Letter from Venice: Redux

June 25, 2012

It’s hot, crowded and very expensive. Indeed, if I were writing a travel book, I’d call it Venice on Five Euros A Minute. But seriously, there’s a reason hordes keep coming to this achingly beautiful town, and for me, it’s not only to walk through history, where the continuously mellifluous sounds of tolling church bells are like a call to personal prayer, but to experience the dance sector of the city’s famed Biennale.

The festival, which began June 8 and ended June 24, not only showcased various spectacular productions (alas, I couldn’t stay for the entire run), but also took place in often breathtaking venues. And so it was that I returned twice to see Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time, an installation by The Forsythe Company that featured Brock Labrenz in a four-hour performance presented on six different nights. This was stamina of heroic proportions, proving that, in this case, youth is not wasted on the young!



Brock Labrenz in Forsythe’s
Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time.

Photo by Philip Bussmann, Courtesy Venice Biennale.


Set in a vast space in one of the Arsenale warehouses, the work featured the dancer moving in Forsythe’s signature fashion, with speedy bursts of quirky bends, scrunchy shoulders and questing head-bobs. The predominant sounds were the squeaking of his tennis shoes, as this determined, jeans-clad Adonis moved amidst a lot of weighted silver pendulums that dangled from long lengths of nylon strings, resting inches above the floor. Traversing the area, himself a kind of human pinball, Labrenz sometimes launched the weights in twirling mode, at other moments he contemplated their mere existence.

I was told that at the two-hour mark, hot American coffee was brought to Labrenz (no Starbucks here; Venice won’t hear of it…), after which the dancer continued his bird-like prowl, investigating the body and the brick-walled space, while an ever-changing audience, who came and went at leisure, also roamed through the kinetic art. I popped in twice: first during the third hour, and again on another night near the beginning of his performance. On both occasions Labrenz remained unflappable and, in a surreal way, serene, no matter the sweltering summer heat.

Although Sylvie Guillem’s program, 6000 miles away, featured a Forsythe piece, her concert, which also included works by JiÅ™í Kylián and Mats Ek, couldn’t have been more different from Labrenz’s tour de force. Guillem, the ultimate diva, still dances beautifully, but the evening left me wanting more—more guts, more risk-taking, more boundary-pushing. Let’s just say that at 47, Guillem, who received the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, plays it too safe. I would have loved to witness her long supple limbs, expressive arms, and remarkably sculptured face tackle a work by, perhaps, a Wim Vandekeybus.

I mention this because the Belgian choreographer/filmmaker/photographer was also in Venice…to premiere his 27th work, booty Looting, with the troupe he founded in 1987, Ultima Vez. Having seen a number of his works, I was excited to be able to hear the artist talk about his process in a press conference. Articulate, witty, and provocative, the Belgian, who turns 49 Saturday, could have gabbed for hours, but rehearsal beckoned. Whatever—in more than 90 minutes, including a Q&A, we got a crash course in Vandekeybussianism, and were served Prosecco and crustless tea sandwiches afterwards. (By the way, the Venetians certainly know how to throw a bash. To honor Guillem, a soiree was held on the Biennale terrace overlooking the Grand Canal, where several of us knocked back Spritzes—white wine and Campari—and chowed down on cold pasta and tiny squids with mashed potatoes served in Lady Gaga-esque plastic eggs. Anisette-infused watermelon, nestled in neo-Bento boxes, was the perfect prelude for dessert—chocolate crème in toothpaste tubes. Mamma mia!)



Danny Willems (photographer) and Luke Jessop (airborne) in Wim Vandekeybus’s
booty Looting.

Photo by Vandekeybus, Courtesy Venice Biennale.


But I digress. Vandekeybus’s booty Looting, which deals with memory, distortion, photography, and audience participation, at nearly two hours, gives the quartet of astonishingly hyperphysical dancers, actors Jerry Killick and Birgit Walter, and photographer Danny Willems quite the workout. Along with a mesmerizing guitar score composed and performed live by Elko Blijweert (I heard shades of Purcell, Jerry Garcia, and the theme from Bonanza), there was visceral imagery to rival any found at, well, Museo Fortuny. (A lovely palazzo, the Fortuny was the site of a curious exhibition, “Diana Vreeland After Diana Vreeland,” which featured an original costume from La Bayadère, a long red cape worn by Maria Callas, and an assortment of the late fashionista’s shoes.)

And while shoes weren’t part of the crashing, thudding booty body tableaux (think Sergio Leone meets Stanley Kubrick, with Willems providing on-the-spot documentation, the photos offering a brooding, neo-Weegee Flemishness), the text Vandekeybus wrote took us on a night of 1,000 journeys. With Killick leading us through tales of plundering, Medea, and death by Xerox machine—and Walter’s visage a testament to Norma Desmond and Martha Graham—this work finally deals with the art of creation, destruction, truth and lies.



Koffi Kôkô in
The Beauty of the Devil.

Photo by Arnaldo J.G.Torres, Courtesy Venice Biennale.


Other truths were found in Koffi Kôkô, a dancer from Benin, West Africa, who incorporates butoh in his ritualistic work, The Beauty of the Devil. With three percussionists providing a resonant backdrop, Koko offered a primally shamanistic performance that ranged from beaming smiles and silent screams to one in which he chalked his face. His deliberate, snail-like moves occasionally reminded me of a Nik Wallenda, one who gingerly threaded along his own, albeit invisible tightrope.

Adding to the Biennale’s appeal was a performance by students from the Paolo Grassi School in Milan. Performing Trisha Brown’s iconic 1976 work, Line Up (set on them by former Brown dancers), the 13 dancers did not quite have the choreographer’s vocabulary solidly in their bodies, but acquitted themselves well, introducing many Italians to the wondrous originality of this bold American artist.

Wondrous is also the perfect adjective to describe both Venezia and the Biennale, where I hated to say, “Arrivederci.”