Democracy of the body

May 5, 2020

“Virgilio Sieni is a major international artist who inspires many dancers and performers in Italy and around the world." With these words, the Artistic Director of Triennale Milano Teatro Umberto Angelini presented choreographer Virgilio Sieni. They discussed the themes of body, gesture and waiting, which are central to the choreographer's artistic vision, and how these are changing with the social distancing measures due to the current health emergency.

At this delicate time, the choreographer is carrying out his “Lezioni sull’attesa” (waiting lessons) project on the Virgilio Sieni Company website and Instagram page. It is a cycle of events that help us appreciate the infinite possibilities that gestures can bring inside our own homes. “The idea is to work on primary elements, on small sequences that will keep us sensitive to our actions and remind us of the little things. It is interesting to get to understand how choreography can happen in a limited space.”

Virgilio Sieni, photo by Marcello Norberth

The choreographer also continues to work on is Manifesto 111 Politico Poetico dei Cittadini (Political Poetic Manifesto of Citizens 111), a project that aims to trigger reflection on how we inhabit places through the art of gesture: “Inhabiting, or how to be able to get involved as inhabitants of the world, is a key issue. Dialogue is a great opportunity that we have. This project is the result of meetings and conversations with citizens from many different places in Italy, from the South to the North. We engaged in meetings and activities about gesture and its relation with it spatial context. The project has developed along the way: we discussed and put together some very urgent reflections, about the relationships between people and the space they live in".

Compagnia Virgilio Sieni, Manifesto 111

Virgilio Sieni reflects on how the recent period, which has deeply affected our habits, has also changed our daily movements. “People are all slightly bent forward, the body gets into awkward postures. It reminds me very much of Tiepolo's sketches, when he painted his Pulcinella series. People are trying new postures and new tones of voice.”

To explain how our habits and behaviours have changed, Virgilio Sieni used a passage from the essay Tristes tropiques by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. When Lévi-Strauss was in Brazil with the Bororo tribe, he noticed that the locals used to wear some unusual glasses made of bamboo canes, with no lenses. He found out that when they saw a western preacher with glasses, the Bororos were so attracted to that object that they started wearing them as a face decoration. “People live according to a set of standard behaviours; in this period, the standard has to do with deep introspection. This means that many attitudes that we have developed in this period will remain. It will be a huge opportunity: we used to have certain gestures and certain behaviours before; now we have others. In our unconscious mind, in our dreams at night, myriads of brain muscles work together to create synapses that did not exist before. So, something is already changing between what we are now and what we used to be.” 

Giambattista Tiepolo, Pulcinella che orina, drawing, Gallerie Cailleux, Paris

Launched in 2016 in the spaces of Palazzo Te, Mantua, Virgilio Sieni’s La cittadinanza del corpo (Citizenship of the body) project is a performance inspired by the idea of inhabiting spaces. This concept brings together dance and architecture, two disciplines that had a central role in Sieni's educational journey.

“Museums, as well as churches and squares must return to have a symbolic meaning for citizens, because this is how the emotional map of the city works. The idea behind the performance was to bring citizens into the building. As their bodies set to work, even with very small gestures, the rooms regained their meaning. The human body will always bring meaning to the surrounding space.”

Compagnia Virgilio Sieni, La cittadinanza dei corpi, Palazzo Te, Mantua, 2016, photo by Gian Maria Pontiroli

During the FOG Triennale Milano Performing Arts Festival in 2018, Virgilio Sieni presented his Pulcinella Quartet, a performance that creates “a permanent workshop on the human body”, questioning our ordinary practice, from dance to our daily posture. For Sieni “Pulcinella sets a stop at every step, a sudden detachment, with people literally getting into the game like children, while at the same time maintaining a vision that is neither tragic nor comic, but it is absolutely experienced in the present moment”.

Interview with Virgilio Sieni during the festival FOG Triennale Milano Performing Arts in 2018, on the occasion of the performance Pulcinella Quartet

Virgilio Sieni gained a broad education in performing arts and architecture, while at the same time experimenting with body language and dance. In 2007 he founded the Academy of the Art of the Gesture, an innovative training programme for professionals and dancers, based on the idea of “communities of the gesture” and sensitivity towards places. He directed the Venice Biennial Dance Sector from 2013 to 2016. He works for theatres, festivals, art foundations and museums around the world, while also carrying out projects with a focus on the geography of cities and regions, involving entire communities in a reflection on the relationship between the individual and poetic, political and archeological multitudes.

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