Observations Away From Home: On Being in Rome

By Brenda Way


Over the years, I’ve visited glorious churches, stayed in the hill towns and travelled the Appian Way, but these weeks in Rome are perhaps the first I have ever spent alone. I don’t mean to say that I never work by myself or that I don’t sit quietly in my garden, but simply that I always have people to care for here at home, an agenda; a list of things to do and a much longer list of things that are overdo. But my goal here in Rome, rather than building and cleaning, coping and scheming, choreographing and rehearsing, has been to see what comes to mind in the absence of necessity. What do I find interesting at this point?

On my first bleary-eyed day in Italy, several resident scholars and I visited Berlusconi’s Villa Doria Pamphilij, which sits virtually next door to the American Academy of Rome where I am living. The grounds of the Villa were immaculately groomed, very swept and tidy in a Japanese (certainly not Italian) way. One of the older excavators couldn’t wait to discuss which of the great heads of state had most recently strolled through these private gardens and with whom. Gossip is deliciously universal. Our agenda however was the Columbarium, the necropoli. Some of these underground cemeteries were excavated as late as the early 1980s. I suspect there isn’t a patch of this city that doesn’t still hold secrets.

After making my way down the narrow stairway, and somehow managing to avoid touching the ancient walls (not so easy with jet-lag, no railing and a new hip), we entered a large chamber with a wild mosaic floor that reminded me of nothing so much as 1950s linoleum—random patterns of brightly colored stone set against a black ground. Hundreds of dome-shaped funeral compartments, the size of a worker’s breadbox, dotted the walls, which were covered with delicate and charming paintings that gave the space a magical air. Most maintained their color (unlike the terra cotta warriors in China for instance) and depict domestic life, socializing, drinking and dancing, birds and landscape, pygmies, and a little mythology: the quotidian existence (always enticing to me), spiced with the exotic.

As we exclaimed over the iconography, our extremely well-informed guide let us know that these paintings were really quite standard; as painting, nothing to remark on particularly. Really…? Somewhat taken aback, I had to ask myself what makes a thing beautiful and who confers the value? Is it originality? Technique? Is it rarity? Is it the cognitive realization that these were created two thousand years ago? Was our aesthetic emotion triggered independent of the facts on the ground? Does it matter what the expert said? I rail all the time about the increasing loss of informed written criticism on dance and complain bitterly that without intellectual context, people can hardly appreciate the nuances of our efforts or the value and implications of the work. And here I am thinking that the beauty of these paintings feels intrinsic … “I like it a lot” feels enough. Where does that lead me? Moving on.

Tuesday’s lecture: “a prolegomenon of Roman space time.” Certainly, space and time seemed right up my alley although the word prolegomenon hasn’t been in my vocabulary since graduate school. The Romans apparently marked time as a series of “events” rather than charting it by numerical denotations. They perceived historic continuity by the sequence of acknowledged important activities: a conquest or a battle or a great leader. Don’t let the Roman numerals fool you, our lecturer warned, it was all those classical monuments that made a comprehensible representation of time passed. It occurred to me that, on a micro-scale, this is very like the act of perceiving choreography. When we witness a performance, we don’t count the beats or number the moves. We orient ourselves by the clusters of events, by the high points of human convergence or the radical change in dynamic or a powerful human presence. If nothing captures our eye in this way, we remember nothing of the work. It disappears. Ecco! No history. Interestingly, Romans conceived of their personal trajectory through time as backing into the future while watching the events of the past. As evidence, the turn of phrase in Latin: “Turn around and see what’s coming.” I have always thought of artists as being the vivid front edge of the past. Now I am moved to consider, which way are we are looking?

Last Sunday I found a small theater and a modern dance concert. My impression has been that Italian contemporary dance has something of a hard time attracting attention, up against, say, the work of the Renaissance. Nothing changed my mind on this first outing. I was enthusiastically welcomed, one of about 35 people in the audience, most of whom could’ve taken part in the unification of Italy. The venue reminded me of Theater Artaud, and the work (and its title), “Resistenza,” wouldn’t have looked out of place there. My nascent Italian can’t be trusted in the least and much of the work was spoken, but I am always willing to make up the story. The content issue seemed to be a certain reluctance to yield to intimacy in relationships. The dance language was Early Contact (c. 1973) (you can see I’m adapting to this history mode), by which I mean oft-repeated lifts over the shelf of the middle back, soft feet and many quasi cartwheel weight shifts. An intensity of facial and hand gesture, however, did strike me as possibly Italian. I was happy to be there, happy that I had spent a little time at the wine bar prior to curtain and gratified to see that Steve Paxton’s Oberlin experiments with momentum and the physics of partnering were still circling the globe these forty years later. The audience loved it.

And just to foil my earnest progress in acquiring the language—or gestures that might pass—I was back on a plane for New York after a week. In a good cause. The U.S. State Department in partnership with the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) is taking a run at the return of cultural diplomacy. A press conference was scheduled to announce their new international touring program, DanceMotion USA, that will take three American dance companies to three different cities in three different countries. Ronald K. Brown/Evidence will go to South Africa, Jawolle Willa Jo Zollar’s Urban Bush Women will go to South America, and ODC will go to Southeast Asia. We will be performing our work, interacting with dancers and non-dancers in studios, ballrooms and outdoor settings. We will be inventing together from the different materials of our radically different lives; letting go and catching up and finding out. I have to say, over and above the honor and thrill of imagining ourselves dancing in Burma, Thailand and Indonesia, it is an intense pleasure to be out there representing our current administration in Washington.

As I discovered so many years ago in our first tour of Asia under the aegis of the United States Information Agency, it was a radical experience to be in a country where dance was a language that everyone “spoke.” I remember being welcomed and feted and introduced to not only members of the royal family of Thailand but to their particular dances. (Imagine having the classic dance of the first lady!) I was touched to be in a country whose culture took our value as artists for granted, who placed dance itself in high regard. Most impressive to me, however, was the fact that the audience in general could understand our dancing bodies and were so forthcoming in response. They didn’t talk about the meaning or interpretation of the individual pieces, rather they posited what they saw about us from our dancing style; what our movement said about who we were. The words I heard most often and recorded from my conversations at the time were “optimistic, spirited, imaginative and trusting.” That list alone makes a case for cultural diplomacy. People tend to generalize from the specific and, naturally, that is the idea—our government’s diplomatic agenda. Of course, the international situation is more volatile these days. What, I wonder, will be the situation for an American dance company in Burma/Myanmar? Joe Melillo (director of BAM), recently back from his organizing efforts on the ground, assures us that great enthusiasm and curiosity await us and I believe him. My hope is for this trip to be a first step in establishing a cultural trade route of our own for emerging Southeast Asian artists; to bring them here to San Francisco and to the Dance Commons. I suppose that is also the idea.

Back on the plane, back to Rome and Italian grammar and my amazing 30-foot high dance studio at the Academy (fitted out with a sprung floor for Molissa Fenley last year). Life at the Academy is designed to support research, lots of Roman and classical of course, but also medievalists, sculptors, architects and composers. A radical new feature, evidently, is the extraordinary fresh and enticing food, much of it grown in the back gardens, that makes each meal a highlight of the day. (They tell me that dreary menus used to drive Italians away from dining here with their colleagues.) Our own Alice Waters was the agent of change—devoted as she has always been to the notion that great food would stimulate good conversation around the table. And stimulating conversation is perhaps the single defining experience of this whole place. As I close this, a wedding is taking place outside my window in the Villa gardens—guests flown in from Dubai, raucous heavy bass music splitting the air, strobe lighting, and women in saris doing little dances. It will be a long night but I look forward to tomorrow, wandering again without agenda in this ancient, modern, chaotic and inspiring city.

This article appeared in the June 2009 issue of In Dance.

Brenda Way received her early training at The School of American Ballet and Ballet Arts in New York City. She is the founder and artistic director of ODC/Dance and creator of the ODC Theater and ODC Dance Commons, a community performance venue and training facility. Way launched ODC and an inter-arts department at Oberlin College and Conservatory of Music in the late 1960s before relocating to the Bay Area in 1976. She has published widely and is a 2000 recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship and was named Resident of the Arts at the American Academy in Rome for ‘08/’09. Way holds a Ph.D. and is the mother of four children.