Sunday, 8 March 2015

Letter SI MUOVE - La Feltrinelli, Ancona, Italy (photographs)

The first book presentation of Letter to the World: Martha Graham danza Emily Dickinson has gone very well with an attentive audience, interesting questions and a beautiful atmosphere. I would like to thank La Feltrinelli bookshop for having organised the event, Stefania Zepponi and all those who have come. Here are some photographs.

The bookshop window in Ancona.
Me just before the presentation.
Stefania Zepponi who has presented the book with me.
The audience just before the beginning of the presentation.
A moment of the presentation.
Me showing some Graham movements.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Letter SI MUOVE - La Feltrinelli, Ancona, Italy

Letter SI MUOVE (is on its way) as a series of talks are soon going to start. On 6th March 2015 I will be at La Feltrinelli in Ancona (an important bookshop, part of one of the most significant book shop chains in Italy), Corso Giuseppe Garibaldi, 35, to talk about Letter to the World with dancer, choreographer and dance writer at Krapp's Last Post, Stefania Zepponi. We start at 6 pm. For info: 071 207 3943.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Letter to the World - book synopsis

Here is the synopsis in English of my book in Italian Letter to the World: Martha Graham danza Emily Dickinson edited by Aracne and just published:

Letter to the World (1940-41) is a little-known choreography Martha Graham dedicated to Emily Dickinson. Studying documents of various kinds (written, oral, audiovisual), Rosella Simonari intends to reconstruct it and place it in its context according to a cultural historical perspective which includes microhistorical and choreutic analysis. The result is powerful and unusual for the time, as Dickinson's poems were still published in an altered form with respect to the original and criticism on her was not fully developed. From this study different little-explored if not ignored aspects of Graham's work emerge, like her fascination with the Virgin, the importance of Puritanism and the "journey motif", that is the obstacle-filled path that the artist goes through to complete his/her work. We find these aspects in other Graham's dance pieces (such as Primitive Mysteries, Frontier and Errand into the Maze) and in those of other choreographers, writers and intellectuals, like Doris Humphrey, William Carlos Williams, Frederick Jackson Turner and Joseph Campbell.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Letter to the World: Martha Graham danza Emily Dickinson

My book in Italian on Martha Graham's Letter to the World has been released. Here more info in Italian. Soon I will post more info in English.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Martha Hill and The Making of American Dance

JanetMansfield Soares, Martha Hill and The Making of American Dance, Middletown,Wesleyan UP, 2009.

When most people think about dance, they picture a ballerina fluctuating in the air. They think of a moving body. They do not usually think of what or who made that possible. However, the conditions and, most of all, the people who make dance (and art in general) happen are fundamental and to focus on them is as fundamental in order for us to think of dance in a more articulated manner. 

Martha Hill was one of them, she belongs to that group of people who we can considers standing in the wings of dance while dance is taking place. More precisely, Hill was The person who made dance happen in the United States for many decades. As a dance professor and educator, she had it fully inserted in the university curriculum, organized one of the most important festival for modern dance, the Bennington Festival, and established a solid dance department at the Julliard School at Licoln Center.

Janet Mansfield Soares, who personally knew Hill and had access to unpublished material, has written an insightful biography, rich in precious details and remarkable analysis. It is as if a huge gap in dance history had been finally filled up. Thanks to her determination and knowledge of the field, Hill succeeded in strengthening the legitimation of dance among the other art forms, thus giving it visibility and respect.

Who was this strong and powerful woman? She came from the MidWest, never had a tight relationship with her family and was not much interested in marriage. She studied gymnastics and dance at the Battle Creek Normal School of Physical Education where she graduated in 1920. In 1927 she went to see Martha Graham perform, was converted to her approach to dance and decided to go and study with her in New York. It was in this period that she began to understand that dance “must establish itself as a separate art form” in order to be fully recognized. It was the same convinction Graham and other modern dancers had, but Hill stopped dancing and dedicated herself to teaching and working towards the thorough presence of dance in the academic curriculum.

That is why, along with her teaching role in various universities (like the University of Oregon and New York University), in 1934 she managed to organize the first season of a pivotal festival for modern dance, the Bennington Festival, held in Bennington, Vermont. According to Hill, modern dance was not a movement but a “point of view” and, in the 1930s, it badly needed affirmation and recognition. Hill, together with a set of committed collaborators, gave it this chance at Bennington. At Bennington College, a small college for women, she had begun teaching that same year. The Festival put together the big names of modern dance, like Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Widman and Hanya Holm. They would teach classes but also work on choreographic pieces that they would present at the end of the Festival. Together with them, other important figures taught there, poet Ben Belitt, mythographer Joseph Campbell, dance critic Joseph Martin, set designer Arch Lauterer and composer Louis Horst, among many others. The atmosphere at Bennington was unique and its focus on modern dance a successful experiment that led other institutions to do the same. It lasted until 1942 with a year’s stop in 1939 when the Festival was moved to Mills College in California. It was then organized at Connecticut College under the name American Dance Festival and since 1978 it has found a new home at Duke University in North Carolina.

In 1950 Hill was contacted by William Schuman, composer and director of the prestigious Julliard School of Music in New York, “to design and direct a dance division for the music school”. That was the beginning of another crucial adventure for her and for the establishment of a tradition of dance at University level. Hill succeeded again, not without overcoming difficult obstacles dealing with budget, space facilities and the relationship between ballet and modern dance. In particular, with regards to the last one, she had to fight a controversial fight with impresario, writer and ballet sustainer Licoln Kirstein who was championing George Balanchine’s ballet style and dismissing the relevance of modern dance at Julliard. At Julliard, Hill always supported a wide range of dance styles and techniques, among them ballet, but she was resolute in not giving modern dance up. She won and modern dance continued to be taught in the department by steadfast choreographers such as José Limón and Anna Sokolow. Ballet teacher was and remained choreographer Antony Tudor.

Soares also gives us a thorough picture of Martha Hill’s personal life with her unconventional and close friendship with Mary Jo Shelley, her alter ego in organizing the Bennington Festival and many other enterprises and with her deep love for Thurston Davies, known as Lefty, president of Colorado College and a married man who married Hill after his divorce was over.

In his 1936 book America Dancing, Martin exemplified Hill’s maverick and vital personality and choices: “She could have made a successful career as a dancer…for she has a definite flair for movement and an exceptional gift for composition, but education is her paramount interest, and for it she is uniquely equipped”.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

The bull, the cow, the rhythm and the dancing

RomaEuropa Festival, Auditorium della Conciliazione, Rome, 25 September 2014, h 21

Khan and Galván, photo Jean Louis Fernandez.
There is a bull and a cow ('toro' and 'baka' in the title), there is violence and peace, there is flamenco and kathak and there is a bit of Spain and a bit of India in Israel Galván and AkramKhan’ Torobaka that opened the Romaeuropa Festival 2014. Stereotypically Spain is associated with flamenco and bulls as India is with kathak and cows, but this piece is a lot more than that, it is entering a dimension where excellence, irony, intensity, confrontation and rhythm mix in a superb performance.

To begin with, Spanish dancer and choreographer Galván’s flamenco is and is not flamenco, it is rather a remarkable style that deconstructs it from the inside, breaking its lines and bringing its percussive nature to an almost airborne level. Then, in his thought-provoking choreographic work, Khan’s kathak is reinvented and mingled with contemporary dance, giving a sense of rootedness and three-dimensional quality to the moving body.

It goes without saying that the departing images have already been s/mashed and overturned, because Torobaka is about meeting the Other and is also about going beyond that, going beyond symbols and stereotypes to reach the pulsating rhythm we all live in. Shall we call it a duet? Galván and Khan are the two only dancers onstage and they do interact a lot, but the term ‘duet’ only makes sense if we multiply it, if we turn it into a layered series of others that play a fundamental role in the piece: I am referring to the two musicians, Bobote and B. C. Manjunath, the two singers Davide Azurza and Christine Leboutte and to rhythm and sound production.

The piece is made of various sections and takes place on a stage which is for most of its part covered by a circular platform surrounded by the musicians and the singers. At the beginning, Galván and Khan are both barefoot and confront each other, exploring space and sound. They both wear the same costume, a tunic that recalls kathak and tight trousers that can be associated with flamenco. Perfect is the ‘dialogue’ between Galván’s feet articulation and Manjunath’s percussion.

Azurza, Galván, Leboutte, photo Jean Louis Fernandez.
Then Galván puts his flamenco shoes on and performs a solo outside the circle, front-stage right, with a microphone. Again Manjunath is his alter ego, playing with his movements as Galván plays with Manjunath's vocal sounds. Irony is a key feature in Galván’s dancing, irresistible is the moment when he points his finger upwards exclaiming “E.T. phone home”. This is flamenco with a bit of comic relief! When he performs a zapateado (flamenco footwork) inside Khan’s kathak set of bells, we know a change of scenery is going to occur and Khan is going to appear.

In the third section, Khan is down to the floor with a pair of flamenco white shoes on his hands. He plays them against the stage floor, against each other alternating their sound with the one produced by his knees and head. It is as if sound ran through his body and could be created by everything he has or is. Instead of Galván’s irony here we have a profound movement density, even when he entertains a ‘dialogue’ with Bobote, who takes the flamenco shoes from his hands, throws them into the wings and starts playing las palmas (flamenco hand clapping) provoking Khan to respond. And Khan sits down on a chair and dances a seated dance.

After this, singers and musicians take the stage in a beautiful ensemble. Singers Azurza and Laboutte are phenomenal throughout the whole piece, singing songs from as different traditions as Italy and Spain. On some occasions their chanting seems to slow the dancing down, creating an unusual unbalance, but their bravura is impeccable for the aural background of the two performers.

The last section is an explosion of movement, sound and rhythm with Khan particularly in tune with Manjunath’s percussion, Khan's ghungru (ankle bells) reverberating throughout the entire theatre.
Rhythm is one key element in this work, a common ground for both dancers to move and investigate choreographic patterns. Historically speaking, it is difficult to trace a clear path connecting flamenco to kathak, but, according to some, gypsies left India and travelled through the Middle-East and Europe until some of them arrived in Spain. In this sense, a beautiful film documentary comes to mind, Tony Gatlif’s Lacho Drom (1993) where there is very little dialogue as the main role is played by the rhythm of music and dancing.
Khan, photo Jean Louis Fernandez.
As it often happens, we find out that what or who we considered to be the Other is much more similar to us than we thought, it is an animal we may like, a person we become fond of. In Torobaka two types of gestures remained in my mind recalling me that, the joined hands both Galván and Khan recurrently perform pointing them downward towards the floor/earth from which so much of their energetic rhythm comes, and their hugging and touching which testify to their artistic bond. According to Galván one has to kill the audience before the audience kills you, that is his peculiar motto which testifies to the violent, aggressive element inherent in flamenco, while to Khan dance is like an offer, a gift one donates to the audience, as the cow donates milk to the world in Hindu religion. Again the bull and the cow, violence and peace, and in Torobaka dance is definitely a gift so exquisite it can virtually kill.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Literature, Modernism and Dance

Susan Jones, Literature, Modernism, and Dance, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

The relationship between literature and dance has only recently began to be addressed by scholars and, during Modernism, numerous interactions took place. Susan Jones rightly speaks of reciprocity, as it was not a question of one art influencing the other, but a two-way process, where sometimes dance inspired writers, and some other times literature inspired dance. Jones's intention is to uncover this reciprocal approach, even though most of her examples focus on writers who reflected on and were influenced by dance. They include important names such as Stéphane Mallarmé, William Butler Yeats, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett. What emerges from these studies is that dance was indeed a substantial part of the Modernist literary aesthetics.

Accomplished writers like Virginia Woolf did go to the theatre to watch the ballet and were particularly attentive about it. In her work, Woolf’s “interest in spatial forms” and her way of arranging her novels according to specific patterns, can be seen as a kind of “text as choreography”, an utterly beautiful image. One example is given by her most experimental work, The Waves, published in 1931, where her “representation of a cyclical notion of history through the typographical distinction of roman and italicized passages (…) moves closer to an imagining of text as choreography, to be experienced by the reader as one ‘body’ moving in relation to another”.

T. S. Eliot's poem Burnt Norton presents an insightful dance image connected with the idea of stillness, "at the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;/Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is". Jones scrutinises this concept contextualising it within Eliot's knowledge of ballet (he went to see the Ballets Russes) and linking it to a sense of timelessness and transcendence.

Jones’s analysis of Samuel Beckett’s relationship to dance is a welcome surprise. Especially when she talks about Léonide Massine, the marionette topos in the Ballets Russes’ Petrouchka and Beckett’s reflections. Beckett quotes the ballet in his novel Murphy and, according to Jones, “Petrouchka triggered Beckett’s thinking about philosophical treatments of the issue of self-consciousness and movement”. In later works Beckett’s approach to movement became more abstract and oriented towards a “minimalist treatment” as is shown by “his ongoing philosophical interest in the relationship between stillness and mobility”.

On the other hand, there were dancers who chose novels for their work and a fertile example is represented by the experience of various choreographers at Ballet Rambert. Jones highlights that one of Ballet Rambert’s specificity was to work on narrative in order to represent the characters’ psychological insights. She aptly talks of dance drama and presents a list of significant examples, such as Antony Tudor, Andrée Howard and Agnes De Mille whose collaboration with Ballet Rambert in England is little known. The way these choreographers dealt with interiorisation recalls Martha Graham’s use of inner characterization which is quite layered and distinctive. Graham is mentioned but unfortunately no real comparison between her work and Ballet Rambert's dance dramas is given.
Literature, Modernism, and Dance is an invaluable contribution to the study of dance and literature and it starts filling a huge gap within Modernist Studies. It is not the only one, but it is one of the few and, most of all, one of the most documented and original ones. Other notable choreographers and dance companies included in the book are Loïe Fuller, Martha Graham, The Ballets Russes with a splendid analysis of both Nijinsky's Rite of Spring and Nijinska's Les Noces, Léonide Massine and Rudolf Laban. Jones’s analysis is filled with marvelous technical details and observations which do justice to both literature and dance. In particular, the above-mentioned chapters on Woolf and Eliot are revealing and riveting. Furthermore so, if we think of the persistent neglect of the subject on both dance and literary scholars’ part. The reasons are quite complex, as Jones notes, and have to do, for example, with the way dance is seen and was seen with respect to literature and other art forms.

Jones’s choice not to centre on a specific method or approach makes the book almost encyclopedic in scope and, at times, a bit fragmentary. The overall impression is that each chapter is worth a book-length study on its own and one is left with a sense of thrilling anticipation to get some more.