I feel as though I am the only person who experiences what I am about to tell you, even though, statistically, that cannot be true. In the arts, I feel expected to embody so much. It is as if being an artist somehow means that I am supposed to understand art more than others. But here I am, seemingly unable to perform one fundamental action as an artist: in all my years of training and working as a dancer, I still haven’t figured out how to be a spectator. How am I supposed to look at art?
Picture this: I am awaiting the opening of the velvet-red curtain, this time, seated in the middle of the orchestra as a spectator. When it finally swishes open and the orchestra plays, there is a single body, green leotard, black tights, slightly off center-stage, and the show begins. Other audience members, ranging from experienced dancers to theatre patrons, gaze up at the same scene: swift, sharp motions so fast that, if you were to blink, you’d miss it. When the orchestra plays the final note, I find myself the only one still seated; I didn’t even realize the performance was over, and this is far from the first time this has happened. When I watch dance performances, my mind entirely disengages from my body, so much so that I don’t realize I am teary-eyed or comically grinning until I hear the audience’s applause. My body experiences a sensory overload, and its only option is to submit to the stage.
It is not that I find fault in the performance; I find it transcendent. Rather than checking out, my mind tunes in. I am left feeling powerless to what I have just witnessed, as if the performance knew what it was doing, and it was targeting me.
Until recently, I believed that this was the wrong response to have (as if there even is a right and wrong way to receive art); however, when you experience something as precious to you as dance is to me, surrendering yourself to those instinctual responses is even more essential than immediately trying to make sense of what was just before you. It seems that Salvatore Siciliano would agree.
Becoming an “Architect”
Italian-born Siciliano is a visionary before anything else. His background is in the fine arts, music, dance, choreography, and visual arts. He possesses a range of artistic experience, having studied at Accademia Susanna Beltrami and Accademia di Brera. Siciliano has collaborated with Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti, Institute Europeo di Design Milano, and Ansaldo Space Fashion and Design. Now, he constructs the sound of his vision with electronic music producers and he dresses his architecture in collaboration with fashion designers.
He only began to approach ballet and modern dance at sixteen, considered late for many professionals. Even so, this has not hindered him; the relationships forged in his early years, with lines, rhythm, composition, and style, have only helped him to design the backbone of his vision.
His most recent artistic venture is Siciliano Contemporary Ballet (SCB). Founded in 2015, the Berlin-based non-profit seeks to portray “a refined visual metaphor for the human psychology”. Choosing dance, the body, to communicate psychology is simple yet clever in the number of avenues Siciliano can pursue. Soft, chaotic, gentle, erratic, flailing, still, heavy, balanced are some of the words that come to mind when thinking about how to portray psychology. The intricate connection between mind and body has been debated for centuries and, yet still, our experiences with that connection seem to be frequently changing.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a difficult time in the artistic community: projects and work came to a hard stop yet enabled many to use the time for individual creation. The sudden change forced the mind and body to adapt to, and even relearn, expression in our environments. For Siciliano, this meant that the company, having halted performances, was able to plan for the future.
That’s a word that comes up repeatedly when looking at his work. Future – seen and heard in the costuming, music, and theme of Technicum, “a vision of the futuristic man”, embodied in the expression of the deadly sins in SEVEN through futuristic movement. In the aesthetics and energy of the performances, Siciliano often deals directly with humanity’s relationship with the future. From observing his work, there is also a sense that this is the future for contemporary choreography.
Interestingly, in an interview with Dance Art Journal, Siciliano describes his movements as often having “a grotesque atmosphere which evolves into something fine, contemporary and sophisticated”. The blending of distorted and refined involve jagged lines, isolation of the neck from the upper body and torso, unnatural hand positioning, and gestures. Still, there is a grace to the movements, bringing together our distorted and refined parts.
Building the Facial Muscles
Dancers perform to the farthest row of seats with our movement and expressions, but Siciliano takes this and magnifies it. Facial expressions are more accessible to those who are not as familiar with the intricacies of choreography. In our day-to-day lives, we use and recognize multiple facial expressions, an ability that allows us to interact without language and determine our feelings, as well as those of others. In Technicum, the face is almost unseen with the lighting, while the head, hands, and feet are the only parts that remain uncovered. This asks audiences, what does the future hold for our bodies? How will we look? Will machines be favored over humans? In SEVEN, the face is constructed of gaping mouths, teeth, wide, glazed eyes, lowered heads, and furrowed brows, embodying the destruction of the sins.
Constructing the Body
If I were to ask you to think about the architecture of the human body, Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man may come to mind. For centuries, the balance of the human body has inspired architects; we see harmony in the objects that surround us, just as there is harmony within all of us. However, when we think about constructing the architecture of the human body, understanding seems more difficult. Our bodies are already constructed, albeit through an organic process, and with that comes natural limitations, even for dancers. Having a choreographer work with your body is a unique experience. As dancers, our bodies are vessels; there is this constant push-and-pull to develop and prepare our bodies for these unnatural, anatomy-defying movements. And this is the gift that Siciliano possesses, expanding the boundaries of our bodies to communicate universally known experiences, all through choreography. If the body is an architecture of bones, muscle, and tissue, then Siciliano is its architect, modifying the existing materials to design new constructions.
You may wonder, if these experiences are universally known, then why has Siciliano chosen to go to the extreme to communicate them? It often takes the extreme to get an audience’s attention, especially when aiming to break tradition. While many companies define themselves as “… Contemporary Ballet”, the name presents a nuanced relationship. Contemporary dance breaks the tradition of ballet in favor of internal expression and freedom of movement, moving from ballet’s roots in nobility, graceful lines, and precise body position. This blending of histories and aesthetics represents the human experience. Our everyday movements are varied. Actions and behavior are dependent on the environment. The relationship that each one of us has with our minds is constantly in flux.
Every movement and transition is choreographed so that the energy of the dancer is used efficiently, finding the balance between the technical and performative. Dancers in SCB are unquestionably technically sound all while speaking Siciliano’s expansive language of movement, requiring the body to dance in new, untrained ways. I use the term “untrained” to mean that, even with ballet, contemporary, or modern training, Siciliano’s technique is genre-bending and imaginative; from the performances and workshop footage that I have seen, his dancers cannot solely rely on previous training to become fluent in his language. His style and technique are filled with sharp, quick movements; his choreography is a profound reimagining of how technique should function in dance. All of this work is done for his dancers to become proficient in the nuances of his technical language, yet the choreography almost asks dancers to throw it away, creating their own kind of slang. With every layer of the performance, Siciliano’s choreography is powerful, and not only in the physical sense.
Walking away from a performance is not truly walking away. My mind and body feel strangely exhausted, but also reenergized as I stare at the stage. You take it home with you; the questions and possibilities fill your house. Perhaps I am not merely a spectator. To spectate is to observe, but when I experience transcendent works, I am suddenly engaged and taking part in the performance. The transcendent power, for me, is in watching another body become a new piece of architecture, bringing us impossibly close to the art, even if we are not the ones currently under construction. Far more than trying to analyze the movement or aesthetic, the instinctual response is the one that stays with you the longest. I suppose this exemplifies the mind and body experience of Siciliano’s work, physically innovative and psychologically inquisitive, causing us to rediscover our own architecture.