A crowd of bodies of various genders, near nude, all whirling around in different states of action and agitation. The lighting is dark, and a metal scaffold looms in the background


Home and away at the Venice Dance Biennale

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Bogotá by Andrea Peña. Photo courtesy La Biennale di Venezia © Andrea Avezzù
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This year’s Italian and international commissions at the Venice Biennale contrast in almost every way

A cast of 9 semi-nude dancers arrange themselves amidst an assortment of utilitarian props and structures: two are prostrate on the stage floor, another lies across a pile of bulky black speakers, while another hangs from a metal scaffold-like structure draped with green netting. From these positions, they begin to slowly writhe, morphing between positions that are at times contorted, vulnerable and sickly, at others sensual, strong and seductive.

This is the opening of Bogotá, one of two new works commissioned via callouts for the 2023 Venice Dance Biennale. Aiming to discover new talents from across the world, one commission goes to a choreographer based in Italy (its ‘home’ turf) and another to a choreographer from abroad (‘away’), offering them production budgets, travel expenses and a world premiere at Venice Biennale.

Created by Colombian, Montreal-based choreographer and former Ballet British Columbia dancer Andrea Peña, Bogotá is naturally the Biennale’s international commission. Its opening, in which the performers continuously fluctuate between contrasting states and emotions, acts like a statement of intent for the rest of the piece. At one point, the entire cast intertwines their limbs around the poles of a wheeled metal structure, laughing maniacally as one performer pushes it across the space. Shortly after, they disentangle themselves, falling onto the floor, from where they determinedly jump upwards as if trying to reach something, their forceful skyward motions immediately followed by helpless downward crashes. Scenes such as this speak to the complex and dissonant nature of the human condition – the duality of the power and vulnerability of the human body, and how the emotions of pleasure and pain, happiness and sadness, strength and softness are two sides of the same coin. As Walt Whitman put it in his seminal 1855 poem Song of Myself, we all ‘contain multitudes’.

Bogotá itself also contains multitudes: while ‘the connection between opposites’ is the strongest, most universal theme to emerge, it also aims to address death, resurrection, and Colombia’s legacy of colonisation through Peña’s ‘queer, post-industrial and post-human lens’. At first, I worry I don’t have enough context to identify these references. This said, witnessing the cast’s almost imperceptible transition from nudity to wearing an odd assortment of sportswear makes me think of the Eurocentric notions of shame, ‘propriety’, and ‘civilisation’ that were imposed on indigenous communities around the world.

Later, one male dancer’s restrained and light-footed solo of leaps and delicate hand flourishes also reminds me of dance styles such as ballet or Baroque court dancing. Contrasting more uninhibited events that have come before it, and that still occur on the other side of the stage – concurrently an intertwined pile of dancers slide over each other’s sweat-soaked bodies, mouths open and expressive as they grab at each other’s arms, hips, and torsos – it is perhaps another reference to the historic imposition of European standards of art and beauty.

Behind five upright planks appear what look like disembodied legs and arms at odd angles and heights
Vanishing Point by Luna Cenere. Photo courtesy La Biennale di Venezia © Andrea Avezzù

This year’s Italian commission went to Naples-born, SEAD-trained choreographer Luna Cenere, whose work Vanishing Place functions as a cool counterpoint to Peña’s impassioned performance. Like Peña, Cenere works with nudity, yet she takes a very different approach. Rather than using the unclothed body as a vessel to explore human emotions and the sociopolitical factors that influence them, she deconstructs it, presenting an emotionless landscape of limbs that are revealed and concealed by the inanimate objects they perform alongside.

These ‘objects’ are a series of long, white, rectangular boards that the dancers drag slowly into the performance space. Resting them on their shoulders, they use them to hide their faces and other body parts, preventing the audience from marking any identifying features, sexes, or genders. It’s incredibly dehumanising, making it hard to form a connection with what’s going on onstage. In fact, in these opening scenes, the boards are more like performers than the performers themselves, the subtle angles they’re tilted at, and the parallel horizontal planes they move in are more attention grabbing than the humans that wield them.

This hierarchy ultimately changes when the dancers line the boards up vertically upstage, subsequently hiding behind them and floating seemingly disembodied arms and legs out from around their sides. Due to the arrangements the limbs appear in – sometimes three arms reach out from behind one board, at others they emerge at high points out of reach of the average human – it soon becomes clear there is more than one person behind each board. Not only does this create a sense of disorientation, it also invites the audience to imagine what’s going on out of view.

The illusory nature of Vanishing Place is at first intriguing and hypnotic, with choreographic configurations that make arms appear double the plausible length, or a foot to step out from behind one board and then emerge from behind another being particularly engaging. Yet, the length for which they are performed, at the same steady pace, to the same ambient electronic score, without a clear climax, means that they become repetitive and monotonous. Granted, Cenere definitely achieves her aim of creating non-anthropomorphic bodies onstage – in counterpoint to American choreographer Mark Morris’ claim that ‘there’s no such thing as abstract dancing’ – but as the impressiveness of Vanishing Place’s optical illusions wears off, I start to miss the humanity she’s erased. I also question why we would want to surrender this aspect of dance in an age where most other areas of life are becoming digitised, automatised, robotised… When the performance finishes, I’m surprisingly excited for the curtain call, and very happy to see the five dancers walk on stage, their limbs all connected to human heads with faces and personalities.. 

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