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What is There Under the Skin of the Dancing Body?:

'Underskin' - Venice Dance Biennale Symposium

by Rosella Simonari

June 9-11, 2006 -- Teatro Piccolo Arsenale, Venice

“Dance tries to reach a body momentum to become art”, says choreographer and dancer Ismael Ivo, for the second consecutive year artistic director of Venice Dance Biennale and its International Contemporary Dance Festival, an innovative festival that challenges the common notions connected with body and dancing. The actual Festival had its debut with the premiere of Ismael Ivo’s latest work on death, “Illuminata”. Among the other choreographers and dancers, there were Takao Kawaguchi, the Istanbul Dance Theatre, Random Dance, Almatanz, Balletto Teatro di Torino and ACCCA, that is Sadler’s Wells Company of Elders.

This year the focus of the Festival was on issues regarding the body and what is under the dancing body in anatomical, emotional, inspirational terms. The festival opened with a three-day symposium where experts and performers from different fields investigated the relationship between body, soul and science. The title of the festival, “Underskin”, was particularly effective, and the image chosen to represent it was that of butoh dancer Ko Murobushi in his latest piece, “Quick Silver”, where he is bent down with his face touching his knees, his skin painted a dark colour.

As Ivo says, “let us attempt to break into the obscure and try to investigate physical images, organic bodies, inspiration and creative/spiritual needs”. In this sense, experts from as diverse fields as dance, math, medicine, cinema, visual art, performance and shamanism presented their own perspectives on the topic, thus widening the idea we have of the body in relation to movement and dance.

In addition to that, during the symposium some dancers and choreographers like Min Tanaka and Niels “Storm” Robitzki were asked to express their viewpoint through a performance. The main topic was divided into six sub-topics, two for each day of the symposium, with special attention paid to the body in science, faith, religion, illness, morbidity, sex, eroticism and the maturity of eternal youth.

For example, mathematician Piergiorgio Odifreddi on Friday 9th made an interesting excursus on he recurrent human attempt to create and construct artificial creatures and/or simulate human intelligence. He talked about the eighteenth century construction of mechanical animals and of literary examples, such as “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley and the fantasy fiction of Isaac Asimov and Philip Dick.

In particular, he focused on the myth of sculptor Pygmalion, who built his own woman and asked Love goddess Venus to transform her into a flesh and blood creature. “This myth”, he stated, “has been reworked by information technology experts who tried to simulate human thought”. It is theprinciple at the base of computers. Interestingly, as he added, this myth has also inspired writer E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman,” on which the famous ballet “Coppélia” is based.

After this, a completely different contribution was given by shaman and ecstatic dance specialist Hiah Park, who showed a video of one of her rituals where dance plays a fundamental part. Dance for her is a “medium for healing”, a medium through which she establishes a contact between people and their souls. She directly acts from soul to soul to cleanse people from their pains and problems.

After the video, she talked about her personal experience as a shaman, her tradition and initiation. She belongs to a particular kind of Korean shamans called ‘mudang’ who, as she stated, are called to their “profession by mystical illness, known as ‘sinbyong’ and” are initiated in ‘naerimkut’, “a ceremony which resolves [their] suffering by enshrining the possessing Spirit into” their body.

It is through dance that she became aware of her own power as shaman, and as she stated, when she dances she is no longer “solid” but “waves of movement”. Furthermore, in Korea, female shamans are the majority, and they break “all the traditional rules and stereotypes”, thus liberating women from “the very repressive Confucian society”.

Park’s lecture was welcomed as a radical shift where dance is perceived as an ecstatic experience. Some people looked quite sceptical, but this was part of the diverse fields the speakers were coming from, fields which were not always familiar to the audience.

Park’s lecture was in a way connected with that presented on Sunday the 11th by doctor and choreographer Dietmar Seiffert, who worked with ballet dancer and son Gregor to create a piece on Nijinsky’s insanity. Again in this case, the focus was on an altered state of mind but taken from a more structured and rational viewpoint. Seiffert studied in depth the aspects of schizophrenia, and he created the piece together with his son’s suggestions. The result was shown in a video recording of the performance, titled “Clown of God”.

Set to the score of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”, the choreography has no set, and it opens with a close-up on Gregor’s body. He is seated with his head down. Soon his movements are articulated according to asymmetric and distorted moves in conjunction with perfectly performed pirouettes and ballet steps as, according to Seiffert, during his illness Nijinsky must have had some moments of lucidity where he remembered his enormous skill as dancer. 

A quite disturbing subject was approached by film director Lynne Stopkewich on Saturday 10th when she talked about necrophilia and her controversial 1996 film “Kissed”. Based on one of Barbara Gowdy’s short stories and inspired by a real event, the film rotates around the figure of Sandra Larson and her fascination with death since childhood. Larson develops a sexual need to relate with dead bodies, and she performs some ritual movements like dancing in circle around the corpse before making love to him. Her boyfriend, jealous of her addiction, finally commits suicide to have her all for himself.

In spite of the taboo subject, the film, which was then shown, attempts to draw an intimate portrait of the protagonist without incurring a perverse enquiring look. When the moderator of the afternoon, film critic Gianni Canova, asked the reason for the title, Stopkewich said that she was fascinated by the idea of kissing associated with death. She also added that in a way it is the protagonist who is being kissed and is given life by the corpse.

The afternoon proceeded with an enchanting performance by acclaimed butoh dancer Min Tanaka. The title was “Dance of the Organs”, and Tanaka entered from upstage and very slowly walked towards the proscenium. He was wearing a greyish kimono, a red mask on his face and a hat.

His body control was absolute, especially within his very slow movements. He moved his hands carefully, taking the sleeves of his kimono and lifting them. After taking off his mask and hat, he sat on the stage and kept on moving his hands together with his eyes and face. He ended his stunning performance standing on the proscenium and taking a bow towards the audience. 

The day after, on Sunday the 11th, he again performed a series of improvised movements in the context of a ‘duologue’, a new way to have two people relate to each other, designed by the Festival organisers. In this case, it was between Tanaka and dance scholar Stefano Tomassini, who were asked to work on the topic “the maturity of eternal youth”.

Tomassini presented a brief lecture-homage to Ted Shawn and his 1924 solo “Death of Adonis” alternated with Tanaka’s improvisations based on key words such as ‘maturity eternal youth’ and ‘perfection imperfection’. It was very exciting as it presented two different perspectives cohabiting in perfect harmony.

After this intense event, Tomassini asked Tanaka about his dance approach. Tanaka talked of what Tatsumi Hijikata had once told him: “You can dance without using the muscle, but using the organs”. Since then he has been working with his body, trying to find what he poetically terms “the seed of movement”.

Many other experts presented interesting insights on the proposed issues. Among them were visual art and performance scholar Francesca Alfano Miglietti, dance critic and writer Roger Salas, doctor Sonya Babu-Narayan, dancer and choreographer Wayne McGregor, film director Matteo Garrone and dance critic Elisa Guzzo Vaccarino.

Ismael Ivo’s intention to stimulate unusual reflections on the connection between body, soul and science was successful, inspiring and sometimes unexpected. However, the choice to have different moderators during each section compromised the continuity of the discourse with the result of having some of the experts using too technical terms and being confined to their own discipline.

Furthermore, there was a lack of language coordination. On the one hand, the foreign speakers were accurately translated into Italian for the audience, but on the other hand, nobody was translating for them what was being said when they were listening to their Italian colleagues or to those who spoke a different language from theirs. This fact inhibited a potentially fertile debate and prevented a fruitful discussion from taking place.

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