The Teatro Malibran in Venice is tucked away between quaint bridges and narrow streets. Once you track down the 900-seat opera house, hidden in plain sight, you feel like you’ve just uncovered a hidden treasure. Company Točnadanza’s one-night engagement at the Malibran, to dance “Peggy Untitled” – Dedicated to Peggy Guggenheim, also contained hidden treasures – if you looked closely enough to find them.
“Peggy Untitled” is a poetic, impressionistic tribute to the enigmatic Peggy Guggenheim. After a debut at the Ravello Festival in 2018, Točnadanza revived the work this year to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Guggenheim’s death and the 70th anniversary of the exhibition of her art collection at the XXIV Venice Biennale. Under the artistic direction of choreographer Michela Barasciutti, six dancers rotated through vignettes inspired by five works in the Guggenheim collection: Pablo Picasso’s On the Beach, Miró’s Seated Woman II, Max Ernst’s The Antipope, Jackson Pollock’s Alchemy and René Magritte’s Empire of Light.
The impressionistic landscape worked best when a sparse stage stirred our imagination while gestural movement and the striking costumes (also by Michela Barasciutti) did all the talking. The Teatro Malibran’s deep, almost squarish, stage complemented these dramatic moments well. The evening opened with a sole spectator figure posed on a sleek chair downstage left, staring intently at something, surveying the horizon way beyond us, the audience.
In white heels and a blue dress, she tip-toed in a straight line while minding the edges of a sharp pillar of light projected diagonally across the stage. This peculiar figure, perhaps evoking Peggy Guggenheim herself, conjured an appealing sense of dramatic tension in this first vignette, set to a soundscape of the Venetian tide softly splashing. Other vignettes rolled one after the other with projections of the source artworks and a diverse score including spoken word, soft bells and twinkling, together with massive percussive builds.
There was a sensual trio with two women coyly dancing for one another while slowly weaving a third (male) figure into their fun. It played with repetition and well-worn modern dance movements at a steady tempo. Two slightly more chaotic scenes came after, one inspired by Ernst’s The Antipope and the other by Pollock’s Alchemy. The first followed the artwork rather too closely, mimicking the costumes and the action in the painting, while the second not closely enough, the dancers not seeming to embody the dynamic abandon of Pollock’s poured paintings.
Throughout the evening the three female dancers, Sara Cavalieri, Roberta De Rosa and Erika Melli, committed wholeheartedly to each step. They highlighted a series of fun, alternating attitude, turns and curving arm sweeps, creating a see-saw motion of legs and hands to great effect. Other times, they brought life and intention to clunky group sections, while the male dancers often held back.
The highlight of the night was a slow, dripping tableau of a male-female couple intertwined seductively. Palms connected, they wove themselves in and out of different embraces as they slowed right down, almost, but not quite, to a standstill. The audience held its breath as each new configuration between them unfolded imperceptibly slowly while the thought of the previous one lingered in our minds. Violins escalated to fever pitch while the woman ascended in a slow lift above the man, her chest lying parallel to his and her legs curved back behind her back. Lit starkly with a simple spotlight, this tableau was stunningly beautiful.
Ultimately, however, it seemed to me there was not enough structure to ground these vignettes into a satisfyingly coherent whole. The dramaturgical structure expected the audience to approach each vignette with fresh eyes without taking into account the natural emotional high of each section, making for a rough ride. For the vignettes that were less successful, the movement stayed obediently in an undemanding tempo and range of motion, leaving us wanting more of the glimpses of virtuosity that the Točnadanza company members proved so capable of delivering.