Venice Dance Biennale review – Wayne McGregor delivers sinners and shapeshifters | dance

Leonora Carrington is a guiding spirit of the 2022 Venice Art Biennale, where the main exhibition borrows the title of her book for children, The Milk of Dreams. The great surrealist’s untethered hybrid figures are also evoked in Tobias Gremmler’s hypnotic digital artwork fields (★★★★☆), shown as part of the Dance Biennale directed by Wayne McGregor. The festival’s overall theme is “boundary-less” and serves as a rebuttal of any parochial destiny for Brexitland dance as well as a reaffirmation of international collaboration and the merging of artforms with new technologies.

The shapeshifting virtual dancers that Gremmler has created for his scenographic installation are cast over parallel gauze screens. These looped sequences find wispy bodies slowly forming to give the briefest of solos, duets and group dances before dissolving within a swirl of motion that abstractly conjures twisting cords of sinew and flowing hair. As the energy builds, dissipates and resurges, it gradually comes to resemble a series of life cycles, one ethereal dance after another within a vortex of space and time.

Fields achieves its greater power when two figures merge into one mass before separating, each left with an imprint of the other when they move on. As in a real pas de deux, the dancers color each other’s performance and unite to become greater than the sum of their parts. These digital dances are devoid of the sweat, characterization and sheer immediacy of human performance but, crucially, not the emotion. Fields’s poignancy is thanks in part to the soundscape’s eerily soothing notes offset against rumbling surges of bass.

Eerily soothing …Fields by Tobias Gremmler. Photograph: Andrea Avezzu

Gremmler, whose previous motion-capture work has included collaborations with Björk, essentially frees these spirit-dancers who fly, float and at one point meet like trapeze artists in mid-air. Their limbs can become wings, we recognize a back bend or leg extension take shape before fading away, and the melting of so much virtual flesh is both beyond playful and profound as the figures – shunted about by forces their control – strive to connect during their brief existence.

Elsewhere in McGregor’s program there’s no shortage of living, breathing dancers. Fifteen of them can be found in Gauthier Dance’s The Seven Sins (★★★☆☆), a portmanteau show with an aptly enviable lineup of choreographers, one for each transgression. Dropping the “deadly” from the title hints at compassion for some of these sinners, such as Marco Goecke’s portrait of a glutton, addicted not to food but heroin. It is a bare-chested solo with a kind of midnight energy, dancer Gaetano Signorelli’s skin itching and his chain belt jangling, although setting the piece to the Velvet Underground’s Heroin is too on the nose – you already feel the rush and run in Signorelli’s burning whirl.

The Seven Sins – Pride, choreography by Marcos Morau.
The Seven Sins – Pride, choreography by Marcos Morau. Photograph: Jeanette Bak

For a choreographer, the sin of sloth is perhaps the short straw or the wild card. While the stark accompaniment to Aszure Barton’s duet suggests a pianist barely mustering the energy to play, her dancers are locked in a restless fidget: an embodiment of how sloth makes you feel rather than the behavior itself. One dancer bangs his head on the floor; he neither knows what to do with themselves. But their apathy can’t help but become infectious and it’s not the only piece to run out of steam. The same goes for Sharon Eyal’s otherwise lambent study of envy, which has the evening’s most balletic language, and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s opening essay on greed, featuring philosophising voiceover and dancers with grabby hands, dressed in coin-coloured suits and banknote scarves.

Several of the choreographers embed their sin in an everyday reality. Sasha Waltz’s raging strobe-lit dance of wrath between a couple, their screams on loop, spirals from an apparently domestic spat to an epic face-off and existential rage. When the houselights come up for Marcos Morau’s piece, you’re left reflecting on your own pride as well as that of five women in matching blue dresses, each ready for their closeup. Morau gives us pride as a kind of cult, with incantations that demand your attention; it bristles with angular arrangements and sharp elbows to the fore.

You’d expect Hofesh Shechter’s exercise in lust to really thrum but the bulk of his movement is slow-motion, the dancers struck with shame by their desire. Shechter’s piece stands out for showing his subjects’ self-awareness of their sin. Despite being distractingly dressed in white outfits that recall Woody Allen’s comedic white-suited sperm, these are bodies convincingly overriden by urges – the trembling limbs of the opening movements leading to a finale in which half the dancers crawl helplessly towards the open legs of the others .

Carnation by Rocio Molina.
Carnation by Rocio Molina. Photograph: © Simone Fratini

Together the pieces don’t gain quite enough collective power and you wish more of the choreographers had cut loose with the hamminess of the concept to match the schlocky whispering of each sin’s name in between the pieces.

What they lack is known in flamenco as elf – a powerful hit of pure emotion and connection. That’s in no short supply in carnation (★★★★☆) by the dancer and choreographer Rocío Molina, who was awarded the festival’s Silver Lion.

This is Molina’s own reckoning not with sin but myriad forms of desire, mainly the sexual and spiritual. Juan Kruz’s elegantly stark set design has an installation of four benches toppling domino-like into a fifth that defiantly stands strong, going against the flow. It’s a neat symbol for Molina’s modus operandi as she upends traditions and expectations with impish humor and disarming openness.

She goes headfirst into the material – literally so in the opening routines as, bathed in pink light, she repeatedly scales the back of a chair centre-stage, sliding downwards to caress its seat with her face, legs raised behind her in the air. This leaves the soles of her shoes on display – an arrestingly personal perspective which enhances the impact of Molina’s bursts of furious footwork. Later one of those shoes is hurled at the violinist, Maureen Choi.

It takes a while to adjust to Carnación’s particular rhythms as it unfurls at an unrushed pace, most strikingly in scenes of rope-binding as Molina gags her superb singer, Niño de Elche, who tenderly takes part in a ritual of submission and dominance at odds with any assumptions about the artform’s machismo. Molina’s shiny plait becomes yet another rope as she places it in her mouth and leads him around the stage; later she undresses to bind her own body in scenes that, like those exposed shoe soles, help us feel the flamenco slaps on thigh and chest. In a production where clothes are to be bitten as well as worn, her costumes include a smock and a huge wicker basket that serves as a skirt and then a headpiece and even becomes her prison. Such outfits often obscure her arms, accentuating exceptional wristwork.

Molina has an amazing controlled presence though the piece might achieve an even more power if it fluctuated less in tone. But that is the milk of Carrington’s dreams and as the wicker-wearing Molina practically dissolves into a back wall amid this loving procession of fantasy, the bold dancer turns surrealist too.

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