La Biennale di Venezia - A weekend of sweat, art and heat

by Franz Anton Cramer

June 15, 2003 -- Venice, Italy

No one coming to Venice in the beginning of June expected low temperatures. But that it would be so hot and glaring so early in the summer was a surprise to many of the more than 6,000 guests flocking in to Italy’s most peculiar and wondrous city. The Biennale, being a major international event, saw most of its visitors arrive two days prior to the opening for the press preview. The 50th edition of the Biennale attracted those from the dance world who do not always attend contemporary arts fairs, as for the very first time the fair comprised a full-scale dance festival, curated by Belgian choreographer and impresario Frédéric Flamand, scheduled for the very first weekend.

When has contemporary dance been so closely attached to contemporary visual art, and where would the programme be so audacious? It is doubtless a major step forward that that Flamand has been asked and that he has responded the way he did. His programme encompassed 15 companies from all parts of the world, ranging from Stephen Petronio (New York) to Cie Rary from Madagascar and from Japan’s Dumb Type to Canada’s Lynda Gaudreau. I believe it is a major step that much of the world’s most poignant and cutting edge work is presented in the context of the Biennale. For it means that the arts world and with it the oh-so-cool arts people will at least be informed about the existence of such a branch within a genre that usually is still identified just with classical dance, or at most with sweet critical spectacles as in Pina Bausch or similar tanztheater-style works.

It is against this backdrop of political achievement that the first International Dance Festival’s opening night must be considered, begun with a work by Flamand and his company, Charleroi/Danses – Plan K. Flamand has long been preoccupied with the intersection between dance spectacle and architectural reflection, between the body’s sensual input and the sculpted space’s intransingencies, and between the gestures of the flesh and of the city.

In the past, Flamand has had such prominent and achieved urban design artists as Zaha Hadid, Diller+Scofidio, or Jean Nouvel. For the new work, "Silent Collisons," Flamand's collaborator is California architect Thom Mayne. Just like his predecessors, he has constructed a mobile stage set consisting of six steel-framed shades spreading over the Arsenale’s Teatro alle Tese, an ancient construction site for ships. These shades, in the course of the work, move, lower, tilt, rise so as to infringe the dancers' space. Both enter a constant struggle for spatial dominance.

Dance-wise, Flamand's material has never been very complex. It is basically up to the dancers' decision as to how to move, where to move and when to stop. Scenographic elements are more important than choreographic decisions. That can work, as long as the visual impact of the stage design speaks for itself. Zaha Hadid's polished aluminium bridges and the complex blue-box projections doubtlessly enhanced "Metapolis." Likewise, Jean Nouvel‘s multilayered space in "Body/Work/Leisure," transparent and opaque, both hiding the dancers and caressing them at will, was a strong statement.

"Silent Collisions" does not have the power of its predecessors. Even though the dancers offer a versatile parcours of often classically inspired poses and leaps, interspersed with reasonnable modern spiralings and falls, their contribution is somewhat too sequential. They enter the stage, do some gimmicks, then leave. They have a gradually increasing illustrative function in the general set-up of Flamand's loosely knit dramaturgy. Clad in weird costumes somewhere between nightgown and Issey Miyake wrinkling, they animate the stage props like thick, almost phallic rubber objects that start to glow from the inside, showing nude females, or being just vaguely luminescent. Or the dancers manipulate two light-branches each, white poles with a bulb at the end. Or they serve as projection screens for anti-global messages comprised of the names of US cities.

Flamand's productions have set standards in combining the physical and the architectural, in triggering emotions by dissolving the common perception of dancer movement, by enveloping art and dance in so many images that something new seem to emerge: new visions, new bodies, new spaces. "Silent Collisons" unfortunately does not quite achieve this newness. It rather seems as though the artist and his collective would reiterate themselves, as though they quoted their own oeuvre without adding anything to it.


Venice undoubtedly is used to visitors flocking into its beauties in great numbers. But it remains a strange feeling of intrusion when one observes – as part of the intruding army, I have to admit – a scene like the one that follows, as happened on my arrival day to the Venice Biennale. Santo Stefano square is one of those picturesque Venetian piazzas with cafés and restaurants. In one of them, the terrace was full with artsy people and their cosmopolitan manners: discussing frantically with their cellphones, talking more or less dexterously in Italian to the waiters (who usually prefer answering in English to avoid misunderstandings, even though Italians love foreigners to talk their own idiom) and nonchalantly leafing through their printed information material.

Some – the happy few – are waiting, crouched on their suitcases, for their Venetian friend to bring the key of an apartment they are to live in during their doubtlessly important stay. (Everybody seems of utmost importance here anyway, and yet most professionals have this obnoxious "I don’t really HAVE to be here with all these people, but why should I shy away?" expression. It seems a distinguishing competence.) Anyway, with all these people on the terrazza, one table, then two, three and even four are gradually being occupied by a congregation of elderly Venetian Ladies. They meet to discuss their shopping, to have a non-alcoholic "spritz" (white wine with bitter and soda), to observe what’s going on around them without, however, paying too much attention to "these people." The waiters greet them, their merry round seems a regular institution. As an onlooker, I was glad to find proof that life in Venice is going its own pace, never mind the sophisticated (or not) visiting crowds.

This was on the first day. After the Dance Biennale’s opening ceremony with Frédéric Flamand's "Silent Collision" and ensuing night of partying by the Arsenale harbour, there was the second item on the bill one day later: Dumb Type from Kyoto, Japan, showed their largely reshaped work "Memorandom," first premiered in 2000.

The intimacies beween dance and the visual arts as they currently occur on a large scale maybe nowhere are as obvious as in this impressive, yet also hermetic work. Here, nothing is self-explanatory. The show – for this is what we must call it – contains very little dance material but offers a stunning array of videoscreening, shifting perspectives, noisescape and non-linear dramaturgy. Right on the beginning we are averted that no common spectacle is going to unfold before our eyes, that is: some kind of illusionary unity in style, narrative, aesthetic, means, or the like. Rather, we are confronted with a total shattering of all these familiar patterns. On the black backdrop, appear random words.

Videotaped human actors climb up this wall, using these words as a foothold. It is as though they were climbing up a mountain somewhere. Is it the mountain of meaning? Then a childish voice is heard reading text. As we notice soon, it is the text in full whose singled-out words we have just seen. Later, a man on a desk chair is scribbling a stage set-up and possible argument for a show on a piece of paper on his lap, which a vertically installed video camera captures for us. As it turns out, the set-up described is the one we just saw.

It is with such anti-linear devices that the makers of "Memorandom" try to interrupt the smooth flow of the performance. Of any performance, in fact. For they make a statement against the ancient rule of the spectacle that the show must always go on and that it always has a beginning and an end, that there must be "development." Dumb Type’s dramaturgical vision is rather to undermine this unfolding of sense on a narrative, or dramaturgical level, in order to put the context of any show in question and make the moments visible when performance as illusion (using storylines, characters, technical prouesse) and performance as a series of decision (when to do what, and why) collide. Watching is always a linear thing. But conveying sense can also be non-linear, can be defracted, can be a visual, instantaneous, even retro-active statement. It is in this sense that "Memorandom" has a firm standing on the visual arts ground and opens up new perspectives for avant-garde dance. It is a wise curatorial decision to present Dumb Type’s non-performance aesthetics as part of the performing arts series of the Biennale. For with it, the very arts people that seem to know so much and yet know dance so little can be teased with the very sophistication they hold so dearly.

Dance, it has to be stated clearly over and over again, is, can and should be practiced and regarded as an intellectual endeavour. It is with initiatives like this taken by Flamand and the Biennale directors that this stance can be affirmed. Let’s not forget the motto of the 50th Biennale: "Dreams and Conflicts – the dictatorship of the viewer." Is not the interest in the intense orientation towards the audience one of the main and most important aspects of performing arts? Maybe the visual arts are only beginning to discover just how far ahead the performing arts in general and dance in particular really are.

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