The second week of BIENNALE DANCE 2014, an ambitious urban festival showcasing contemporary choreography whose tag line, “Gesture, Place, Community,” reflects curator Virgilio Sieni’s high aspiration for the art form, got off to a particularly strong start Tuesday evening in Venice. Among four vivid presentations by choreographers Sieni, Roy Assaf and duo Raffaella Giordano/Maria Muñoz, a crisp winner was a smart, beautifully shaped work by Italian dance maker Marina Giovannini.
“Meditation on Beauty 1, 2, 3” won favor at many levels. But it began with the dance’s straight-forward title. Yes, a meditation; indeed, a highly contemplative hour-long work with three clear-cut sections spooling at heartbeat speed; slow, but never unbearably so. And yes, beauty. The tight ensemble of four female dancers posed and gesticulated as lovely Venetian statuary sprung to life, placing themselves onto display, sometimes in contact with moveable props, sometimes constrained by contact with each other.
An extremely droll work of art, “Meditation” opened with a solo by the choreographer. A stunning long-bean of a dancer with a shock of black hair, Giovannini, a protégée of Sieni, ported a modesty that disallowed contemplation as a beauty object. With steady determination, Giovannini draped and molded her long limbs around four disparate wooden boxes. Hewing to geometry in a way that suited her build, she clung to the boxes’ hard edges, folding in arms and legs with the extremity of a Swiss Army knife. Her languorous boxy tour evoked the Biennale’s architecture theme. (The dance festival, this year in its 9th permutation, coordinates with the Biennale Architecture exhibition.) Her dead-panned, nearly grim task-orientation gave witty contrast to her submitting to display as a showpiece, a fashion model, a piece of sculpture, a prize puppy in a dog show.
Balancing at box’s edge, as though on a diving board, she held body weight in careful counter-valance to the supporting structure.
Indeed balance was the central metaphor of “Meditation”‘s wry second section in which three dancers entered the performance space clinging to — of all unusual props in the dance world — basketballs. But rather than dribble and shoot, the women, garbed in chic black-and-white dance gear, set themselves to a simple but ponderous task: balancing the basketballs on their foreheads, heads cocked, arms splayed like broken scarecrows. Pursuing this crazy mission they circulated the splendid shoebox of Ca’ Giustinian’s second-floor performance salon, clumped in a trio.
For this viewer, the basketball fol-de-rol was a huge dance joke. It took the feat of balance—a dance pursuit traditionally embodied by the ballerina sur les pointes—and transferred it from tippy-toe to the top of the body, in this case, the upper forehead of weighty contemporary dancers. The clever inversion worked. Audiences like watching balancing acts.
Section three had Giovannini rejoin her troupe for further obsessive machinations: a wonderful quartet of dancers sharing body weight via tense arm grips. The recycling dance phrases spieled with nary an error, the minimalism a stark accent to the flourish of Ca’ Giustinian’s fleur-de-lys wallpaper and crystal chandeliers. “Meditation” had as its pulsating underpinning the rhythmic, soulful music of the great jazz singer Nina Simone.
Los Angeles would love this rigorously physical, witty work.
photo credit middle image: c.Rodighiero, basketballs Ilaria Costanzo