This article originally appeared in Stance on Dance.
As a dancer, my physical reality strongly influences who I am, how I move and think. Knowing this about myself, I make an effort to travel and put myself in new situations – whether a different culture and country, or seeking a rural environment as a contrast to my customary urban existence. This past June I joined the Dancewoods Festival in Italy as an artist in residence, spending one week developing a new solo at the Drama Teatro in Modena, and a second week dancing and performing in the remote hill town of Gombola in the Apennines.
Dancewoods is a family endeavor. Marianna Miozzo, the director of the festival is the main liason with the artists and participants, her mother runs the kitchen, and her sister handles the administrative aspects. When I asked her how the festival began, Marianna mused, “You know when you have a wish, and you say I would like to do that, you just keep saying that for a while. And then I expressed that to my family, and my father took me seriously.” Inspired by her experience as a participant in other festivals, which “opened everything for me, emotionally, physically, socially, many things all together,” Marianna initiated the first edition of the festival with the intention to create a space for training, community, and artistic transformation. “I had the possibility to have a space on my farm and close people who wanted to help me. It was bigger than me from the beginning. But that worked for the first edition, and afterwards I couldn’t say no.”
From that first edition on Marianna’s family farm in Maranello, just outside of Modena, the festival grew. This past year, the fourth edition, encompassed a week of performances at the Drama Teatro in Modena and then a week of training, workshops, and community in Gombola, in the hills. This year was also the first time the festival hosted an artist in residence (me!), for the two week path.
My week in Modena was largely self-directed. Far away from friends and family, I felt isolated and out of my element immersed in this beautiful small city (as the drawing from my notebook shows). As a result, I went deeply into my own creative process. Everything around me became choreography, starting with the walk from my apartment to the theater space in the morning. Given continuous access to a studio in the Drama Teatro, I rehearsed daily, arriving around 9am and not leaving until 7pm most days. I developed my own training and warm-up to support the creation of my solo. Later in the week, I experienced the dance of negotiating time, space, and resources with the other festival performers.
The Drama Teatro operates on a huge amount of heart on the part of the Associazione Artisti Drama, which consists on Stefano Vercelli, Magda Siti, and Teri Weikel. Many small cities in Italy contain state run theaters that showcase touring productions. A space run by artists for artists is rare. The Artisti Drama receives some backing from the municipality, and they curate and produce their own season, in addition to supporting the work of the member artists. Modena has very few dance practitioners and no dance community per se. My residency at the Drama Teatro made me consider: What is my “brand.” As a result of the unstructured time, Teri’s gentle insistence, and feedback from friend and colleague Sarah Chiesa, my solo transformed. Being in a place where I had no history allowed me to focus on what I wanted to say, what was most pressing and present.
The residency also gave me the opportunity to connect outward. Many in the festival audience had not previously been exposed to contemporary dance. The failure of my language skills (I speak very little Italian) forced me to trust the communicative power of the body. I decided to include spoken text in English and distribute handwritten notecards with the Italian translation. Writing out the cards became part of my preparation for the piece. Tracing the physical words in Italian over and over again helped me gain some purchase on the physicality of the language, an intimate experience of foreignness. As I wrote the cards I imagined the audience who might receive them – how could I communicate with them and offer an opening into my experience of their home?
The Dancewoods Festival aims to expose new audiences to contemporary dance. As part of the week of events in Modena, the festival hosted a conference titled “The Body, The Context, The Spectator,” designed to provoke conversation with the local community about these elements of contemporary dance. From her experience with past iterations of the festival, Marianna “felt it was really difficult to do this operation of involving the audience that has never seen contemporary dance.” Led by Teri and an anthropologist, Sandra degli Esposti Elisi, the conference asked questions about how we see the body and space around it.
The second week of the festival detached dance from the urban context. The festival set up shop in the hilltop castle of Gombola. A carpenter friend of Marianna’s built a wooden dance floor to be installed on top of the gravel in the medieval church. We rolled out marley on top of the wooden slats and set up speakers in the church’s alcoves. Down the hill from the church, Marianna’s mother Fabrizia took over the kitchen of the podesteria (hostel), and the dancers slept in dormitories. From 8:30am until 7pm, classes and workshops were offered in the church, including Feldenkrais with Teri Weikel, technique with Jos Baker, a fantastic music and dance workshop with Ivan Mijacevic, and training with Vertical Dance, an aerial company from Venice.
I came to realize how important it was to dance in a rural place, to understand the body outside of urban space, and to see how we can exist and move and be expressive outside of the grid of a city. The project of dancing is not so different from the project of building community. The dedicated group of dancers lived and worked together for the week of the festival in an isolated medieval village. The work was dancing together and living together, and the lines blurred. On the final evening of the festival we opened the church to the inhabitants of Gombola and the surrounding areas, and a few of us, including myself, danced for this new audience.
I created a piece for the performances in Gombola, although I had not intended to make something new. It was beautiful to feel the desire to create, and then create, without the trappings of a project description, a press release, a premiere. I scored a solo improvisation inspired by the physical space of Gombola – the remoteness, the isolation, the scale of the small buildings and big vistas. I created a sound score using recordings I had made throughout the week of the birds in the morning, the crickets at night, the sound of dancers warming up in the church. I was so moved, that I moved.