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Aterballetto and Mauro Bigonzetti

by Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 19 June 2000 - Better to be born an opera singer than a ballet dancer in Italy, for despite the number of highly trained classical dancers there who spend much of their careers dancing abroad more from lack of interest than lack of funding dance has always been the eternal second to opera. Contemporary dance, a mere distant cousin of the traditional ballet companies in Milan, Rome, and Florence, is even further down the social scale. However, the wind of change may be on its way.

Aterballetto, a dance company founded in the Northern city of Reggio Emilia twenty years ago, and financed by the town, the region of Emilia Romagna, and the A. T. E. R. (Association of the Theatre of Emilia Romagna-- hence the name) for the past ten years, is in the process of becoming an exciting troupe that can hold its own on the international scene since Mauro Bigonzetti, one of Italy's most interesting choreographers, was appointed artistic director in March, 1997. He is busy changing its image, and at the Theatre de Saint-Quentin-en Yvelines, where his company was appearing on their first visit to Paris, he told me how.

"When I was young, I had no interest in dance whatsoever", he said. "I was born in one of the rougher outer suburbs of Rome, and packed off to ballet school at the age of eleven to keep me off the streets."

"I thought everything was awful at first, and it wasn't until I was chosen to take part in a performance at the Opera of Rome, that I suddenly realised that here was a world of magic. I subsequently became a member of the Rome Opera Ballet and interpreted many of the great nineteenth century classics, including the roles of Siegfried and Marco Spada, but joined Aterballetto when I was twenty-three as I wanted to interpret modern works by people like Alvin Ailey, William Forsythe, Lucinda Childs, Glen Tetley, and Amedeo Amodio, the director there", he said.

"And then ballets gradually began to form in my mind, and by the time I was thirty, I was creating pieces for several troupes as well as for Aterballetto, and I gave up dancing to devote myself entirely to choreography. It was another way for me to express myself."

"Every time I heard a piece of music, whether classical like Beethoven or Purcell, or jazz or pop, images began to move in front of my eyes, engendering an emotion and giving me the structure of a work, and then I was further inspired by individual dancers, and by my relationship to them", he told me.

When he found himself at the head of the company he decided it was time to give the troupe a strong identity of its own, and to do that, certain changes were necessary not only in repertoire, but in the quality of the dancers.

"Before, Aterballetto used to dance the classical repertoire, and guest stars like Alessandra Ferri and Vladimir Derevianko were invited to dance the main roles, while the rest of the troupe made little progress in the corps de ballet", he told me.

"The first thing to do was raise the technical and artistic level of the company as it was more interesting to work with my own dancers than to import guests. Now, everyone is a soloist, and all are classically trained. The troupe is predominantly Latin, with six dancers from Italy, four from France, two from Spain, one from Venezuela, one from Syria, and then there's one Canadian dancer," he added, his sentence a tumbled jumble of attractively accented English, French and Italian.

'Different' is a word which frequently crops up in conversation. "We're working more, and harder. Differently. And I'm creating works for certain dancers, using their specific personality, and it's very stimulating that they come from different cultural backgrounds. It makes for a real exchange. It's not easy, but it's fascinating."

His inventive choreography makes eloquent use of the company members. He is creating new steps, and original, dynamic ways of moving. At each turn, there is the unexpected, a gentle touch of irony; something to surprise. It's not that his work is revolutionary or avant-garde, it's simply astonishingly innovative, and oh so unmistakably Italian!

The director, who has lived in one of the most beautiful cities in the world almost all his life is quick to point out that he is Roman before Italian. He studied at the school of Art and Architecture in Rome, and any spare time was spent meandering round museums and palaces absorbing everything around him. "I've inevitably been inspired by the works of art around me, Michelangelo for instance, and all the cultural references I grew up with and these very Italian influences are obviously present in my work. After all, dance is a form of sculpture", he said. "My choreography uses classical language. We have a classical barre every morning, and in our productions, apart from the quality of the dancing, musicality, lighting, and atmosphere are paramount."

"There are several large classical companies attached to the opera in cities including Milan, Rome and Florence, but little modern dance, so there's a place in Italy for us," he concluded.

The three works presented at the Theatre de Saint-Quentin-en Yvelines fully illustrated his point.

Persephassa (1997), to a score by Xénakis, had six percussion groups positioned at strategic points surrounding the audience. The power and energy of the music, exceptionally well-chosen, was mirrored by the vigour and passion of the dancers on stage, who came together and broke away again in a succession of strong muscular movements. Songs, where Purcell's music provided both structure and atmosphere for three dancers was most beautifully interpreted, and Furia Corporis, where Beethoven was subtly interspersed with offerings from Roberto Monari, danced by the whole company with verve, humour, and sensuality.

At a recent press conference at the Theatre de Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, Bigonzetti thanked Pierre Moutarde, the director there, responsible for introducing the Italian company to Parisian audiences. Such was their success, that they have been invited to return in March, 2001, with Mauro Bigonzetti's version of Midsummer Night's Dream, which the Italian described as a "comedy of desire".

Mauro Bigonzetti has been awarded the Danza prize for the best choreographer of the year. Simultaneously, Aterballetto, has taken the prize for the best company, and Commedia - canto secondo, inspired by the Divine Comedy by Dante Aligheri, the award for the best new work. It will be performed at the Festival of Montpellier at the end of June.

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance from Paris. She contributes to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for

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