncomfortable and embarrassed. It's odd, however, when people laugh just because those on stage are laughing, however tragic the situation, as though they are not really watching or understanding. Compagnie Marie Chouinard's Radical Vitality certainly seemed to confuse three spectators sitting behind me at theatre Elfo Puccini in Milan for the annual MILANoLTRE Festival of contemporary dance. They giggled and laughed (and continually exchanged comments… “Haha, she's taller than him.” Get away!) Chouinard isn't afraid of putting comic situations on stage – always a challenge – so it was easy to trip up some of the audience. The most obvious example in this “the best of” evening, was a duet when one dancer laughs out loud as they torture the other, and it swings back and forth between them, so they alternate between hysterical laughter and distress. In the current climate, it was especially poignant, yet behind me they were chortling away. The Crying-Laughing Duet provokes a wanted smile towards the end though, when the woman starts some ballet moves alone – self-inflicted torture? There are several nods to classical ballet during the evening, with some nifty pointe work too.
Choosing from her back catalogue, which goes back more than 30 years, Chouinard (now edging towards 70) shows the breadth of her work in Radical Vitality, though a beautiful duet to Handel's Lascia ch'io pianga (moving sung by Monserrat Caballé) is a new addition to her repertoire.
Carol Prieur has been dancing in Chouinard's company for more than two decades, and this magnetic, strong dancer is on top form and opens the evening with a section from Étude no 1, a piece from 2001. She's on a runway, parallel to the audience, with small microphones to pick up the sound of her tap shoes. Forget Eleanor Powell – this is no tap routine. She's wearing a swimming costume and uses the shoes like a percussion instrument, discovering a myriad of sound effects. Mixing angular shapes with elegant movements, silence with screams, extraordinarily fast sequences with slow motion, Prieur gave a captivating tour de force of a performance.
From this, the 90-minute show passed to the miniature with two pieces performed in front of a camera, with the movements projected onto a large screen. The first highlighted four hands nimbly forming intertwining patterns and had the feeling of a pas de deux. In the second Motrya Kozbur prodded and stretched her (very elastic) face into the most surreal shapes like a series of gargoyles. The first three pieces demonstrated what is seen throughout – meticulously rehearsed pieces, physical precision, detailed lighting, and dedicated performers. A joy.
A memorable excerpt was from Le cri du monde with a tall dancer who has the most exquisite port de bras, her arms moving like an underwater plant in a gentle current. Unfortunately, we were not given the performers' names. They were excellent, so I will list them all: Valeria Galluccio, Paige Culley, Clémentine Schindler, Luigi Luna, Jossua Collin Dufour, Adrian W.S. Batt, Celeste Robbins, Michael Baboolal, and Rose Gagnol.
I'm not a fan of the well-known peeing-in-the-bucket scene, but that's probably just prudery on my part. However, the nudity is done well. The final scene has the whole company – every body shape imaginable – naked, with their faces covered by cardboard cutout masks of babies' faces, which was part of a 2010 creation, The Golden Mean (live). There was a similar sequence earlier in the evening with (clothed) performers wearing masks of photos of elderly people as they wobbled and staggered around the stage. Here, the babies study the audience with curiosity, their movements being amplified by their large baby heads. And behind me… finally… silence.
A couple of days later was one of the festival's “danced conferences”. It was one of the most cringe-inducing evenings I've ever had the misfortune to sit through.
The ‘conference' was about dance on Italian television. Four dancers from La Scala – I will not name them to spare their blushes – filled in slots between a university lecturer reading from his rather dry notes and clips of the original TV dances. The dancers recreated various numbers, and the first had the two girls copying a number that we had seen a minute earlier in a recording from the 1960s. It was a famous number by Alice and Ellen Kessler, the Kessler Twins, whose ‘gimmick' was that they were identical twins dancing with every move perfectly synchronised. Oh, and they sang too. Then why oh why have two completely different-looking dancers, sloppily rehearsed and without the style of the period, try to copy them? We then saw another black and white video of the Kesslers, this time joined by two American twins, and yes, once again, La Scala's dancers tried to reproduce the number with two male dancers who couldn't have been more physically unalike. It was absolute nonsense.
One of the dancers had the intelligence to take the mic at the end to say how they had been surprised by how easy the routines had seemed, and yet how difficult they were to pull off. Too late.
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.