Last year at TBA, I had a big old storm of a time with Alessandro Sciarroni’s FOLK-S. It challenged so many of my usual modes of watching and responding to work, and it took me a solid 48+ hours to settle into how important and beautiful the difficulty of it really was. I wrote about the work in a kind of round-up of all I had seen at TBA:15, which happily led me to a sweet and invested online conversation with Alessandro. This year, my anticipation of his UNTITLED_I will be there when you die is palpable. He and I wrote back and forth a bit about “virtuosity”, dynamics of solitude/groups, and what it means to obsessively do stuff that a lot of people might consider a waste of time.
JH: After seeing FOLK-S last year and reading about UNTITLED…, I am seeing in these works what I interpret to be a strategy for altering the experience of looking at virtuosity, through duration. It’s like the body fades in and out of subjectivity, and over time, we realize that the real action we are seeing is just time itself. Because of the lapse of time, actions go from showy and super-human, to hypnotic and sub-human, and then finally to desperate and post-human or even just non-human. And somewhere in there, we also see simply the human…OR SOMETHING. It’s a bit theoretically epic, right!? Can I ask what your interest is in re-framing virtuosity? Does it reflect a personal relationship to success/failure or perhaps to discipline?
AS: What you are saying is very interesting. My interest for what you call “virtuosity” is anthropological in nature…I would say biological. As child I would spend hours staring at the movement of ants on my balcony: they would walk in a straight line and they would all move towards the same direction. I would ask myself “how do they do it?” “Why do they act this way and how do they know to walk in the same direction?” Today I have the same feeling when I happen to watch a group of people performing a practice based on a skill, on a virtuosity that is foreign to me (such as a folk dance, juggling, certain types of sports….). When I witness these actions, the farther these are from me, the more I discover in them something that speaks to me… I identify with some of the details. Considering the practice of juggling, we tried as much as possible to leave behind the entertainment aspect that is normally associated with the traditional circus. In our show, juggling turns into a metaphor for the performative act, of being here and now, a sort of meditation. And so, it also speaks to the fragility of existence.
JH: I love that. I didn’t know about your outsider status in approaching these skills, and knowing that feels major because suddenly I really feel like you are looking at these things alongside me, and alongside others who are, in some way, amazed by them. And I like thinking about the fragility of the action and even of the doer of that action. On that thread, I have another question: FOLK-S and UNTITLED… both show mostly male bodies (I think, at least…) in these acts of practiced “virtuosity”, and track their ability over time. Among the many strains of meaning and sociality that I found in FOLK-S, there was a faint but distinct masculinist and/or competitive kind of showmanship that popped up now and then in the durational attempt to keep going. Is this male push to succeed that I am interpreting part of what you are considering or working with in these works?
AS: For my part, there is never a conscious choice in regards to the gender of the performers with whom I work. I try to choose people based on their sensitivity, ability and on the thought of me and them as part of some sort of extended family. I need to imagine that we would be able to live together. But I understand what you mean; in the works you mention, it is possible to open up reflections about gender. To my great surprise, FOLK-S, for example, featured in a festival of queer culture. It is also true that I have done works starring only women. The reality that I bring to the stage generally resembles the one we live as a group. And so, yes, in the moment I set in motion an action that has an extension in time, all kinds of questions relating to resistance come into being, and when these questions arise in a group sooner or later we start noticing “who” has more resistance and who has less. But the acceptance of one’s limits is part of the research I do in my work, specifically in this work on juggling where the jugglers are forced – after a few minutes of relentless repetition – to “make a mistake” and let the audience see that they have failed. In that moment, the other performers create an empathic relation with the one who made the mistake, in this way trying to “save” the choreography, trying not to weaken it. In FOLK-S. instead, the rule we gave ourselves was that when you feel you are not physically and mentally present on stage, you need to be honest with yourself and with the group and leave. At first, it was very difficult for the dancers to take this rule on, but afterwards, we understood that by leaving, you release a lot of energy to the ones who stay on and you re-power the entire mechanism. Basically, to answer your question, I think I can say that this thing you have noticed might be there, but it’s more meaningful for the audience than for the performers themselves.
JH: Yes, I can imagine that. The schisms or differences can be profound, between what is experienced by the performers and how the mechanisms of representation work on that experience as it travels to an audience and becomes another experience altogether. I really like what you say about the performers in FOLK-S leaving the stage and releasing energy to those still there. The leaving is thus an act of community or support in the same way that staying is. Within another context of “community,” these works read to me often as performative poems about time, where the audience gets to spend time with exhausted and disoriented bodies on stage. What is your investment in showing the failing body? The body that walks away? The body that persists?
AS: There was a moment during the 1970s connected to the phenomenon of Body Art (of which I am a great fan), followed by a second wave in the 1990s, during which it was important to perform the artist’s discomfort in regards to the contemporary. These actions – often very extreme, aggressive, at times painful – sometimes wanted to hit the spectator, wake them up. Today we are living different times with different needs. I feel I want to encourage the spectator to leave their house, and I want to think that the theatre, the location of the performance, is a space of encounter. One of the characteristics of the performers I work with is the interest in the pursuit of pleasure. Repetition, the effort, even if at first it may seem absurd, needs to be accompanied by a desire to last in time, by a desire to take care of the practice. In my works, you can often see the performers smiling on stage, and it’s not a theatrical smile, or a choreographed one, it’s a way of collecting energy and moving forward. In the case of the jugglers, it is particularly interesting for me that they are insisting against the force of gravity, a force that they will never defeat. I find this extremely generous, crazy, touching. The body under stress in my case creates an empathy with the spectator, a proximity, an accessibility, rendering the virtuosity at the same time vulnerable and pleasant.
JH: YES. I’m so into this, Alessandro. I feel that so much of Western culture is obsessed with comfort to an almost deadening extent. I find there is so much to experience (and feel joy in) from discomfort, exertion, and difficulty. These smiles you talk about make perfect sense to me. That said, in relation to the presentation of self in both works – or the entertainment value perhaps – I wonder this: It strikes me that the repeated actions in FOLK-S and UNTITLED are traditional folk dance and juggling, respectively, which are both cultural forms that have been relegated to the realm of entertainment, and are not necessarily viewed as “productive” actions for the body to participate in. Therefore, in contemporary times of such hyper-capitalism, there might be something particularly political and even sacred about this agreement between performers to push their bodies to continue doing these tasks/actions. Would you agree? What do you see as the importance of practicing things for the very sake of practice?
AS: As I said, yes, you are perfectly right, but in my works I’m not interested in pointing fingers at something, but instead I want all levels of reading to be possible and present without judging or presenting a one-sided vision. The folk dance of the show you saw, for example, is connected to a certain hyper-conservative tradition that it would be very easy to attack or make irony of. I like to leave the controversy as it is and put the accent on what is not coherent, apparently without meaning, crazy, useless. In this sense, to be obsessed by the manipulation of objects, to wish for oneself a life of “playing” with clubs, means choosing a very radical life, looking inside oneself and accepting who one is, recognizing that one is different from others. Many jugglers, for example, begin this research process alone, then they move to bigger cities in search of a community that will accept them and allow them to continue playing. In this respect, I’m interested in putting a frame around this activity. I’m happy to show actions that don’t produce any value. I’m very interested in all this effort spent towards something that many people consider a waste of time.
JH: I think this subverting of a certain system of values around “time” and “spending” it is…extremely important. We could talk about THAT forever. Moving away from this particular work, how does your practice feel these days? What’s hard and what is sustaining you? What other artists or thinkers or projects are lighting you up right now? What do you care about most intensely right now?
AS: When I was younger, I was very influenced by contemporary art, by exhibitions more than theater, specifically by photography. The work of Diane Arbus, discovered when I was a little over 20 years old, was a great inspiration, as were some novels. My eye today is slightly more cynical with regard to art, which I regret, but times, I can still be moved by the work of others. For the rest, I’m never inspired by theoretical or philosophical texts. To get an idea, I need to see something that strikes me. It was like this with juggling: by chance, a few years ago, I was looking at the show of two jugglers, and I looked at one action seen hundreds of times before, in a different way. In reality, lately, I’m very focused on my personal life, on life beyond theater, on personal relations, on spending time with people working in fields that have nothing to do with mine. This inspires and regenerates me.
JH: Well, that absolutely resonates for me, too. I recently took a 6-month, full-time cooking job to simply add real variance to how I am/was forming my life. The people and experiences I am having outside the art and performance world are actually knocking me over with goodness. I feel grateful.
Okay, Alessandro: lastly, what do you want to do while you are in Portland? There is so much food to eat and so many people to love. What ever will you do?
AS: Last year, I had the opportunity to experience the pleasures of the kitchen and the beauty, kindness and friendship of the people of Portland, so I’m sure I will not get bored at all! For the rest, I hope I’ll have the opportunity to spend time with someone as special as you!
JH: (……………faints dead cold from blushing and breath-taking swoons…)