Monday, 11 May 2015

Letter SI MUOVE (Letter is on its way) - Libreria delle Donne di Milano

The entrance at the Libreria delle Donne.

Wednesday 22 April 2015, at the Libreria delle Donne di Milano [the Women's Bookshop in Milan], there has been the event "Danza e poesia" [Dance and poetry] dedicated to the study I conducted on Martha Graham's Letter to the World, a choreographic work dedicated to Emily Dickinson.

The Libreria delle Donne is a historic place and since 1975 it has been a reference point for the debates on the condition and history of women. It was a real honour for me to speak of Graham there. The Libreria has a wide space dedicated to books, a wonderful kitchen where sophisticated meals are cooked and another wide space for events and meetings.

Preparations before the event.
Pat Carra has opened the event, introducing Alessandro Pontremoli who has engaged a dialogue with myself. Carra is one of the most famous cartoonists in Italy for her unmistakable stroke and her subtle and perspicacious humour: She is also part of Aspirina's editorial staff, the satirical online magazine of the Libreria with which I have been collaborating for about a year with my strip on la studiosa precaria, the precarious scholar. I have particularly appreciated Pat's words as she talked about the circumstances that brought us together as well as the precarity od research today. Pontremoli is professor of the Dance and Mime History course at the University of Turin, refined expert in Renaissance Dance and not only that. He is also the author of numerous publications, such as La danza. Storia, teoria, estetica nel Novecento [Dance. History, Theory, Aesthetics of the Twentieth-Century]. With Alessandro, whom I have known for nearly a decade, we have talked about Graham, Letter to the World, dance, the complexity of the reconstructing process and, thanks to the questions of the people who came (formidable people!), we also talked about Isadora Duncan and the little known and still too little explored Italian modern dance. Ane we also discussed about Graham's unusual portrait of the Virgin Mary in primitive Mysteries and showed some videos, such as the iconic Lamentation and some extracts from Letter to the World. It has been a really beautiful event, very rich in stimuli and reflections. I thank again the Libreria and Pat Carra for having organised it and all the people who were there for having turned it into a special moment. 

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Moving Without a Body - Digital Philosophy and Choreographic Thought

Stamatia Portanova, Moving Without a Body – Digital Philosophy and ChoreographicThoughts, Cambridge, MIT Press, 2013.

Odette from Swan Lake is one of the most famous ballet roles in dance history and is paramount of this art. The unusual port de bras, the pondered gestures, the finitude of pointwork. Dance is about moving bodies, but what if dance and movement could be re-thought in their absence? What if movement took a life of its own and stepped away from the muscles and bones that usually create it? Odette could be captured by a camera and her movement remastered through digital technology. What would the result be? Her body parts could be altered, the pace of her solo transformed and the spatio-temporal sequence of her phrase changed.  

Before the digital revolution, there have been attempts to conceive of movement in the absence of bodies. One fascinating example is the ballet Feu d’artfice (1917), set by Giacomo Balla, music by Igor Stravinsky, a ballet that consisted of geometric solids of different colours animated by forty-nine polychromous lights, which were being turned on and off as the music score proceeded. No dancers at all, the kinetic element being created by the interplay between lights and solids. As a Futurist artist, Balla was interested in exploring the relationship between artificial landscapes and speed, and this ballet was a particularly experimental example.

With the digital revolution, the idea of movement without a body has become a multifaceted and changing reality and Stamatia Portanova’s book is an example of how this question can be addressed from a philosophical point of view. It is a challenging and significant work at the same time. Challenging, because it destabilizes, at times even in the writing style, the reader accustomed to think of dance as an embodied art form, and significant, because sometimes we need to move and, in this case, re-move the given for granted aspects of dance to see what is there to be further discovered. Drawing from the theories of scholars like Gilles Deleuze and Alfred North Whitehead, as well as the choreographic work of William Forsythe and Merce Cunningham among others, Portanova asks its readers to think and envision movement according to different parameters such as numbers and the idea of the cut. In other words, “the aim is to give to conceptual reflection another capacity: not as an in-depth excavation of subjective, bodily, human experience, but as a superficial abstraction of concepts beyond subjects, humans, and even (human or technological) bodies”. 

According to Portanova, we have to “think choreography as a movement-thought” in order to focus on “how [movement] is thought”, thus recalling Rudolf Laban’s “movement-thinking”, a notion that he described as “a gathering of impressions of happenings in one’s own mind” and as a way to focus on thought in movement terms. In both cases, we have a momentous approach that attempts to go beyond the mind/body dual system to re-consider the way we think and act.

For example, numbers can be a viable method “to capture, store, and manipulate movement, abstracting it from the body”. They offer a new way to focus on movement because they represent “a data flow that can be used to activate further physical or mental, technical or creative processes”. In this sense, numbers, as well as technology, are not cold and sterile, but “can reveal a sign of aliveness and affective potential”. According to Deleuze and Felix Guattari, numbers can be considered “as a counting and measuring tool”, which they call “numbered numbers” and which connect movement with geometry and physics. This all becomes particularly interesting when thinking of Cunningham’s chance procedure in his choreographic creation. Taking inspiration from the I Ching, Cunningham based his compositional process on numbers and their combination, such as in Torse (1976), where he focused on the different movements of the torso. On the I Ching Cunnigham said ,“it’s the element of chance bringing up something my own experience might not produce. Even though I have made the movements that will be utilized in the dance, I use chance operations to devise the continuity so that what comes after what can be a new experience”. 

Linked with the resourceful importance of numbers, there is the idea of the cut. Gestures are “always an aggregate of microgestures” and, digitally, these microgestures can be rearranged in a creative way according to a cut and paste process. Montage rightly comes to mind; I would add collage and photomontage come to mind too, as they both imply the act (virtual or real) of cutting and rearranging an image. According to Marta Magaglini, photomontage has the ability to “activate the imagination”, in that its space is multiple and dynamic. Similarly, Portanova believes that the idea of the cut can contribute to the way we think movement in the digitalised era. She notes that this idea is well defined by Whitehead’s “nexus”, i.e. “a series of disconnected occasions held together by the uniqueness of an idea”. There are various kinds of nexuses, like the “presentational nexus” or the “digital nexus” where the idea of the cut can be exemplified in different ways. In the former, it “determines the disappearance of the sequential form”, while in the latter it “implies a cutting out and a magnification, in the image, of that quantum divisibility and extensive relationality”. An example of the idea of the cut and its “intuitive logic” is Antonin De Bemels’s Il s’agit (2003), a video where a man stands against a black background moving and mainly articulating his arms in a digitally reworked choreographic pattern. It is hypnotic in the way it perpetrates the “microscopic cutting of the digital and its endless repetition”. 

Numbers, cuts, and also objects and softwares are some of the thought-provoking concepts explored in the book, a prodigious achievement where movement, devoid of  the body presence, acquires an unconventionally abstract connotation in the light of a mathematical and philosophical approach. 

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Lecture at the Liceo Coreutico in Teramo (some other photos)

Here are some other photographs from the lecture on Graham's Letter to the World that I delivered at the Liceo Coreutico in Teramo on March 25th. Here some info. I would like to thank Cristina Squartecchia for the photographs.

Opening of lecture with the question: what is a choreography?

Asking students some questions.

I asked a volunteer to show us the basic principles of the Graham technique.

Lecture finished, nice pic with two students.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Letter - REVIEWS

Two reviews (in Italian) so far have been published on my book: one is by choreographer, dancer and dance writer Stefania Zepponi, and was published on Krapp's Last Post; the other is by dance journalist Leonilde Zuccari and was published on Il Giornale della Danza. I thank both of them for their nice words and insightful comments.

Letter SI MUOVE (Letter is on its way) - upcoming events

In April and May, I will talk about my book on three occasions. Two will be a classic book presentation, one in Milan and the other in Chiaravalle (Ancona) in two of my favourite bookshops. The third one will be a lecture delivered at a high school in Macerata, a bit like the one I gave in Teramo. Here are dates and places:

22 April 2015 "Danza e poesia" (dance and poetry), Simonari talks about Letter to the World with Alessandro Pontremoli, Dance History professor at the University of Turin. Introduction by Pat Carra, renowned cartoonist and coordinator of the feminist online satirical magazine Aspirina La Rivista (with which I collaborate). Audiovisual projections, Libreria delle Donne di Milano, Milan, 6.30 pm. A buffet will follow.

29 April 2015 "Così lontane, così vicine: Martha Graham ed Emily Dickinson" (so distant, so close: Martha Graham and Emily Dickinson), Tè Letterario, Istituto Superiore "Matteo Ricci", Macerata, 3.30 pm.

2 May 2015 Simonari talks about Letter to the World with Enrico Guida, eclectic and well-read bookseller. Audiovisual projections, Libreria Il Grillo parlante, Chiaravalle (Ancona), 6.30 pm.

Lecture at the Liceo Coreutico in Teramo (Italy)

On March 25th, I delivered a lecture on Graham's Letter to the World at the Liceo Coreutico (a high school specialisedd in dance) in Teramo. Following the path of my book, I first talked about the meaning of the term choreography, to then focus on Graham's piece itself and conclude with a reflection on Graham's production in the light of the above-mentioned analysis. The boys and girls from the school have actively taken part to the lecture with questions, observations and curiosities, making the afternoon very pleasant. I truly thank them, as well as the Dance History professor at the Liceo, Cristina Squartecchia, the School Head and the other professors for the perfect organisation, their help and participation. Here are some photographs. 

Liceo Coreutico in Teramo.
Getting ready.
Me and Cristina Squartecchia.

Letter to the World - detailed synopsis

Here is a detailed synopsis in English of my book in Italian, Letter to the World: Martha Graham danza Emily Dickinson, published by Aracne, Rome, 2015.

What does the word ‘choreography’ mean? Does it just mean a sequence of steps or something more layered and complex? And what does it mean to choreograph a piece? These are the questions I ask myself at the beginning of my book, Letter to the World: Martha Graham danza Emily Dickisnon, and the book itself is polymorphous answer.

In the Introduction, I individuate a methodological approach that includes cultural history and dance studies. I also talk about my politics of location and my glocal perspective on Graham (as I lived, studied and worked both in a global city like London and in a small local town in central Italy). Last but not least, I also point out to a terminological question to designate Graham’s vision, finding a suitable answer in the word ‘choreosophy’.
Divided into two parts, the book first focuses on Letter to the World, its reconstruction, analysis and contextualization, and second, on what this analysis unveils about her work in terms of themes and structure. In some cases, this investigation brings in the work of other choreographers and intellectuals, such as Doris Humphrey and William Carlos Williams. Here is a brief description of each chapter:


Chapter One deals with the reconstruction “on the page” (that is for scholarly, not performative purposes) and explores written, oral and audiovisual documents to map out an idea of what Letter to the World was about. These documents include reviews from the first series of performances presented between 1940 and 1941, when the piece was consistently changed, descriptive analyses, like the one written by Marica Siegel, an unpublished scenario by Terese Capucilli, oral testimonies by Pearl Lang and Armgard von Bardeleben and audiovisual material, like the 1970s black-and-white video reconstruction.

Chapter Two focuses on characters and dance phrases: the two protagonists, the One Who Dances and the One Who Speaks, entertain a dialogic and fruitful relationship, while the other characters represent emanations of the poet’s personality. In particular, the dancing protagonist interprets the most demanding dance phrases of the piece, while the other characters have each a signature movement or movement quality that shapes their role.

Chapter Three is about the spoken lines and the modernist-cyclical structure of the work. The lines are fundamental to portray some of the characters and, most of all, they are particularly significant in following the development of the dancing protagonist’s “inner landscape”, as Graham used to call it.

Chapter Four is dedicated to the critical material published on Dickinson up to 1940. It also includes the analysis of two plays inspired by her and produced in the 1930s: Alison’s House (1930) by Susan Glaspell and Brittle Heaven (1935) by Vincent York and Frederick Pohl. This is done to show the interest in Dickinson at the time, and the different approaches these playwrights had in comparison with Graham.


Chapter Five goes back in time to a piece that is both structurally and thematically related to Letter to the World, Primitive Mysteries (1931). Structurally, it follows the cyclical development I have mentioned above, while thematically, it presents the white-dressed figure of the Virgin Mary. It is a work inspired by the notion of dance as ritual, a notion that Graham acquired from her study of the Native American cultures in the Southwest, a notion that poses controversial questions dealing with colonialism and primitivism.

Chapter Six treats a fundamental aspect, that of Purtianism as an oppressive and necessary force. The Ancestress, in Letter to the World, embodies this force and obliges the One Who Dances to confront her fears. An analysis of this character is done in relation to the piece and to a traditional religious community, that of the Shakers, which, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was quite widespread in the United States. Then, the examination of writer William Carlos Williams’s book of essays, In the American Grain (1925), shows his profound influence over Graham’s work, including his view on Puritanism. In the light of this analysis, the Ancestress is compared to the Revivalist in Graham’s Appalachian Spring (1944), where Puritanism is depicted in more emphatic terms.

Chapters Seven and Eight take a wider look at Letter to the World, through what I call the ‘journey motif’ in Graham. Letter to the World can be considered a journey into the artist’s creative process. This journey is a theme that recurs in Graham’s choreosophy, with different articulations, depending on the period she dealt it with. In Chapter Seven, the ‘journey motif’ is analysed with regards to Graham’s interest in North American history and, in particular, with reference to the frontier theory as devised by Frederick Jackson Turner. Two pieces will be the focus of this motif: the solo Frontier and the group piece American Document. Both of them are, in a way, connected with Letter to the World, in that they deal with North American history. In Chapter Eight, the ‘journey motif’ is transformed into an inner experience, which is another fundamental component in Letter to the World and is an aspect that anticipates many other pieces to come. One of them, Errand into the Maze, is taken as reference point, because it focuses on the journey as inner battle, through an original reinterpretation of the Theseus and the Minotaur Greek myth. The Chapter closes with an analysis of Graham’s version of The Rite of Spring as it epitomises the artist’s struggle in the name of her art, a theme we already find in Letter to the World.

In the Conclusion I investigate the still quite neglected relationship between dance and literature, a relationship that has, in part, caused the neglect of Letter to the World in the hope for this negative trend to change in the near future.