Embracing the Foreignness of Contemporary Dance in Care Homes. An Interview with Choreographer Matteo Marfoglia by eva marloes

As the lockdown confined us into our homes, choreographers and performance artists began exploring how to do dance digitally. Choreographer Matteo Marfoglia decided instead to bring socially-distanced dance to people who were especially vulnerable: people in care homes and in hospitals.

The project, funded by the Arts Council Stabilisation Fund, is an adaptation of Matteo’s 2016 show Crossword, which was a co-production between National Dance Company Wales and Festival of Voice, uses dialogues as music. During lockdown Matteo kept trying to think of what he could still do without necessarily using video, as soon as it would be legal to do so. He says,

“A lot of arts was going towards the digitalised form. I couldn’t find myself in that world yet. I asked myself ‘What can I still do that makes me feel I can contribute something and which doesn’t necessarily need to go digital’?”

“I woke up at three in the morning and said ‘we can do that!’. There is no contact between dancers in Crossword. I began to think of what places might be in most need of art. I initially thought of hospitals and health settings.”

Crossword became an opportunity to bring dance to people who might be at a particularly vulnerable time in their lives, but also people who might have never seen contemporary dance. That included one of the residents in a care home, who was a 94-year-old ballerina in the Royal Ballet.

“She was a dancer in the Royal Ballet and her daughter was also a dancer in the Royal Ballet. She said, ‘I have never seen contemporary dance. I’m so glad I got to see contemporary dance.’.”

Matteo tells me that the music gathered people like an invisible smoke insinuating itself inside the hospital. He says,

“In hospitals, chefs from the kitchen and nurses were clasping a cup of tea on their break came to watch the show. They were watching it through the windows so there was no interaction. For residents in care homes, the show was also an opportunity to be outside and talk to someone they didn’t know, and watch something new to them. Some people had never seen contemporary dance.”

Matteo wondered how best to enter that world with dance and movement. He felt it was a little ‘naughty’ intrusion because people would normally expect the beautiful music and graceful movement of ballet. They got something very different: an emotional journey that goes beyond a story and uses words as music.

In Crossword, the music is made of dialogues in the Italian language. The show was first designed around the theme of voice, to be part of the Festival of Voice. Matteo wanted to explore how to turn dialogues into music.

“At that point I was interested in dialogues and how voices in dialogues can be music, not just as a song or needing an instrument. I worked a lot with Italian dialogues, taking fragments from different conversations. From that we created a soundtrack.”

“The dancers were all British so they didn’t understand what was going on and I didn’t tell them.

We really used it as music. We devised the show for them to respond physically and emotionally.”

The first reaction in most audiences was the search for meaning and some found it frustrating. He tells me,

“We always look for meaning in language for us to connect to it. How can we find a way to emotionally connect through a language that we don’t understand, through something that is not the meaning, so is it the tone? The speed in which people talk, which triggers an emotion?

“For me it was trying to connect both the performers and the audience to an emotional state which goes beyond the literal understanding of words, but more about how the words are being said.

“One of the residents said ‘once the journey started I forgot that that was language.’ Once they let go of meaning, it started to be sound. It became an emotional journey.”

Contemporary dance is still largely ‘different’ for most of us. It has no straight narrative, or no narrative at all. For many, it is like a foreign language. Crossword has been an opportunity to embrace that ‘foreignness’, a ‘foreignness’ that has multiple dimensions. Crossword made use of the ‘foreignness’ of Italian language to create music and movement; it drew on the ‘foreignness’ of contemporary dance and music made of dialogues to bring the audience through an emotional journey; and it took contemporary dance to a foreign land, that of hospitals and care homes, who have been at the centre of the pandemic and where, perhaps more than anywhere else, body and mind need healing.

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