Monday, June 29, 2015

One Last Look at Danza Biennale 2015: Campo San Maurizio, Yesterday

Dancers perform Islands Revisited by the choreographer Salva Sanchis in front of an appreciative audience--and, behind it, the palazzo where Italy's greatest novelist, Alessandro Manzoni, lived for a time.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Dignity--and Thrill--of Gesture: The Biennale Danza This Weekend

Annamaria Ajmone turns the San Trovaso squero into her own stage
There are many reasons not to come to Venice right now--the immense herds of day-tripping tour groups seem more numerous and denser than ever--but one excellent reason to brave whatever frustrations you might encounter is the Biennale Danza, continuing through tomorrow, July 28.

Entitled La dignità del gesto (The Dignity of the Gesture), this edition of the Biennale Danza continues the tradition of transforming public spaces with extraordinary dance performances. Or, I should say, mostly public spaces, as one of the most electrifying of the three performances I saw yesterday took place in the suitably theatrical space of the famous squero (or boat yard) of San Trovaso: a solo dance piece entitled Buan by Annamaria Ajmone. We spectators crowded the fondamenta across the little canal that runs in front of the yard, while a few of the craftsmen who work in the yard watched from the rear of what Ajmone turned into a stage.

Other locations were the nearby Campo of San Trovaso--where six dancers performed a piece by choreographer Radhouane El Meddeb of tango-like passion and intensity (Nous serons tous des étrangers)--and Campo San't Agnese, where a troupe of ten dancers worked through the more restrained but no less compelling variations of Claudia Castelluci's Esercitazioni ritmiche (Rhythmic Exercises).

The complete program of events can be found here:

If you happen to be in Venice this weekend, I'd recommend adding some of the above events to your must-do list. 

Such public performances as those captured in this post's images, and free to all, are just a part of the whole program of events going on during the Biennale Danza, and evidence of the quality of work throughout. Though the various editions of Biennale Danza run for just a small fraction of the time that the Venice Biennales of Art or of Architecture occupy the city (typically just five days as compared to six or seven months), they're no less worthy of planning a visit to the city around. And they may even change the way one looks at those other much larger troupes of (tourist) bodies engaged in their own implicit and mysterious choreography within the city's venerable spaces.

There was no shortage of drama in Radhouane El Meddeb's Nous serons tous des  étrangers
The restricted movements and patterns of Claudia Castellucci's Esercitazioni ritmiche created another kind of drama

At a certain point of the performance a water taxi driver (bottom left) pulled his boat with his fares into the canal between the dancer and the audience (a perfect view!)--but, after an immediate outcry from the audience on the fondamenta, wisely retreated
While oblivious to such action as above, a man in a linen suit, entirely absorbed in texting, began to cross the stage of Campo San Trovaso during the middle of the performance. Quickly redirected by security, the man continued to furiously text, never once looking up as he went on his way--to the amusement of the dance's audience.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Shylock Project

Renaissance scholar, best-selling author, and National Book Award winner Stephen Greenblatt speaks about Shylock at Fondazione Giorgio Cini on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore this afternoon
In anticipation of next year's 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare and the 500th anniversary of the founding of Venice's Jewish Ghetto, a series of performances and lectures organized under the name of The Shylock Project are currently in progress at various sites around Venice.

The ultimate aim of all of this summer's activity involving students, actors, scholars and writers is a major full-length production of The Merchant of Venice performed in the Ghetto itself in 2016. But the activities open to the public this summer are, like the entertaining lecture I attended this afternoon on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore by Stephen Greenblatt (one of the world's great Shakespeare scholars and author of the books Will in the World and The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, among many others), themselves major events.

One of the highlights of this summer's activities will surely be tomorrow night's performance of select scenes from The Merchant of Venice by New York's Colombari Theatre Company on San Giorgio Maggiore at 9 pm. But the full list of events open to the public--the last of which occurs on July 10--is worthy of consideration. A link to the complete list, and more information on the project, may be found here:

Additional information on both this summer's activities, Venice's Ghetto and its history as inspiration for them, and the plans for 2016 written by the project's driving force, Ca' Foscari professor Shaul Bassi, can be found here:

For lovers of Shakespeare and of Venice, for anyone interested in the history of the Ghetto and its representation and the complex history of Jews in Venice, this is a fantastic project.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Michelle Obama Visits the Venice Biennale, Today

The Obama water taxi surrounded by just some of its security forces (which did not, however, include among them the vaporetto at right)
Michelle Obama, her two daughters, and her mother are visiting Venice this weekend and though, according to press reports, they're hitting sights like the Palazzo Ducale and the Basilica of San Marco that are on the top of every visitor's itinerary, they're doing so with a lot less company and infinitely more security than the average tourist--or even Hollywood celebrity. No waiting in tickets lines or tourist crushes for America's First Family. But of course no privacy or freedom of movement either, and I don't think I'd like to give up the latter just to avoid the former (not that anyone's giving me the choice).

And unlike George Clooney and Amal who during their wedding weekend waved to crowds lining the canals as if they were heads of states (or the freshly-elected Doge and Dogaressa), the Obama women have been pretty hard to get a glimpse of, traveling in a water taxi surrounded by a small fleet of security, including a good half dozen police bouncing over the waves in advance, on the flanks, and behind on jet skis.

Today the Obamas stopped in at the Venice Biennale for just over an hour, arriving via the San Pietro Canal, visiting the American Pavilion where they met with artist Joan Jonas whose work is on display there, then visiting some of the pavilions located on the island of Sant' Elena, on the other bank of the San Pietro Canal, which include Brazil, Egypt, and Venice. The western end of the Biennale's grounds in the Giardini Pubblici were closed off to other Biennale visitors during the Obamas's visit, while, of course, the rest of the grounds were off limits to the Obamas themselves because of security concerns.

I saw the Obamas pass by on their way to the Biennale beneath what's called the "Fireman's Bridge" that connects Sant' Elena to the rest of Castello. Then a little while later, I walked to the other of Sant' Elena's two bridges to see if I might not get a photo of them leaving the Biennale. A few other photographers were already stationed there--pros with their telephoto lenses--and I sat down beside them and waited. I realized that to get from the American Pavilion to the rest of the pavilions at the western edge of the grounds they would have to cross an iron bridge clearly visible from where we all now sat. Alas, the photographers told me they'd already crossed it.

Now it was just a matter of waiting for them to get into the water taxi to leave. We all had a clear view of that, too, so the prospects for me, in my role as would-be paparazzi, seemed fairly good.

One paparazzo announced that the Obama's water taxi had started its engine and they all aimed their cameras.

Then one of the photographers, almost as if he was talking to himself, quietly identified each person who entered the water taxi leading up to the appearance of the First Lady: una figlia [a burst of shutter activity]... altra figlia [another cluster of shutter bursts]... Then Eccola! and a frenzy of shutter activity. Then la nonna...[a respectful if half-hearted bit of shutter noise]. Then un' amica... [just a click or two, out of habit]. And that was that.

I kept watching the water taxi in the distance, watched it pull away from the bank, then heard a photographer beside me curse once quietly. I wouldn't know why until I got home and looked at the photos and discovered--as you'll see below--that because Michelle Obama was wearing her shoulder-length hair down today, during every moment of her graceful descent into the waiting taxi it covered her face as completely as a curtain.

But I didn't know this at the time, didn't review the images I shot. 

Instead, the paparazzi all departed together. The Obamas, surrounded by their extensive, heavily-armed security detail, were (according to rumor) on their way to their lunch at Ciprianni on Torcello. And I went home to my own, walking in the warm sun of anonymity.  

A closer view of the taxi, with Michelle Obama in the shadows, her two daughters seated at rear
Some of the heavily armed escort
One of the Obama daughters enters the water taxi after a visit to the Biennale
Michelle Obama is helped into the water taxi

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Union of Fire and Water--and of Venice and Baku, Azerbaijan--at Ca' Barbaro

The entrance hall of Ca' Barbaro, with video by Almagul Menlibayeva on right wall
The exhibition entitled The Union of Fire and Water by the two Azerbaijani artists Almagul Menlibayeva and Rashad Alakbarov, which now fills most of Ca' Barbaro's piano nobile (and continues until November 22), manages to tell a story with the far-ranging sweep and drama and pathos of the best of historical novels.

Taking as their starting point the fact that the Venetian ambassador Giosafat Barbaro (1413-1494) "traveled to and wrote extensively on Azerbaijani cities and the court of Shah Uzun Hassan" (from exhibition's press release), the artists position Venice and the city of Baku as the two poles of an extensive series of cross-cultural exchanges, and conflicts, stretching from the 15th century to the 20th, when the oil magnate Murtuza Mukhtarov built a grand Venetian Gothic style palace in Baku for his beloved wife.

Having served various functions since its construction in 1912, the palace now houses the main marriage registry office in Baku, according to the press release, and is known as the "Palace of Happiness". Though the romantic tale of Mukhtarov and his wife did not itself have a happy ending. Just eight years after the palace's completion, Mukhtarov commited suicide after fighting against (and killing some of) the invading Bolshevik forces.

The Union of Fire and Water is an ambitious and interesting exhibition that manages to more than hold its own within storied rooms once frequented by Henry James, Robert Browning, Monet, Whistler, and John Singer Sargent. 

Much more information on the exhibition and artists can be found here:

For those interested in an intimate (and pocket-sized but very nicely produced) introduction to Ca' Barbaro itself during the years when Henry James stayed there, I'd recommend Letters from the Palazzo Barbaro (Pushkin Press), which includes not only letters written by James himself, but is rounded out with letters from members of the Curtis family that provide interesting glimpses of their celebrated guest.

A previous post on a prior visit to Ca' Barbaro--when the palace's rooms were filled not with new art, but with the furniture of the present owners, and which includes images of the palace's courtyard made famous by its appearance in the BBC Brideshead Revisited--can be found here:

A final note: The famous high-ceilinged salone depicted by John Singer Sargent in his portrait of the Curtises (an image of which is included in the earlier post above) is, unfortunately, not open to the public during the present exhibition. Though there is a link in the post above to a website with images of the salone.

The grand central hall or portego with a weathered metal house of cards sculpture by Rashad Alakbarov, Precariousness of History, that introduces a central theme of the exhibition. (Also of note, a large ceramic stove near rear windows: a heating source that WD Howells, writing in the 1860s, describes as being generally unheard of in Venice palaces.)
Stucco work above a door of the portego with satyr-cherubs
Rashad Alakbarov's stairway maze, Untitled (Omnes Viae Ducunt Venetias)
Alakbarov's installation Do Not Fear
A detail of a stucco ceiling
Stucco work above a door
A detail of a stucco ceiling
An Alakbarov installation with mirrors (with "I WAS HERE" reflected on wall at rear) in the palazzo's dining room
A detail from the dining room ceiling
An Almagul Menlibayeva video installation in which a sea appears to surge just outside the palazzo's windows (in another room, another pair of "video windows" create the illusion that the city of Baku itself lies outside the palazzo)
A detail of Menlibayeva's and Alakbarov's melancholy installation Conclusion