Megumi Eda in Kristal Rizzo’s Monumentum, the Second Sleep. Photo © Studio Pagi


Lugano Dance Project 2022

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Megumi Eda in Kristal Rizzo’s Monumentum, the Second Sleep. Photo © Studio Pagi
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A new dance festival with a utopian setting – and vision?

I have long envied film journalists for having one of their trade’s most important festivals on the French riviera. But dance professionals – and fans – need not be jealous of Cannes any more, because now there’s Lugano Dance Project, a new international dance festival in Switzerland at a location that easily rivals the Côte d’Azur for scenery and atmosphere. Of course, there’s more to this ambitious initiative than just beautiful views – although Monte San Salvatore almost stole the show at some of the site-specific performances – and I went to find out what that ‘more’ really is about.

Lugano Dance Project is the newest venture of LAC Lugano Arte e Cultura, a magnificent cultural centre built seven years ago as a home and a hub for national and international art in Lugano. It now hosts top-quality theatre and dance performances as well as classical and pop concerts from around the world, besides having its own museum and artist residency spaces. According to general director Michel Gagnon, LDP marks LAC’s coming of age and tries to position Lugano as an important place of contemporary art on the map of Europe. Canadian by birth, Gagnon sees the festival as a chance to lay the foundation for exchanges between Europe and North America, and accordingly, the programme features artists from both continents. The selection of the festival, curated by LAC Artistic Director Carmelo Rifici and Dance Advisor Lorenzo Conti aims at diversity in terms of dance styles, ethnic backgrounds and abilities, but not so much in terms of gender: except for one, all the chosen choreographers are women, and that has a reason too. According to Rifici, the programme was shaped ‘to remind us that in a world that has relapsed into madness, women’s bodies and voices remain the only antidotes to savagery’. A nice, if somewhat utopian thought.

As a matter of fact, the region has a history with utopias: Monte Verità, a colony of free thinkers where Rudolf Laban started a school and Mary Wigman spent her time, was founded nearby at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. LDP devoted a photo exhibition to this idealistic community, and screened Carl Javér’s documentary Freak Out! Monte Verità. Der Traum vom alternativen Leben. The movie tells the story of the colony’s foundation and the lives of its central figures, mentioning only briefly its dancer members but introducing many lesser-known characters of the era. They preached and practised free love and other radical ideas, followed a vegan diet, experimented with drugs – to sum up, they chose an ‘alternative life’, and that long before the hippies.

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Where and what might today’s idealistic communities and utopian visions be?

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Although Javér’s movie at times almost makes fun of its protagonists’ eccentric ideas and behaviour, the way it draws a parallel between the beginning of the last century and our current age (technical revolution, new media, the acceleration of life, increase in consumption etc.) made me think about where and what today’s idealistic communities and utopian visions might be. Besides being a good topic for post-screening conversations, Lugano Dance Project tried to give its own answers to these questions, not only evoking Monte Verità but also commissioning three new works that all claim the colony’s ideals as their inspirations in one way or another. Canadian choreographer Virginie Brunelle aims to examine feminism and contemporary female archetypes in Fables. Her ‘series of disturbing tableaux’ for twelve performers blurs gender roles in dramatic, ironic or weirdly eroticised scenes that contain nudity, wrestling, people on leashes, live piano, an absurd wedding scenario and many other things. It all looks like a surreal dream that could do with a little more restraint to be enjoyable.

Anglo-American Annie Hanauer created A space for all our tomorrows for three disabled dancers: one with an arm prosthesis (Hanauer herself), one on crutches and one visually impaired. They are joined by singer Deborah Lennie, who not only sings live on stage but becomes part of the symbiotic community of the performers. At first, her song lyrics about a perfect world and a hopeful tomorrow almost seem a bit too naïve and idealistic – but then what would be a utopia without all those? Naivety and idealism were two main characteristics of the Monte Verità community as well, and although their way of life failed to work in the long term, their vision has had a lasting impact, and a desire to live according to their ideals is ever-present in our society. In Hanauer’s piece, difficulties become possibilities, judgement is replaced by support and hopelessness by optimism and joy. A space for all our tomorrows makes us believe – at least for the time of the show – that nothing is impossible if we stick together, no matter what difficulties we are faced with in life.

The third of the commissioned works – that I was not able to see live – is by Swiss choreographer Lea Moro, who in Another Breath puts breathing in the centre of her choreographic work, describing the piece as ‘an acoustic-performative meditation’.

Caroline Laurin-Beaucage’s Rebo(u)nd. Photo © Studio Pagi
Caroline Laurin-Beaucage’s Rebo(u)nd. Photo © Studio Pagi

In a smart move to involve new audiences and integrate the festival into the life of Lugano, LPD took some of its projects out into the city and included more popular dance styles in its programme as well. In front of the participating venues, billboards informed passers-by about the festival and the respective performances that took place there. On the façade of the festival headquarters, a video projection was shown every night: Caroline Laurin-Beaucage’s Rebo(u)nd takes dance out of the theatre and into the open, where it is more accessible to everyone. The 7-minute piece (played here in loop) shows its performers floating between movements, strangely suspended not just in space, but also in time. The square where the screening took place, Piazza Luini, was also turned into a party space at the closing night of the festival by the cheerful ensemble of Ta Fête. A Cypher ritual: any remaining Lugano citizens who hadn’t heard about the festival were definitely made aware by Turkish-born, Basel-based Muhammed Kaltuk (the festival programme’s only male choreographer) with his contagiously joyful hip-hop piece, accompanied by a live DJ set, and, of course, a magnificent night view of Lake Lugano.

The lake, together with Monte San Salvatore, served as the background for another piece: Cristina Kristal Rizzo’s short performance, Monumentum the second sleep, specially conceived for the spaces of LAC’s in-house museum MASI (Museo d’arte della Svizzera italiana), whose glass walls look out to Lugano’s landscape. Any performer would have a hard time keeping our attention in such a postcard setting, and I often found my gaze wandering from dancer Megumi Eda’s strange mix of moving meditation and object animation to nature’s more unpretentious beauty.

Unlike Rizzo’s work, Cindy Van Acker’s Shadowpieces were not specifically made for Lugano location, but simply adapted there: into the shipyard of the city. The series of ten short solos, of which four were presented at the festival, were all conceived in close collaboration with their respective performers, reflecting on the dancers’ current concerns and personal styles. They are also accordingly intimate, and would require a similar atmosphere and our focused attention. The two performance spots in the shipyard: an iron plateau and a grassy field are doubtless spectacular, but they don’t go well with the contemplative, meticulous nature of the solos. It is Anna Massoni’s Verso that comes out best. Smartly playing with the structure of Arnold Schönberg’s Drei Klavierstücke, embodying almost every single sound, she managed to keep me enchanted even among the threatening signals of an imminent storm.

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Simona Bertozzia and Claudi Paceri in Suite Zero. Photo © Studio Pagi
Simona Bertozzia and Claudi Paceri in Suite Zero. Photo © Studio Pagi

Not very differently from Massoni, Simona Bertozzi’s Suite Zero also examines the relationship between choreography and score. She is accompanied by Claudio Pasceri on the cello as they create a study of sound versus movement, music versus silence, live music versus recording. Unlike for Shadowpieces, Suite Zero’s location couldn’t be more perfect, not only because LAC’s inner courtyard (called Agorà) looks really impressive, but also because of the birds that flew over the audience, their singing and vibrating wings blending magically into the fabric of the performance. Still, my favourite moment came during curtain call, when the two performers took their bows to an excerpt from Mahler’s first symphony: I don’t know whether Pasceri’s expressive walk was choreographed or it was only his instinctive response to the music, but it told me more about the inseparability of music and dance then any two-act ballet could.

Apart from Muhammed Kaltuk, Brazilian dancer Anna Pi also brings lesser-known dance styles and traditions into the programme with two of her shows. Le tour du monde des danses urbaines en dix villes is a performative educational project on urban dances. Through a subjective journey between ten major cities of the world, she introduces us to styles like krump, vogueing, dancehall or pantsula while she constantly changes into costumes that suit with the respective genre. Her spoken explanations are mostly lost on me (she speaks French, I don’t), but Pi’s incredible transformations – both in terms of movement vocabulary and performative attitude – from style to style still speak volumes. While she seems profoundly authentic in each and every genre, she never fails to emphasise that she’s only paying tribute to the native performers of these dances.

For her other creation, The Divine Cypher, Pi studied Haitian ancestral cultures and got in dialogue with Maya Deren, a pioneering American filmmaker born in 1917 in Ukraine. Like Pi, Deren was fascinated by Haitian heritage, studied its culture, dances and voodoo traditions, and chronicled her experiences in a book and a documentary movie. Pi’s stage is dominated by white: it is covered by tons of sugar (once a major produce of Haiti), framed by white sheets, and her dress is white too. For a while, she carries a plastic bottle on her head, wearing a plexiglass shield, while other bottles, filled with even more sugar, are placed on the stage. This – together with a small altar of Haitian objects collected by Pi and an old TV that sometimes shows Deren’s movie – adds up to a strange but organic stage setting that combines ancient and modern. The choreographer’s many inspirations are also reflected in the many layers of sound that she uses, including excerpts from interviews with Deren, while she evokes the sacred dances and gestures of the Haitian. It is evident – from both performances as well as from the post-show discussion after The Divine Cypher – that Pi always considers herself a medium of the people of whose traditions she represents on stage. And while she easily associates with any style or character, at the same time her inherent unique, graceful and curious personality always shines through – revealing a remarkable performer. After the shows, she doesn’t let us leave empty-handed: for Le tour du monde, we get a small booklet with the descriptions of the ten dance styles, while at The Divine Cypher we receive a small pocket mirror. When asked about the meaning of the gift, she just cryptically hints at the general function of mirrors. An artist who takes the task of giving quite seriously – both figuratively and literally.

The region of Ticino, where Lugano is located, seems – rightly – to be proud of its historical and cultural heritage. But they don’t just dwell on the past: they also look into the future. Lugano Dance Project is the newest example, serving the double purpose of attracting foreigners to the city with a high-quality performing arts festival, and supporting and highlighting the local community of artists. Both are quite successfully reached by the carefully selected programme, the commission of new work and the thought-provoking special programmes (workshops, round tables and discussions). Most festivals are still in the process of self-identification at their first editions, but for LDP it is already clear that its organisers have a very clear vision. Is it also a utopia? Maybe. But it is just the kind of utopia that our (dance) world needs right now. 

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25-29 May 2022, Lugano, Switzerland
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Lena Megyeri’s trip was provided by Lugano Dance Project

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