Biennale di Venezia Second International Contemporary Dance Festival

June 11, 2004

Biennale di Venezia Second International Contemporary Dance Festival
Various venues

Venice, Italy

June 11–30, July 9–30, 2004

Reviewed by Silvia Poletti


As you leave Venice’s train station and await the steamboat (the only transport you have here, apart from good feet), the city appears exactly as great writers have testified. You may experience the same heavy pearl sky Thomas Mann described in Death in Venice, weighing on your breath, and see the same green, still waters he saw. In this never-ending, dying city, it seems surreal to see 21st-century people, in sneakers and trekking dresses, strolling lazily in ancient campielli.

The contrast between Venice’s time and real time was all the more striking at the Venice Biennale, where the two-month-long program—following artistic director Karole Armitage’s intentions—brought together the most innovative international choreographers working on the pure language of dance itself, which Armitage described as “an art form for our times.”

On the festival’s stages in the Arsenale, Venice’s ancient naval dockyard, the artists, all bold in technique, gave the impression that they are still exploring how dance will manifest itself as a theatrical form for the new century. As if they were influenced by the Venetian atmosphere, almost all the choreographers showed pieces suspended in time, lively dynamic material seemingly just drafted and sometimes unresolved, as if they had yet to decide how to proceed.

For some of them, including John Jasperse, experimentation was the principal aim. Jasperse’s Just two dancers (an Italian premiere) was an exercise in choreographic anatomy involving two technically brilliant performers (Jasperse and Juliette Mapp), two musicians, and the public, which was actively engaged in viewing the dancers’ work via hand-held mirrors. Jasperse’s approach to movement is scientific. As a physicist he carefully tests the dynamic results of variation of weight, energy, and impulse he gives to the body; at the same time he inserts the variables of technique (from ballet to contact improvisation), space (the dancers move around, run, jump, and lie on tables amidst the audience), and emotions. The dancers’ expressions are always dull; only at the end, when Jasperse suddenly embraces Juliette, does the public see the human relation between them. The duo offer themselves to the public as moving flesh, bones, muscles—objects to take or to leave.

Other works were less laboratory-like in nature. Karole Armitage’s world premiere, Echoes From the Street, seemed to intend to show an ideal journey through different contemporary dance cultures, to create a dynamic, dazzling, melting pot of vernacular and academic idioms. Armitage has been working with this theme for years, often with thrilling results. Not so this time. The piece opens with a powerful post-balletic sequence to Bartók’s dark Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, which two dancers perform with dazzling stamina and speedy strength, but gradually the piece weakens. Instead of blending dance idioms into a unique choreographic vocabulary, Armitage restricts herself to juxtaposing vogueing with fragments of bharata natyam or neoclassic enchainements, giving the impression of unintentional randomness and confused structural conception. It’s as if she, after showing all the tools at her disposal, forgets to surmount the creative challenge she has in front of her.

A lack of a true personal way in dance is clear also in younger dancemakers, such as Jacopo Godani, the only Italian invited to Biennale. Godani, a former dancer with Ballett Frankfurt, applies the deconstructionist rules and philosophical approach from his association with William Forsythe to his own choreography. In his new solo, Elementale, and his work for Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, Beyonders (2003), his personal effort is hard to distinguish from a déjà vu collection of dynamic outbursts.

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