At this time of year when the campus seems encased in arctic permafrost, it’s easy to forget just how idyllic Cornell’s landscape really is. How many of us would rather escape to, say, some sun-kissed Italian villa where we could sip wine in the rolling hills of the countryside by day and amble among the ruins and fountains of Rome by night? You might not have to wait for spring break to experience such a getaway if you go to Spoglia, the student dance showcase at the Schwartz Center March 6, 8 and 9.
The title comes from the Italian word “spogliare,” which means to strip; it refers to the way in which Italian culture is a kind of pentimento of ancient, Renaissance, and modern —each layer covering the other, but being visible through it. Likewise, the performance layers different multimedia (film, music and dance) to create a homegrown reflection on the romantic spirit of Italy.
The piece features black-and-white film created by director Byron Suber, which re-enacts scenes from classic Italian cinema. A bevy of beautiful girls, played by the dancers in modish ’50s outfits, sashay in and out of doorways around campus as they turn more than a few heads, for example, in a spoof on Alberto Luttuada’s Gli Italiani si Voltano (“The Italians Turn Around”). In other shots, the sun-dappled steps of Goldwin-Smith stand-in for Roman columns while Cascadilla Gorge doubles for the Trevi fountain in a version of Fellini’s famous scene from La Dolce Vita. Triphammer footbridge, the grassy knoll behind the observatory, and the shore of Beebe Lake also substitute for the Roman setting in scenes by the likes of Antonioni, Pasolini and other Italian Neo-realist and French New-Wave directors.
The homage to Italian film interacts with the dance performances and the musical interludes, which play off these images. Singer Sharon A. Costianes has several sumptuous arias, evoking the Italian operatic tradition, while violinist Max Bucholtz demonstrates the capricious vivacity of the country that produced Paganini. Other musical interludes offer a jazzier, nightclub feel or a slice of ’70s disco. But, just as the film reflects foreign images only to make us realize the romance of our home locale, the music too comes back around to the indigenously American sounds of original folk songs written and performed by Jennie Stearns and Mary Lorson (along with a few of the multi-talented student dancers who add vocals).
The dance numbers themselves feature a variety of modern styles, sometimes acting as a visual tone poem for the music and film while at other times taking center stage. The first main dance juxtaposes three male dancers in suits against a triangle of several female dancers in dresses: the females’ mechanical wind-up doll motions make them seem like Stepford wives until the men begin to weave into the triangle, too. Later in the sequence, the ensemble slunches on each other’s backs in a melancholy conga-line, perhaps needing to wind back down after so much frolicking.
The second dance has numerous female dancers strip off one piece of clothing — perhaps alluding to the title’s double-meaning; they then pile their wardrobe on top of a lone male dancer until only his eyes can peek out. The beautiful set designed by Scwartz staffer and scenic artist Christa Seekatz, which features archways reminiscent of Mussolini-era architecture, is used to frame silhouettes of bodies while a series of dancers perform solo routines in front. Later, the whole ensemble gets in on the act. The dance proves so infectious that even a stage crew member in headset whisks away with one of the dancers before heading back behind the curtain.
The last dance begins with a disco-like party scene and then breaks into a showcase for individual dancers’ graceful balletic poses and slower partnering moves. The piece ends with one singer/dancer overturning chairs while another dancer scurries around stage trying to set them upright again. The tension of a stage filled with toppled chairs visually echoed the sight of archaic fragments that litter the streets in Rome, a city that persists in resurrecting itself each time.
After my mind roamed through this brief multimedia sojourn abroad, I returned to campus life with a renewed appreciation for the romantic spirit that lurks under all that snow, which makes me wonder how much longer I’ll have to wear so many layers.