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HIGH CONCEPT; DEEP IMPACT: Balletto Teatro Di Torino's Primo Toccare

Brightly lit, the stage gives the chill of a museum or mausoleum, set center with a long, low vitrine showcasing a silver skull and two bunches of white lilies. Flanking it, farther upstage, are two empty, taller vitrines, even more chilling in their stature’s promise and refusal of a human offering. It is into this installation—which references mortality with symbols as ancient as early Christian catacombs and as contemporary as Damien Hirst’s taxidermy—that dancer Yi Chun Liu walks onto stage. She wears a second-skin sheath of tight, white undergarments that disdain to mask her nipples, giving a cool promise of sexuality—but not sensuality.

Liu’s opening movements are exploratory, a bit rigid, and highly informed by the pelvic contraction. She is like a child android, learning to use her limbs. Soon, she is joined by Manuela Maugeri, and they work in a highly evolved canon to an electronic, often rhythmless sounscape (compiled by choreographer Matteo Levaggi from offerings by Lilith, Orbital, and Mika Vainio). More dancers take the stage. Their work is extremely physical, but without emotion. The occasional touch between them is cool and hard—the palm of the hand only, and against flesh that does not give. We think of the cold sex appeal of the drugged fashion model, and, from the wings, two tall, pale girls emerge, dressed in short white ruffles and five-inch heels. They step into the empty vitrines, remaining there, unmoving, for the remainder of the act.

As the dancers move in and out of time with each other, we are offered visions of a seductive dystopia: a future in which we exist, but don’t live, don’t feel. Their white-clad bodies move in white space like grains of white cocaine flying up through the icy models’ nostrils, or photons of white light hurtling toward a blank surface only to bounce back. Like loud white noise or the flickering stains in a projection of blank film, the dancing achieves a static freneticism. The bodies breathe—their garments disclose the shuddering concavity strung between ribs and pelvic bones—but in a way devoid of breath’s life. The jumps and turns that typically indicate joy are exchanged for the detached anti-drama of Cunningham.

Following an intermission, Act II – Black proposes a foil to Act I – White. With respect to light, white contains the full spectrum of color, while black discloses its absence. With respect to pigments, insofar as white is the blank page, black is the presence of all colors. Here, black offers a kind of fullness where white was empty. The music, selections from work by Arvo Pärt (again compiled by the choreographer), offers the warm, acoustic vibrations of strings and human voices—actual breath. But on the black stage under silky streams of feeble light, we cannot see the dancers breathing in their black tunics. Their movements are now more decadent, voluptuous; their touch softens, lingering on each others’ bodies, no longer just the palm of a hard hand, but the entire length of the tender inner arm.

The set, too, has changed. The stage is empty but for one large vitrine in the center, planted with the same two models, side-by-side in black ruffles and lace. The plexiglass that once separated them fully from the dancers and audience has been dropped to the level of their waists; it cannot contain them. They stand behind the glass as if it were a guardrail, staring blankly ahead, waiting. No longer statues, they are now subjective beings, albeit with minimal expression.
Italian artists corpicrudi use installation to structure the performance space not only within the context of art history, but within that institution that has funded so much of art history—particularly Italian art history: the Catholic church. Subtly, we are confronted by the aesthetic of that religion. In Act II, the models stand as if at a communion rail, placing the dancers before them in the space of the clergy, and the audience in the space of the crucifix—the representation of God. In Act I, the vitrine showcasing Vanitas, the skull and lilies as symbols of our mortality and vain folly, is an altar, which structures the theatre in the same way. At the act’s conclusion, the tallest of the men performs something not unlike an incantation behind it, offered to us. For the performer, the audience is god.

Rarely does a piece manage to offer concept without sacrificing movement, or vice-versa. Primo Toccare investigates aesthetics as coyly as it investigates the human form, without getting caught in a conceptualist ouroborus that stymies generous movement. Here, through collaboration, Levaggi is able to focus on generating deeply physical explorations of the body, while corpicrudi’s installation provides a frame of reference, embedding that body in an aesthetic history. The theatre born of this perfect synergy is completely open, free of narrative or polemics, a call to the curious. The best conceptual art offers the mind not only an invitation to wander, but the inspiration to send it off in an interesting direction.


Dalia Ratnikas

DALIA RATNIKAS is a sometimes-dancer sometimes-writer who enjoys playing with her toes and twisting her body like a pretzel. You can also find her at dahlhaus.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2009

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