Local kids take the audience in hand in Francesca Grilli’s Sparks

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Slow and gentle: Santarcangelo Festival 2019

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Local kids take the audience in hand in Francesca Grilli’s Sparks
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Marie Pons
Performances at the 49th Santarcangelo Festival stir our sense of being and embodiment

An unplugged cello concerto in a Byzantine church, an outdoor cinema screening of Mary Poppins, an ongoing queer performance in a gymnasium and an attempt to save an Italian folk dance – one can experience it all in a single evening at the wide-ranging Santarcangelo Festival in northern Italy. Finely interwoven into the very lives of the city’s inhabitants, this year’s edition, curated by Eva Neklyaeva and Lisa Gilardino, is subtitled ‘slow and gentle’ and unfolds as a succession of documentary performances, participatory experiences and individual rendezvous during which the spectator’s body, gaze and feelings are alternately cared for and shaken up.

The performances centre on the Piazza Gagnelli, but also encompass schools, parks, small streets of the old town, or a deserted grocery shop. And as the festival infiltrates the city, the city itself becomes the subject of several pieces. From small performative gestures such as Valentina Medda’s Healing interventions for domestic wounds where the visual artist mends the old walls of the city by carefully placing acupuncture needles into its cracks, to the schoolchildren reading the future in our palms, experiencing the festival means encountering the living souls of the city and their peculiar, sensitive stories. Think of a gang of Italian grandmothers welcoming us to a temple dedicated to the departed grandmother of Swedish artist Markus Öhrn. Over the course of a four-year project, they had worked to subvert their role as azdora, meaning « she who rules » in the dialect of Romagna, the women being the pillar of the household and circumscribed to a certain role. They had formed a black metal band, recorded an LP, toured, destroyed washing machines and designed tattoos, among other things. Now the azdoras, faces painted white with dark circles around the eyes and mouth, are the keepers of a shrine dedicated to Eva Britt, Öhrn’s grandmother from Lapland. The final step of the project involves travelling to Lapland to gather around Eva Britt’s thumb. An adventure that goes way beyond the artistic project and, from their own words, has changed their lives as well as their families’.

In the documentary performance Lighter than a Woman, Estonian artist Kristina Norman brings to light another figure of the community: the badante – women from Eastern Europe who have migrated to Italy to take care of the elderly. Norman talks and draws live, sitting at a desk on stage that resembles her atelier in Tallinn. She and her collaborator Erik Norkroos share extracts of documentary films to give the floor to the badantes and the Italian families they work for. A beautiful and complex narrative emerges, made of a mix of loneliness, uprooting, love and sacrifice. Through this multi-media presentation, Norman manages to tackle the several layers intertwined in each personal journey, where the political meets the intimate.


The polka chinata (‘crouched polka’) of Alessandro Sciarroni’s Save the Last Dance.
The polka chinata (‘crouched polka’) of Alessandro Sciarroni’s Save the Last Dance. Photo © Claudia Borgia / Chiara Bruschini

Also diving into the history of the region, choreographer Alessandro Sciarroni undertakes a movement of preservation of the local polka chinata, traditionally danced by pairs of men who hold each other by the shoulders and start to spin fast, knees bent low. Only a handful of men still know how to dance it, so Save the last dance for me took place as a collective gesture of saving the dance’s memory – first through an open workshop, then as a performance by Gianmaria Borzillo and Giovanfrancesco Giannini, dancing to the sound of electronic music on a basketball court in the city, or late at night on a dancefloor out in the woods. Here too, a meaningful process and approach leads to a moving result in the sharing of a dance.

Silvia Calderoni and Ibenia Caleo’s Kiss is rooted in a re-enactment of Andy Warhol’s 1963 film of the same name, in which couples of different colours, genders and orientations kiss for several minutes in close up. Here, 23 young performers gather in a local gymnasium to give themselves over to a long duration ritual: kissing one another repeatedly. Kiss is the endless repetition of this one single movement, a gesture of love copied and pasted for several hours. Kiss is an open space where we can come and go as we please, stay for as long as we wish. The performers, in sporty 80s outfits with printed leggings and neon tops, keep this space very much alive by renewing the gesture over and over again, coming in and out of the space, dancing humorous short solos that resemble birds’ mating dances. As we sit on benches and cushions at the borders of the space, several impressions come one after another. Our inclusion in such a web of intimacy. A heatwave. All of them being young and beautiful, the question of desire arises. The feeling of being part of a safe space, in which everyone is able to kiss anyone, an ideal queer world. In the end, a wave of empathy and love that – when we go back out to reality – we wish could seep out to infiltrate every other layer of our society.


The youngsters of Silvia Calderoni and Ibenia Caleo’s Kiss.
The youngsters of Silvia Calderoni and Ibenia Caleo’s Kiss. Photo © Claudia Borgia / Chiara Bruschini

Another characteristic feature of the festival were performances to be experienced either alone or one-on-one. As part of the Create to Connect -> Create to Impact network, two of them were particularly striking. In Sparks by Francesca Grilli, the children of Santarcangelo take us in charge. We have a set time to meet one of them and on arrival, a child in a silver cap leads us in to sit on the floor. The peak of the cap slides down and covers the child’s eyes, who instantly becomes a kind of super-hero, as if accessing another layer of seeing, another way of meeting us. There begins a short session of palm reading that ends with a philosophical question suspended in mid-air, for us to live with when we go back into the city. Sparks is like a small disruption in the rhythm of the daily life, a pause that deeply connects two strangers for a brief time and gently shakes up habits, simply in the gesture of giving your hand – metaphorically, your destiny and expectations – to the care of a child, and listen to their words. Sparks is a timely reflection on the weight of children’s voices to be heard, mirroring real-life figures such as Greta Thunberg and Youth for Climate, who take the immediate future into their own hands.


Blue Quote Mark

A timely reflection on the weight of children’s voices to be heard, mirroring real-life figures such as Greta Thunberg

Blue Quote Mark

The second one is The Floaters by Milan-based art collective MACAO. For forty minutes, one is invited to lay down in a closed container filled with saline solution that allows the body to float completely. The installation is a constructed black rock with a cave carved inside, revealing a red bathtub. The lid of the cave closes as we enter the bathtub, leaving us to lie in total darkness, to rest in stillness. The Floaters is a moment of self-care and surrender, as well as a meditative trial, where one can experience the unusual sensation of letting go – even of one’s own weight. Going out of the cave, back into the July heat, we sense that our bodily rhythm has significantly slowed down, and notice that discrepancy with the city and passers-by. It feels as if the festival’s motto of ‘slow and gentle’ has finally truly sunk in. 

Travel to Santarcangelo was supported by the CTC->CTi (Create to Connect -> Create to Impact) programme, co-funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union


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Santarcangelo, Italy
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Santarcangelo Festival, Santarcangelo di Romagna, Italy