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Ismael Ivo - 'Illuminata'

Enlightened by death: Ismael Ivo's 'Illuminata'

by Rosella Simonari

Jun 10, 2006 -- Teatro alle Tese, Italy

Ismael Ivo’s latest work, “Illuminata”, presented at the 4th International Venice Dance Biennale Festival, is a very complex piece on a taboo subject, death. The work leads the audience on a pathway through darkness to light, as the title, meaning “enlightened”, suggests. It is a production supported by Fondazione Teatro Comunale of Bolzano in collaboration with Venice Biennale and Cena Cultural Produções. It guides the audience through another world, a world of darkness and light, “past and present, dream and reality”.

After entering the Teatro alle Tese, the audience is in fact totally alienated as the theatre is in complete darkness, except for the stage. There are three or four men dressed in white indicating the right direction with some torches, but it does not help much. Once seated the alienation continues as one faces the stage and finds out his/her image is reflected on a large mirror covering the whole back stage. In a way it is quite weird as we cannot see each other but we can see each other’s faces in the mirror as the stage has some lights on. This device suddenly makes sense when one reads what Ivo writes in the programme: “It does not matter how often we try to imagine it, but with death we are mere spectators”.

Ivo is renowned for these disturbing themes. Born in São Paulo, he studied dance in Brazil, then entered the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre first as student then as a dancer. Subsequently he moved to Germany where he continued to study and create his own work made mostly of solo pieces. Among them there are “Artaud, Artaud!” created in 1984 and “Francis Bacon” in 1993, both a success and both characterised by controversial moments. As his long time collaborator Johannes Odenthal highlights, Ivo is interested in “the ritual aspect of theatre and he brings back the body at the centre of the scene”. In particular, he is interested in the racial issue which has changed and taken different perspectives during his experiences in São Paulo, New York and Berlin. One example is a solo he choreographed and performed in 2002, “Mapplethorpe”, which focused on the stereotypes surrounding the black male body as an erotic object of desire. The choice of death as subject for a group piece in a way reflects some of these questions and it provides the audience with elements of surprise, beginning with the employment of the large mirror.

“Illuminata” opens with Ivo’s semi-naked black body lying on a mattress made of a bluish material that looks like ice. Ivo’s voice resounds on stage, it is a recorded message that speaks of a car accident he had and on the trauma it caused him. In that occasion, as he affirms, he looked death in the eyes. The dancing begins. He arches his back, he moves, he stands up and then collapses onto the mattress. These movements have been inspired by re-animation techniques employed during emergencies. More lights go on and four men enter the stage, they all wear the same white suit adorned with white feathers. They are the members of the crystal d company and they have a microphone which amplifies their breathing. They move, each in his own way, either standing in place or running on the proscenium and into the stalls. 

All the dancers undress and remain in their white underwear dancing convoluted movements. In particular one of them begins a duet with Ivo, which reaches its climax with an intense and prolonged hug. This is the result of a movement study Ivo did on the process of separation between Siamese twin sisters. The other dancers also perform some movements in pairs.

Then there is a turning point. Over the stage there is a set of 55 bags full of black sand. One of them is opened and the sand falls on Ivo. The lighting changes, and one single spot is directed from above towards him. It is a very dramatic effect. He stands receiving the sand shower, opens his mouth to ‘drink’ some of it and seems empowered by this event. The sand seem to resemble the ashes and in a way death itself. Its dark colour creates a sharp contrast with the dominant white of the costumes. Soon all the bags are opened and the stage is transformed into a Japanese garden, as it is called in the programme. The dancers, all dirtied by the sand showers, take away the bags that have subsequently fallen from the ceiling and dance a series of phrases in front of the mirror. Then Ivo remains alone on stage and again another element of surprise is adopted.

The large mirror is tilted up, we as the audience disappear from the stage space, and the mirror reflects the stage from above with Ivo seated on the sand. Whether he stands still, or whether he is in a corner while the other dancers move centre stage, his presence fills the space and is like a magnet for the audience’s attention. Behind the mirror there is the Accademia Neue Musik Bolzano orchestra which, apart from the silent beginning, has been playing live the music composed by Arnaldo De Felice. A woman in a white long dress enters the stage. She is soprano Sylvia Nopper, who sings a beautiful song. Ivo walks around her drawing circles on the sandy stage. When she leaves, the other dancers return and they begin to move around the members of the orchestra who have left their place to enter the stage as well. The end is characterized by Ivo and the soprano alone looking at each other standing centre stage.

Is she the embodiment of light as opposed to darkness? Is she the energy (vocal and chromatic) set to give Ivo back his life after his terrible accident? Maybe. “Illuminata” is a very powerful piece especially because it questions many ‘codes’ used in a performance, such as the use of the large mirror to reflect both audience and dancers, the interaction between dancers and musicians, the use of microphones to amplify the dancers’ breathing, and so on. Its theme, death, is carefully analyzed with stimulating images, the most spectacular of which is certainly the sand showers. The use of dichotomous ideas, such as light and darkness, white and black, dream and reality, although a bit obvious and obsolete, are reinvented according to a fresh perspective. However, due to these ‘special effects’, the choreography lacks cohesion and the dancing is in too many occasions compromised in favour of an unexpected change in the set design.  

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