abcdance – Bmotion festival, Bassano del Grappa

by Rita Borga Translation by Lisa Prada

Practicing Empathy duets: il mondo ha ancora bisogno di empatia e tenerezza | Recensione ITA|ENG

It is said that you are not able to truly relate to another person until “you put yourself in somebody else’s shoes”. This emotional and social skill, both human and archaic, which allows us to connect with others, and understand their thoughts, feelings and moods as if this were our own experience, is called empathy. Martin Hoffman calls it “the spark that triggers human interest towards others, the glue, the bonding that makes social life possible. The discovery of mirror neurons has been revealing of the central role played by empathy in physiological and social processes, with enormous significance for the role of culture and art as a fundamental expression of this ability. Dance expresses this attitude already in its most basic practice of listening to one’s own body, of connecting body to space, and body to body.

Practicing Empathy duets is a work that moves the ranks from a double research that Yasmeen Godder has been carrying on for some years now. The one that includes the spectator in the artistic process, and the sharing of the scenic space between dancer and spectator. Also the one based on the concept of empathy, of which the Israeli choreographer planted the first “seeds” in Bassano, during Bmotion Danza 2016, with an unpredictable Stabat Mater, unforgettable elegy of feeling and sharing (of which you can read our insights here and here).

The title reveals the dynamics connected to this work: practice, implement, exercise empathy. An idea that seems to carry the weight of a paradox in this period, a one of great emotional dullness, in the time of man with no tenderness, defending himself even from a handshake, and that seems to give a good reason to the psychologist Paul Bloom when he claims that empathy is useless, because man, a routine-blinded animal, is now indifferent to whoever stands in front of him.

This work therefore comes as a sort of emotional resilience, in which the body is again the matrix of a new confidence, of a new closeness.

On the other hand, many of us have asked ourselves: how will our way of relating to each other change after all this ? How will we share a common space again, without any more dividers? Will we be able to erase that physical and social distance that we are slowly getting used to?

The practice that Yasmeen Godder transmitted at a distance, via Zoom, to Vittoria Caneva, Anna Grigiante, Ilaria Marcolin and Elena Sgarbossa – the dancers who took turns in the duets – regains the deep lightness of a carefree game, of a tiny dance of emotions, which we played even as children, moving in sync in front of each other, without losing contact with each other. As then a few rules are still valid: looking into each other’s eyes and following each other’s movements. Like the one of hands opening like a flower towards the sky, drawing on each face the grammar of a distant symbology, hands that then stretch out towards each other, like an unspoken desire, and come close again to the mouth as if wanting to call oneself by name; and again the movement of the legs, at once fast and at once slow, that move along the perimeter of the rectangle drawn on the ground, and suddenly break it as one can break prejudices and convictions.

In this “little revolution of gentle power” no matter who follows who, no matter who leads who. The childish element of mere imitation is lost, while the freshness of a joyful oasis remains, in which each gesture still gives the other something of his own self.

The performance is built on different levels of transmission, observation and connection, which, at first glance, highlight the complexity of a very simple dynamic.

The initial duet flourishes in a quartet with the involvement of two people chosen from the audience who lend themselves at the same time to accept the practice, to be partly the creators, and finally the witnesses. The dynamic in fact slides without interruption from two to four, to two.

The audience, a chorus of witnesses in presence, sits behind them; and even further away, like an echo that reaches an indecipherable distance, are those who watch the performance through a screen, the virtual room of Zoom. In this interchange, which alternates proximity and distance, the level of observation remains horizontal: everything happens at the same time; the transmission between body and body is linear: from the choreographer to the dancers, from the dancers to the actors/spectators involved.

The level of connection, on the other hand, is like in “AC” alternating current mode, constantly changing direction according to the emotions that each actor involved brings into play: embarrassment, disorientation, fear, attention, trust, curiosity, fun.

Everyone witnesses the emotions that run along that thin demarcation line drawn on the ground, the embarrassments, the distractions, the difficulties of tuning in with those in front of you. Interactivity and interconnectivity are therefore the pillars of an architecture of movements that perhaps isn’t so extraordinary, but that in an exceptionally ordinary way dissolves that opaque heaviness made of fear, suspicion, distrust that the pandemic has drawn. Among the significant moments of this practice there is the one in which one of the spectators involved suddenly brakes the rules of the game by breaking the physical distance, to get to touch with his finger that of the dancer in front of him. A tender desire for contact, which reminds us that, in the end, our emotional intelligence is not able to be satisfied with a relationship “at half”.

Photo by Giovanni Alfieri /Fotografi pigri project