Venice Biennale

August 7, 2008

Venice, Italy

June 14-29, 2008


Ah, Venice—one of the world’s most gorgeous cities. Teeming with art, music, architecture and—as part of the famed Biennale for the last six years—dance. In its sixth edition, the fourth under the auspices of dancer-choreographer Ismael Ivo, the festival proved a worthy showcase for performers and dancemakers alike. Simply titled, “Beauty,” the two-week celebration of contemporary dance lived up to its name, with productions both large and small exploring the magnificence of the body through movement.    

    The festivities, which also included a ceremony honoring choreographer Jirí Kylián with a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement award, and a symposium on beauty featuring, among others, feminist writer Germaine Greer, kicked off with Ballet National de Marseille’s 70-minute extravaganza, Metamorphoses. Based on Ovid’s epic poem, the work, under the direction of interdisciplinary Belgian choreographer Frédéric Flamand, allowed the troupe to show serious mettle on a set created by Brazil’s maverick Campana brothers.  

    Circular sculptures mostly suspended above the stage (with two doubling as film screens), provided a kinetic backdrop to nine scenes, with dancers transforming from animal and amoeba-like creatures to gods and mythological figures, including a snake-headed Medusa, a wire-encased Acteon and Arachnae, whose giant web loomed menacingly. Flamand’s brawny choreography thrilled with quicksilver lunges, delirious partnering and capoeira-like moves, his first-rate performers, some occasionally sporting stilettos, clad in the Campanas’ wild costumes.  

    Made from recycled materials including plastic tubing, the garb’s carnivalesque quality gave eco-weight to the piece, which was set to a pastiche of music unafraid of sentiment, a varied track of electronic crackles and Baroque suites butting up against Saint-Saens’ The Swan. Complex and fascinating, the Italian premiere of Metamorphoses mesmerized.

    So, too, did Wayne McGregor’s Entity, a tour de force for the London-based Random Dance. McGregor, continuing his exploration into the relationship between the brain and the moving body, enlisted Jon Hopkins and Joby Talbot for an arresting score. Unfolding with jaw-dropping muscularity, the 60-minute work (an Italian premiere), was bookended with a video of a greyhound running in place, a nod, perhaps, to locomotion photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Patrick Burnier’s minimalist set – three separate panels accommodating video imagery – was also manipulated by the 10 brilliant dancers. Whether in twitchy, hyper-extended mode or isolating shoulders, knees and hips—their uber-arched backs a metaphor for an off-kilter world—the troupe forayed into uncharted territory. A choreographer at the top of his game, McGregor created a tension-inducing tableau that seared onto one’s gray matter.

    Also magnificent: Susanne Linke, a Mary Wigman disciple who performed with Pina Bausch, in her revised 1985 opus, Schritte verfolgen II—reconstruction (“Following steps”). The addition of a trio of soloists—Elisabetta Rosso, Armelle H. van Eecloo, and Mareike Franz, who quivered, swayed, and mimed open-mouthed horror—to what was originally an autobiographical one-woman piece, ideally expanded the work. But it was the German expressionist, clad in a suit and slinking backwards, who reined supreme. With sweeping, goddess-like gestures, Linke owned the stage, even amid feathers that drizzled down in a white blur. A sensitive take on ageing, this affirmation permits us to revel in the notion of ‘being’ – at all stages of life.

    The Francesca Harper Project, whose eponymous leader performed with Dance Theatre of Harlem and William Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt before turning to Broadway (The Color Purple), is a superb dancer.  However, in her world premiere, The Fragile Stone Theory 2K8/Interactive Feast, the New York-based artist chose, in the first half, to sing original songs from her CD instead of exploiting her terpsichorean prowess. Video imagery also pulled focus from Harper’s five fine dancers, who gamely moved through a convoluted storyline involving an ambling actor, Julius Hollingsworth. Happily, after intermission, Harper displayed her gifts in a luscious solo, one emulating the graceful moves of a crane, seen on video behind her. More cohesive choreography also helped redeem the evening, with Hattie Mae Williams and Dominique Rosales also on stellar footing.

    Other American troupes—Stephen Petronio Dance Company and Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet—presented previously seen works, with King also presenting a world premiere, Octet Adagio, for guest artists Muriel Maffre and Prince Credell (not seen by this reviewer).  New York Artist David Michalek was on hand for the unveiling of his lovely, Slow Dancing, video portraits of 43 dancers first seen at Lincoln Center last year.

    Italians were, of course, in full force, and offered a quartet of Biennale commissions: Balletto Civile’s lively Creatura, Spellbound Dance Company’s Don Giovanni—Il gioco di Narciso—reflections on the legendary lover—Pneuma Dance Theater’s Chain of Feathers and La Bambola di Carne, directed by Letizia Renzini.  

    Making use of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1919 silent film masterpiece, Die Puppe (The Doll), which was shown interspersed with Renzini’s clever animation clips, the director also composed and performed the computer score live. Marina Giovannini, moving doll-like, was a deft spirit, crawling, butoh-like one moment and bouncing awkwardly in stick figure fashion the next, in this intriguing scenario that could have been pumped up with a bit more dance.  

    Ballet Preljocaj performed the previously reviewed Eldorado, as well as Anjelin Preljocaj’s 1985 classic, Larmes Blanches (White Tears). An ingenious use of counterpoint for two couples whose stylized, precise moves mirror lusty Baroque music (Bach and friends), the piece remains timeless – and hip.     Bonachela Dance Company, directed by London-based Rafael Bonachela (he danced with Rambert for 11 years), could barely be seen in Square Map of Q4, another Italian premiere. Ear-splittingly loud with extreme lighting (blinding or near black), the work for six dancers was a virtual battlefield:  High-tech visuals and Marius de Vries’ score overpowered what appeared to be an intense movement vocabulary, one where dreams and emotions jostled for prominence amid flailing arms, entwined legs and hurling bodies.

    But just as Venice is a magical and romantic city, so, too, was much of the dance. Indeed, it was the kind of stuff that had the power and splendor to make one fall in love with the art form over and over again.  


Photo of Ballet National de Marseille in Metamorphoses. By Pino Pipitone.