(Lyndsey Winship’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/28; via Pam Green; Photo: Don’t stop till you’re married! … dancers in traditional clothing perform the Schuhplattler. Photograph: Westend61 GmbH/Alamy.)
What do you get if you cross a 1,000-year-old Bavarian shoe-slapping dance with an all-male Italian folk routine that was on the brink of extinction? A sweaty, joyous double-bill!
When Alessandro Sciarroni discovered an Italian folk dance called polka chinata, it was at that point a near-forgotten art practised by only five men in the world. By contrast, when he first watched the 1,000-year-old, thigh-slapping Bavarian/Tyrolean Schuhplattler, it was still being taught and performed, known for its lederhosen, beer steins and a dark period in its history as a favourite of the Nazis. Both of these dances, though, are ones the artist and choreographer has turned into something new, which he’ll be bringing to the inaugural Dance Reflections festival, accelerating the return of international dance to London, post-Covid.
Folk dance is not Sciarroni’s only influence – his background is in experimental theatre – but it’s fertile ground for contemporary artists (another upcoming show, by Jamal Gerald at Leeds’s Transform festival, reinvents the Jumbie dance from Montserrat as a dance of black queer joy). Sciarroni has an anthropological eye. As a young boy growing up on Italy’s east coast, he was fascinated by animal behaviour, the flocking of birds, the way insects worked in unison.
“I was hypnotised and very curious,” he says. “When you are a child you see these things and ask these huge philosophical questions.” Watching these centuries-old folk dances, those big “whys” returned: “Why do they do it? How do they know what to do? It’s something that reconnects me with the mysteries of the universe.”
When you step back and look at it, much of human behaviour seems bizarre, especially on the dancefloor. “You see a group of people using a lot of energy to do something that looks pointless,” says Sciarroni. “But the more you look, the more you recognise something about yourself in them.”
That tension between tradition and modernity is always at play. “Sometimes tradition is a nest where you can feel protected,” he says, “but it can also be a cage.” Sciarroni extracts the dances from their original music but has no desire to wipe out tradition – he teaches polka chinata workshops alongside performances of his piece Save the Last Dance for Me. Polka chinata is performed by two men in close embrace (a bit like a tango) who spin in tight circles, bending their knees until they’re almost sitting on the ground. It began around Bologna in the early 1900s, a way for men to show off to women, and after the second world war became almost a competitive activity.
Then it disappeared, until one dance scholar, Giancarlo Stagni, discovered some old recordings. Sciarroni went to Stagni’s village every week for six months to learn the steps. “It’s very difficult,” he says. “And it’s very beautiful, because when you hug your partner and crouch down, it’s really a dance about trust and sharing the weight of the body. At the beginning you approach it technically, but then it becomes about feelings.” He means for the dancers, but hopefully the same is true for the audience.