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dance Performance

“There Is No Need to Hide”: The Visible Act of Dance, the Visible Act of Writing

Dr Ilaria Grando returns to Artsolation with a lyrical piece on the choreographic quality of art writing and its implications in this time of lockdown. Can online platforms become modes of embodied connection?

This article is the first part of a series on dance.

“What the dancer does is the most realistic of all possible things, and to pretend that a man standing on a hill could be doing everything except just standing is simply divorce […]. Dance is a visible action of life”.[1]

Merce Cunningham

Write, delete, re-write, delete again.

In the last month, I found myself shaping a choreography of the unspoken and the unspeakable. I wanted to write an article or rather a series of articles about dance, but I could not find the right frame, phrase, or lens. Which choreography would serve me best at this moment? Which piece would speak of endless time, a limited space, and a universe of stories that are at the same time personal and widely shared? Dance, the art of corporeality and present interaction, at the time of COVID-19 involves risks that are too high to take. What was there to write about then? On the white page, I danced a pas de deux with my words and my insecurities, using the backspace as the main musical score, and the delete button as a recurring movement. Just as a dance piece, my actions on the Word document were ephemeral and physical: confined to the now; destined to vanish; reproducible and yet never the same. To write about dance during a pandemic that forced the world in a long lockdown seemed impossible. 

Re-think, refocus, re-start.

I started by giving myself some boundaries. I decided that I was not going to be writing about a past performance, that would have meant hiding from my experience and losing my purpose. I established that I was not even going to share that piece I wrote mentally after seeing a ballet in a buzzing Sadler’s Wells last October when the situation was different, that would have felt anachronistic, unconsciously nostalgic, and emotionally forced. Images, momentum, and storylines clashed with my present activating an impending sense of fear. What kind of analysis was appropriate in the Now? The advent of COVID-19, I believe, imposes academics to reconsider more closely their approach to research and writing. At the beginning of a pivotal text, Ways of Seeing, John Berger claims: “[o]ur vision is continually active, continually moving, continually holding things in a circle around itself, constituting what is present to us as we are”.[2] In the present, my vision cannot exist outside of the lockdown I am experiencing: it can expand, shrink, and work things around, but it will always actively bring me back to the persona I am now and to the unique set of emotions that are generated by and because of lockdown itself. I cannot and do not want to hide this in my writing. Thus, I have decided to become more selective of my words, my thoughts, and my academic actions. I stopped and I waited, passively observing a world that kept moving throughout my immobility, as if in a choreography of the whole, I was taking a stand, by staying still.

Sometimes “tout commence par une interruption”, everything starts with an interruption.[3]

Ballet connects dancers in lockdown – Dutch National Ballet. https://youtu.be/FuvXG4As80c

In the introduction to the collection Dance. Documents on Contemporary Art published in 2012, André Lepecki writes about “dance’s main constitutive qualities,” reflecting on “ephemerality, corporeality, precariousness, scoring and performativity”.[4] One passage in his consideration captures my attention, resonating deeply with my vision on the difficulties the dance and writing worlds are encountering now. “Dance’s inescapable corporeality” to Lepecki “constantly demonstrates to dancers and audiences alike concrete possibilities for embodying-otherwise – since a dancer’s labour is nothing else than to embody, disembody and re-embody, thus refiguring corporeality and proposing improbable subjectivities”. How to re-inhabit that inescapable corporeality in a moment that prevents the happening of corporeality itself? How to narrate different subjectivities without an evident re/dis-embodiment exercise? Of course, the pandemic has not stopped the corporeal realm to exist, but it has limited it to one’s self. For dance then, it is no longer mine and your bodies interacting on a musical score, but it is my body, and my body only, moving in a constricted and constricting space, for no immediate audience. The one space where such newly inhabited form of corporeality can happen in a way that resembles the traditional form is now virtual. The precariousness of dance, compared by Lepecki, to the “precarization of life” translates therefore in an exploration of space, time and movement that not only favoured a refigured corporeality, but also enable a reconfiguration of individual and collective interactions in domestic spaces estranged from the performative side of dance, and yet profoundly embedded in its realm made of bodies, feelings, and stories.[5]

Hold on” debuted online on April 21, 2020.[6] The short choreography by Milena Sidorova is the touching response of the Dutch National Ballet to the present state of emergency. Like many artists around the world, due to the pandemic, the dancers of the Dutch National Opera & Ballet are no longer able to perform on stage, but this did not prevent them from performing on a different kind of stage, the online platform YouTube. A dance made of pieces of dances occurring on different real and virtual stages, Sidorova’s choreography is the emblem of a world that has changed, and is changing; of a precariousness that is re-inventing itself; and of a corporeality that is not staging, but it is living. The choreography dialogues with the song “Hold on” by DI-RECT, composing a subtext of movements, hands gestures, and bodily silences that even though immediately ascribable in the song’s lyrics, succeeds in visualising the unspoken, and narrating a story that is personal to each dancer and yet widely sharable without falling into a cliché. Embedded within a second choreography of well-thought video edits, Sidorova’s score connects, touches, and embodies the present without lying.

What goes on stage, is the “visible action of life” in its purest form. No costumes, no makeup, no filter: even the videos’ quality is left untouched. The ballet dancers move in their bedrooms, kitchens, and living rooms, turning the domestic environment into an opportunity to let life enter the choreography with even more force. Domesticity becomes a tool of creation: the walls are partners to dance with, the ceiling a way of virtually reaching the person living in the apartment above. Expanding the space, reducing the distance, Sidorova’s work makes the best of the virtual realm to which the choreography is dependent, creating a space that just as much as dance is ephemeral, precarious and yet extremely tangible. The dance might not have happened all at the same time, the performers might not have felt their colleagues doing the same set of movements right next to them, but what the viewer sees is the work of a company: it is a togetherness that unites corporeality, time, and space in the precariousness of a four minutes long video, in the present “precariousness of life”.

The song chosen by Sidorova to build this extremely honest piece of work asks to avoid hiding, hiding from feelings, hiding from the present, hiding from oneself, and I believe that in the historic moment we are living now, such invitation needs further consideration. Just as a ballet dancer does not need to mask the domesticity of a precarious stage, and hide the concrete reality of what being a dancer during a lockdown means, so a writer cannot hide the radical shift in the words that frame the everyday life experience. Dancing, like writing, is “a visible action of life” and for that it requires courage.[7]  


[1] Merce Cunningham, “Space, Time and Dance // 1952,” in DANCE. Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. A. Lepecki (London; Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press, 2012), 28.

[2] John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin Books, 2008, first published in 1972), 9.

[3] Paul Valéry quoted in Alessandro Barricco, Mr Gwyn (Milano: Economica Universale Feltrinelli, 2012).

[4] André Lepecki ed., “Introduction// Dance as a Practice of Contemporaneity,” in DANCE. Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. A. Lepecki (London; Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press, 2012), 15.

[5] Ibid.

[6] National Opera & Ballet, “Ballet connects dancers in lockdown– Dutch National Ballet,” YouTube video, Apr 21, 2020, accessed Apr 26, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FuvXG4As80c

[7] Merce Cunningham, “Space, Time and Dance // 1952,” in DANCE. Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. A. Lepecki (London; Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press, 2012), 28.

Further Readings:

  • Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books, 2008, first edition 1972.
  • Lepecki André ed. DANCE. Documents of Contemporary Art. London: Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press, 2012.
  • Barricco, Alessandro. Mr Gwyn. Milano: Economica Universale Feltrinelli, 2012.

Ilaria Grando is an art historian, writer, and researcher. Her PhD thesis looked at representations of the male body made during the 1980s and 1990s AIDS epidemic in the USA, to explore the impact the epidemic had and continues to have on the contemporary understanding of healthy and ill bodies. Ilaria is currently interested in questioning the visual culture that surrounds health and illness and developing an intimate art history. 

Categories
Murals Street Art

Life And Love At The Time Of Covid-19: Story Of An Impossible Touch

Dr Ilaria Grando shares a personal account of the Coronavirus emergency in Northern Italy, explored through the lens of Milanese urban art culture.

Can you imagine living in a world where you cannot give a hug, a kiss, or even a caress to your loved ones? Can you imagine living in a world where you relating to the other implies at least 1-metre distance?

“We are only left with a window view,” said my mother watching the moon shining bright and free in a dark sky. I cannot remember which day of the Italian lockdown it is. Time in quarantine runs as dense as honey, days overlapping with each other. Out there the world as I knew it has changed. The cities are deserted, the hospitals overcrowded. My country is padded in a noisy silence. And for me, a quarantined person in the North of Italy, it is a war within. I am not living with the virus, but I am living under its dictatorship.

In a red area country, the rules to follow are simple. Do not leave the house; clean often; if you have to leave the house for exceptional reasons keep at least 1-meter distance from and to another individual; avoid handshakes and hugs; do not touch eyes, mouth, and nose with your hands; cover mouth and nose when you are coughing or sneezing; wash your hands frequently; wear a face mask if you believe to be ill or if you are taking care of someone who is ill.[1] More simply: minimise and if possible avoid any unnecessary form of physical interaction. 

A humanity who has been deprived of touch, the humanity living at the time of COVID-19 has elected as its symbols face masks and hand-sanitisers. In the age of a celebrated virtual living, the pandemic has confined us to the sole use of the web as a way of communicating and interacting with other human beings, generating a crisis within the crisis. Italian street artist Tvboy has captured the problem in an image soon elected as a symbol of the COVID-19 reality in Italy. 

‘L’Amore ai Tempi del CO…VID-19’ ©Tvboy 2020. https://www.tvboy.it/2020/25862/

“L’Amore ai Tempi del CO…VID-19” (Love in the Time of CO…VID-19) appeared on the 28th of February 2020 in the streets of Milan. The announcement, given by the artist himself on social media, did not reveal the exact location of the work, leaving an aura of mystery.[2] Colouring an outside that is no longer accessible, Tvboy’s work appropriates a painting, symbol of the Italian Romantic movement, Francesco Hayez’s Il Bacio (The Kiss). Presented for the first time in Brera in 1859, Hayez’s work was meant to celebrate the positive outcome of the Second War of Italian Independence.[3] Set in an imagined Middle Ages, Il Bacio conveys the hopes of a soon-to-be nation in the tender kiss of a young couple.[4] The success of the painting is immediate: the audience likes the subject and understands the message clearly.[5] Eight years later, Hayez decides to approach the work again, and realise a second version to exhibit at the Exposition Universelle.[6] The political situation has changed, Italy is now an independent reign, and the colours can become livelier. The Italian and the French flags shine with decision in the clothes of the young lovers: in their kiss a story of alliance and national independence, in their kiss, the story of those who have left their country and loved ones to fight for their nations.[7]

1867, Il Bacio as the emblem of the individual’s sacrifice for the common good.

A hundred and sixy-oneyears later, Hayez’s young lovers are still engaging in a tender kiss but the premises are completely different. Tvboy, an artist living at the time of COVID-19, has thoughtfully provided the main characters with face masks. Once again, Art exits History to make sense of the present. This time, however, the image becomes paradoxical. The kiss is not a passionate expression of love but a representation of a past that, for now, can no longer be. Looking at Tvboy’s work, the audience will probably recall the adolescent beauty of Hayez’s painting, some will even remember its historical meaning. But in the clashing evidence of the differences standing between the two images, they will also start to question the realities depicted, confronting them to what it means to live and love at the time of COVID-19. Observing the image and comparing it to its original, it is soon clear that Tvboy’s lovers have very little to do with Hayez’s. The couple is close and yet extremely distant: they are protecting themselves from each other. The embrace is clumsy, unsure; their hands are too busy holding onto a hand sanitiser bottle to hold each other, and the kiss is obstructed by a safety mask. Touch but not touch. Kiss but not kiss. Tvboy’s couple is the perfect depiction of a virtual love that cannot exist in the practicality of life. I imagine the instant after the kiss, and I see a sudden departure of the two, almost as if, waking up from the suspend time of History, the lovers would finally realise how things have changed, and how their present, which is my present, can no longer permit their kiss.

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization has officially called the COVID-19 crisis a “pandemic”.[8] 416,686 cases, 18,589 deaths in 196 countries (data as of March 25, 2020, at 6pm CET). 57,521 cases, 7,503 deaths, and 9,362 healed only in Italy (data as of March 25, 2020, at 6pm). Over 15 days upon changing my status from Italian citizen to Red Area inhabitant to citizen of a world facing a pandemic, I listen to the news with increasing concern letting tears streams out of my eyes.

The politics and the poetics that have defined Il Bacio since day one are once again summoned. Mediated by Tvboy, the painting adapts its meaning to the contemporary time, exiting its historical dimension. In the impossible kiss of the two lovers, I see the big little sacrifices everyone is doing for the common good; in the impossible kiss of the two lovers, I see a past memory, and the hope to make it a present reality soon.

2020, Il Bacio as an emblem of tomorrow when we will take those masks off, and kiss again. 


[1] “FAQ – Covid-19, domande e risposte; Prevenzione e Trattamento,” Ministero della Salute, Mar 10, 2020, accessed Mar 12, 2020, http://www.salute.gov.it/portale/nuovocoronavirus/dettaglioFaqNuovoCoronavirus.jsp?lingua=italiano&id=228#6

[2] Tvboy (@Tvboy), Tweet. Feb 28, 2020, access Mar 12, 2020, https://twitter.com/tvboyofficial/status/1233524989447589888

[3] Giovanna Galeschini Lerner, “Visconti’s SENSO: The Art of History,” A Journal of Italian Studies 41, no.2 (Sep 1, 2007): 346.

[4] Giovanna Faleschini Lerner, “Visconti’s SENSO: The Art of History,” 346; Fernando Mazzocca, “Il bacio di Francesco Hayez raccontato da Fernando Mazzocca,” Rai Radio 3 Museo Nazionale, podcast audio, Nov 6, 2015, acessed Mar 12, 2020, https://www.raiplayradio.it/audio/2015/12/Il-bacio—Puntata-del-06122015-cc4b6ef1-3d55-406e-970a-337c67c3625a.html

[5] “Il bacio, Francesco Hayez,”Pinacoteca di Brera, accessed Mar 25, 2020, https://pinacotecabrera.org/collezione-online/opere/il-bacio/

[6] Giovanna Faleschini Lerner, “Visconti’s SENSO: The Art of History,” 346; Fernando Mazzocca, “Il bacio di Francesco Hayez raccontato da Fernando Mazzocca,” Rai Radio 3 Museo Nazionale, podcast audio, Nov 6, 2015, acessed Mar 12, 2020.

[7] Giovanna Faleschini Lerner, “Visconti’s SENSO: The Art of History,” 346-347; Mazzocca, “Il bacio di Francesco Hayez raccontato da Fernando Mazzocca,” Rai Radio 3 Museo Nazionale, podcast audio, Nov 6, 2015, acessed Mar 12, 2020.

[8] Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, “WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 – 11 March 2020,” World Health Organization, Mar 11, 2020, accessed Mar 12 2020 https://www.who.int/dg/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-covid-19—11-march-2020.

Further Readings:

  • Nancy, Jean Luc, Georges Didi-Huberman, Nathalie Heinich and Jean Christopher Baily. Del Contemporaneo: Saggi su Arte e Tempo. Edited by Federico Ferrari. Milano: Pearson Paravia Bruno Mondadori S.p.A, 2007.
  • Faleschini Lerner, Giovanna. “Visconti’s SENSO: The Art of History.” A Journal of Italian Studies 41, no.2 (2007): 342-358.

Ilaria Grando is an art historian, writer, and researcher. Her PhD thesis looked at representations of the male body made during the 1980s and 1990s AIDS epidemic in the USA, to explore the impact the epidemic had and continues to have on the contemporary understanding of healthy and ill bodies. Ilaria is currently interested in questioning the visual culture that surrounds health and illness and developing an intimate art history.