You Can't Stop a Pandemic by Killing the Arts: a Conversation with Andrea Pisano
Photo Credits: Yani Pictures
Andrea is a Sardenian-born Italian with an incredible talent for dancing. His body moves through space with a dazzling elegance, one thousand emotions bursting from each step, each spin, each gaze. After three years of studies at the Theaterschool in Amsterdam, Andrea began his professional journey as an intern for LeineRoebana, where he has now been working for the past 3 years.
LeineRoebana is a modern dance company like no other, it’s a space where dance, live music, movement and language come together. Andrea Leine and Harijono Roebana, the founding choreographers, have spent the last 25 years exploring the synergies between dance and live music, between movement and dialogue. Each of their shows is a unique search for genuine authenticity.
Andrea’s first show for LeineRoebana was ‘Sweet Demon’, premiered in 2018: “the choreography centered itself around the theme of gender fluidity, and explored questions like: What is a man? What is a woman? Why is a movement labeled ‘feminine’ when a guy can also own that movement with the most utter elegance and harmony, without appearing womanly in his ways?”. The piece borrowed elements from revolutionary figures in the world of the arts like Trisha Brown, an American dancer among the founders of the postmodern dance movement, and Richard Foreman, American playwright and avant-guard theatre pioneer. “Trisha revolutionized the modern dance scene by introducing the so-called release technique. She created choreographies full of hops, rebounces, bodily ripples: everything on stage was a constant chain-sequence of delicate and harmonious movements reacting to one another,” explains Andrea.
'Sweet Demon' makes use of Trisha Brown's revolutionary 'release technique'
From Richard Foreman, on the other hand, ‘Sweet Demon’ borrowed the idea that it is simply impossible to create a theatrical sketch without a narrative. This is because -whatever sketch you produce, no matter how senseless and incoherent- humans will always find a plot and a narrative within it. It is in our nature to behave in this way, to find a pattern and a meaning in everything that we see.
“One day LeineRoebana started questioning why exactly they had decided to call their production ‘Sweet Demon’, so they asked us to write a piece exposing our deepest demon. I decided to write about my voice. I hate my voice, because ever since I was 16 I was bullied at school for sounding like a girl. I was called frocio and finocchio [derogatory words used to describe homosexual people in Italy], I was beaten up and spit at,” tells me Andrea, “Leine and Roebana ended up really liking what I had written, and asked me permission to include my story in the piece. For me, it was a very difficult decision to take, as this story also brought back memories regarding the relationship with my dad, and his initial refusal to accept and respect my sexual orientation. But at the end I decided to do it”. Andrea’s story was broken up in four parts. Throughout the dance, he recites the first segment, after which his colleague picks up the microphone and interrupts the narrative with something completely unrelated, and so it continues until the end, in ‘Richard Foreman style’.
The story of Andrea's voice is interrupted by a discourse about a haircut. The narrative is cut to convey Richard Foreman's idea that, even in the absence of logic and coherence, a theater's audience will always find meaning in what is happening on stage
Andrea’s second production with LeineRoebana was ‘Solas’, a choreography exploring the gestures of the 16th century, the years of Louis the Fourteenth. “As usual, we integrated a written text in the production. This time, it was the thoughts of a psychopathic drug addict in rehab. It was a really challenging piece, I had to learn how to let anger and insanity slowly creep out of me, as a crazy person would do. We also had to collaborate with musicians and singers, which was really difficult because we work in such different ways. I love musicians and their art, but they constantly make so much noise tuning all their instruments, and their head is always in the clouds” tells me Andrea in between laughters.
Working for LeineRoebana requires endless hard-work, passion and self-discovery. As Andrea explains to me, “LeineRoebana always asks you to perform. You don’t go to practice to simply learn the movements, you go to perform, every single movement you make -a step, a raise of the arm- needs to have an intention, a way, it needs to be convincing. And, most importantly, they ask you to always be human. You can’t just be a dancer, you need to be a human dancer”.
Before studying in Amsterdam, Andrea attended a dance academy in Florence, a city which occupies an important place in his heart: “you walk through the streets of Florence and you know, this is the city of art”. Despite his love for the city, Andrea left for the Netherlands, a place which -differently from Italy- recognizes the art of dancing as a professional career: “Up until now, I have a contract that has been renewed every two years, a fixed salary and fixed hours, a pension. I also pay the ‘post-work’ tax, a fund which will allow me to return to university once I am no longer fit for dancing. In the Netherlands, dancing is a professional job like any other”.
The reality in Italy is much different. Professional dancers are often only paid per-performance: they have no contract, no security, and are always forced to have other side-jobs. It is furthermore really challenging, especially as a man, to be taken seriously when pursuing such a career choice. As Andrea tells me, “The Italian government and Italian society need to understand that when you say you are a ‘dancer’ this does not mean you dance on a cube at a club, or you are just a teacher, or you just do classical dance with pink, puffy skirts. They need to understand that dancing is an art”.
Andrea's picture for the new production: THE GREEN HOUSE DANCES
I tried asking Andrea what Italy could learn from the Netherlands, how it could save this art and begin to recognize it as a professional career. “The transformation needs to be radical,” he tells me. In the Netherlands, the arts hold an important and prestigious position. It just takes a look at the city of Amsterdam to understand what a rich variety of artists exist in the Netherlands: there are no limits to art. There is also a lot of funding available, ever for smaller, one-time projects. “Who the hell is going to give you money in Italy?”, exclaims Andrea laughing, “It’s no surprise that the world of the arts in Italy is missing this variety and richness. Even in Milan, art mostly revolves around fashion”.
The difference in mentality has clearly shown during the pandemic. Andrea tells me that: “the FPK (Fonds Podiumkunsten), the biggest fund in the Netherlands for performing artists, continues to negotiate for more concessions and financial support from the government. As dancers, we are now in the ‘low-risk’ category for Covid, which means that we can practice without keeping 1,5 meters distance. An additional 4 million euros have furthermore recently been released in support of the arts. In Italy, on the other hand, my colleagues have been protesting and asking financial help for months, without having yet received any answer. They are just being completely ignored, nobody in the government cares about their cry for help. Not to mention that theatres have been closed ever since the start of the pandemic. When the cases are under a certain number, cinemas are allowed to open, but theatres not. No justification has been provided for this decision, because the truth is that they don’t have a justification, they simply never took the time to discuss theatres and what could be done to keep them open. This is where the difference in mentality becomes clear: Italy does not value the arts like the Netherlands does. And this is really unfortunate, because abroad we always say that 'you will always recognise the Italian on the stage': Italy is full of talents, and yet we don't do anything to support them".
This, however, does not mean that the Netherlands’ support to the world of the arts has been flawless: “While it’s great to hear that an additional 4 million euros have been given to the arts, 4 million euros is really not much. For example, let's say LeineRoebana alone needs 1 million euros as a 4-year subsidy. Then 4 million euros would really not solve the problem. While it’s true that we have received all our payments, even during the months of lockdown, this crisis will definitely have an effect on us in the years to come. The longer theatres stay closed, the more money they lose. And the more money they lose, the less they can afford to pay per production. Before the pandemic, theatres would pay you 10 euros per performance, now they pay you 2.50. In the future, we are likely to see less productions and lower paychecks for dancers”, says Andrea.
More needs to be done -everywhere- to support the arts in this time of crisis: "you cannot stop a pandemic by killing the arts".