«From the intangible to flesh». Conversation with Francesca Pennini
Sylphidarium. Maria Taglioni on the ground recalls La Sylphide by Maria Taglioni, a work which was at the origins of romantic dance. Why, among the many classics of ballet, did you choose this one?
Sylphidarium continues the research on writing and archeology of dance which started out with 10 miniballets, when I brought to the scene the choreographies I had written as a child, relating them to the aerial element – both in symbolic and termodynamical terms.
Intending to open up a scale from “mini” to “maxi” towards an official and shared tradition of dance, we chose an exemplifying title, which is able to express in a different way the thought on air as the founding element of movement, on the dancer as a creature of the air.
Working on ballet, I was interested in investigating the relationship with the soil: and sylphes are the genies of the air which aim high rising from the ground, thanks to the technical innovation of the toe shoes, which goes on stage for the first time precisely in La Sylphide. Moreover, I wanted the references to be not only “in” the ballet, but also “to” ballet, to the history and the tradition itself…thus, in this title we found the origin of another fundamental revolution: its drift, within one second, into Fokine’s Sylphides, the first abstract ballet. Wondering about the relationship between narration and abstraction, we thought of a dramaturgic dimension which rereads the narrative structure of La Sylphide in a linearity of time which respects the events, but without adherence between the characters and the performers, in an across-the-board reshuffle which provokes the inquisitive gaze of the audience. In response to this narrative transposition, we created one last abstract act. A totally white act built on Les Sylphides, where the whole chorus is made up of Sylphes and the movement processes the typical body language of sylphes: it thus turns into more and more extreme gymnastics, a sparkling collective suicide. From the spiritual body which aims at the sky to the physical body which evaporates, from the effortless and weightless body of the dancer to the muscular, percussive and sweaty bodies which are worn out by movement, by fatigue…and evaporate. From air to aerobics, from Maria Taglioni to Jane Fonda, from the intangible to flesh.
From Sylphide to sylphes, a kind of beetle which feeds on carcasses. This passage from ballet to insects is much more than a language shift: can you tell us how it came about and what its significance is?
The body of the dancer changes anatomically in accordance with dance, it is visibly forged, it respects established eastetic norms and high sports standards…from its forms and tensions, its devotion to dance stands out clearly. In Sylphidarium we imagined that this mutation is at the DNA level; that, as it is the case of some genetically modified vegetables, the dancers are hybridized with the genetics of an insect in order to acquire a different physicalness. Bodies that have other forms and other movement dynamics, but also other systems of perception – such as a non-visual one. We created an imaginary taxonomy of insects which correspond to the profiles of the characters in the ballet, where the characterisation of the role passes through an anatomical invention. We began to think of our job as of a documentary on a specific kind of insects, whose habitat is the white limbo on the stage and whose characteristics are described by an off-stage voice…not a terrarium, not an aquarium: a sylphidarium, indeed.
In the creative process we worked extensively on this entomological dimension with rather extreme experience-based experiments, and then trying to condense the result and keep it subterranean in the work – almost subliminal, a hint.
The formal gap that, also in this case, goes beyond the contents and reflects on the tradition of ballet, comes from the thoughts on the use the forensic police department makes of sylphes, analysing rotting corpses. We thought of Ballet as of a corpse belonging to old times, which nevertheless becomes a source of nourishment and investigation. The fact that Charles Nodier, the author of the novel Trilby ou Le Lutin d’Argail – which is the inspiration of La Sylphide – was precisely an entomologist, closes the loop.
The reflections on the forms of tradition is crucial in this work. This happens at all levels: also through costumes – which were essential also at the time of Maria Taglioni, who brought in tutus exactly with La Sylphide –, but in a completely different way. Can you futher develop this?
That’s right, Maria Taglioni created an actual fashion…there was even a talk of “taglionised” hair, and besides toe shoes also tutus emerged with La Sylphide. We conceived our sylphidarium halfway between a documentary and a fashion show, or rather, a documentary designed as a fashion show. Costumes are part of the distinctive anatomic features of the characters/insects, and the audience can recognise them through the dress code. Moreover, we also launched secret and mimic missions for the audience: they received instructions on the dress code via e-mail, so that it was possible to find compatible specimen-viewers amongst the audience…a digital neo-romanticism!
In the work there are over a hundred costume changes, in a continuous transformism of the performers. In Sylphidarium the relationship between the person and the dancer, and between the character and the role, draws on the importance Maria Taglioni gave to the indentikit of the Sylph. Her peculiar physicality, her long arms and her specific technical talents influenced the choreographic language that the father and choreographer Filippo Taglioni coined for the Sylph. Here, the relationship between private life and professional life was yet another fundamental element. The costume becomes thus a tool for the dramaturgic “reformatting” I mentioned, an element which keeps the characters separated from the people, the roles from the performers. The main characters of the narration roll off from one performer to another, without ever coinciding. Maria Taglioni and the sylph are two separate entities, just as Angelo and James, Margherita and Madge or Vilma and Effie…Basically, the aim is to step up each role to dozens of alternative interpretations, so that it can be identified trhough its distinctive features, abstracting its common principles. To play a game of recognising the specimens with the audience. To transform a documentary about insects into a fashion show.
What is the role of music, which has been composed for this performance and is played live?
It is a fundamental role. We worked with the composer Francesco Antonioni, it was our first collaboration and I am extremely satisfied with it. It was a really nourishing project which unfolded as a continuous “passing of the ball” between the two us, from choreography to music and vice versa. It started out with the choice of instruments which could go alongside electronic music, embodying the dialogue between the terrestrial and the aerial element: percussions on the one side – terrestrial and connected with impact and contact – and the violin on the other side – intangible, high, and a symbol of ascent towards the sky. The references on the composition start from the Chopiniana in Le Sylphides, but they remain distant, they appear and disappear digested into a new composition, unpredictable, with a mutable energy.
The voice of Francesco Antonioni, who is also a radio editor, is that of the documentarist and of the host of the fashion show at the same time, describing the specimens and the models. The musicians performing live are a look on the world which is moving on the scene and a fuel at the same time: they are the rythmical tamers of the bodies, which commit suicide in the fatigue of the last act. I think that the music created for Sylphidarium has the rare virtue of keeping up a strong energy and enjoyability despite its compositional complexity, being able to change its tune drastically and mingle with diverse musical worlds without fear and without losing its coherence…and it is contagious!
You have had several training and work experiences abroad, but you established your company, CollettivO CineticO, in Italy. Now, ten years on, what do you think has changed in dance in Italy and abroad?
I was very attached to my hometown, and Italy has always been an inspiration for me. It is a widely shared view that it is difficult to do art and culture in the “Bel Paese”, the “beautiful country” (as Italy is called): I agree. Respect for the worker, protection and ability to take the work to its full potential: the comparison with other countries is hardly acceptable.
The evolution of CollettivO CineticO and of the amount of work over these ten years has been such, that it is difficult to make a totally objective comparison. I think that ten years ago the difficulties of the Italian theatres were already harsh, but somewhat smaller: today, keeping up to the ministerial requirements and the cuts which affect us all is a continuous exercise of invention, compromise and sacrifice. I see an Italian scene which is artistically prolific, aknowledged at the international level, but always facing huge obstacles in staying alive at home and taking its work abroad.
This falls outside the question, but I dare to make a wish: I strongly wish that Italian artists were helped in circulating their works and were able to represent Italy in the world without giving up on being based here. And I wish that, being based in Italy, they contributed to the growth of the interest in dance and in contemporary art, the involvement of new, non-specialised and interested audiences.
What do you expect from this edition of NID Platform?
I hope it is useful for promotion abroad, and that it can provide dialogue opportunities with and among professionals for synergic circulation strategies of the works, which can initiate networks and collaborations at the international level.
Francesca Pennini (Ferrara, 1984) starts off as a gymnast to then devote herself to contemporary dance. She studied dance at Balletto di Toscana (Firenze), Laban Centre (London), also exploring a broad range of disciplines: from butoh to free diving, from martial arts to disco-dance competitions. She worked as a freelance dancer for Sasha Waltz & Guests. She currently gives lectures and seminars in museums, universities and art centers (Biennale College of Venice, MAXXI Museum Rome…) and she developed devices and didactics for a peculiar choreographic approach.
In 2007 she founded CollettivO CineticO with which she has created 37 productions, winning many awards: Giovani Danz’Autori Prize 2008; Rete Critica Award as Best Italian artist 2014; Jurislav Korenić Award Best Young Theatre Director 2014; Danza & Danza Prize as Best choreographer and interpreter 2015; UBU nomination as best interpreter Under35; MESS Prize 2016; Hystrio Iceberg Award 2016; Prize of the National Association of Critics 2016.