Exploring What it Means to be Human (Or Not) at the Biennale Danza 2023

Choreographers Andrea Peña and Luna Cenere won an open call for promising young choreographers and delivered unforgettable new works.

Andrea Peña and Luna Cenere were having a drink together last fall in Naples when they both learned the good news. The young choreographers had first met at the 2022 internationale tanzmesse nrw in Düsseldorf, Germany in August and had reconnected when Peña came to Cenere’s hometown a few months later for an artist residency. But that night, when they both received career-changing news, they didn’t say anything to each other about it. The announcements were still under wraps, and they had no idea their paths were about to cross yet again this summer at the 17th International Festival of Contemporary Dance.

Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter

By clicking submit, you agree to our <a rel="nofollow noreferer" href="http://observermedia.com/terms">terms of service</a> and acknowledge we may use your information to send you emails, product samples, and promotions on this website and other properties. You can opt out anytime.

See all of our newsletters
Dancers in Andrea Peña’s ‘BOGOTÁ’. Photo: andrea avezzu'

Part of La Biennale di Venezia, one of the most prestigious cultural institutions in the world, Biennale Danza 2023 took place this July in Venice and encompassed the work of more than 150 artists and 24 events with 19 premieres—7 World, 3 European and 9 Italian—plus workshops, open classes, interdisciplinary activities and interactive learning initiatives. It drew 11,800 spectators, up 26 percent from the previous year.

Titled Altered States, this year’s Biennale Danza was the third to be directed by internationally renowned British choreographer Wayne McGregor CBE. In his opening presentation, McGregor described the artists selected for the festival as “movement alchemists,” describing their work as “driven by an insatiable curiosity to explore and experiment both in process and performance; through improvisation, soma-sensory installation, radical minimalism or with surprising departures of form and context.”

Thanks to an increase in resources this year for the Dance Festival (as well as for the Biennale’s Music and Theatre Festivals), La Biennale was able to commission, produce and co-produce more new productions than ever before. They put out an open call for national and international artists and dance companies under the age of 35 to present original and previously unseen choreographic works. In addition to a healthy production grant, the award covered all costs for staging the debut of the work in Venice, from production specifications and the artists’ fees to travel and lodging expenses.

Subscribe to Observer’s Arts Newsletter

The two winners of that open call for promising young choreographers—two of the most insatiably curious of all the movement alchemists—were Peña and Cenere.

Andrea Peña’s BOGOTÁ (2023)

Andrea Peña. Photo: andrea avezzu'

“I like to say that BOGOTÁ is a work inspired by Bogotá but is not about Bogotá exactly,” Peña told me. She spoke to me from Lisbon, Portugal, where she was taking a much-needed vacation with her family after the Festival.

BOGOTÁ—the second large-scale piece she has created for her multidisciplinary company Andrea Peña & Artists (AP&A)—was chosen by McGregor as the winner of the international call for a new choreographic work for its “radical and innovative proposal” and its “brave and raw approach to new movement exploration and hybrid forms that explore the notions of death and resurrection, through a post-industrial, queer and Latin American baroque lens.” It had its World premiere at the Festival on July 13.

“It took me about a year to come to terms with myself that I wanted to make a piece about death and rebirth,” Peña said, “because I was like, wow, those are really big themes to handle choreographically and creatively for a while. But I accepted that journey, and I said, okay, let’s go.”

‘BOGOTÁ’ is the choreographer’s most ambitious work yet. andrea avezzu'

Her interest went beyond the traditional notions of death and rebirth. She wanted to explore how, as human beings, we constantly go through cycles of transformation, and how our energy shifts through those transformations. Part of her interest in these topics, she came to realize, was rooted in her Colombian heritage and culture—its history of colonization and violent internal war, its proximity to death and its extreme resilience.

A bicultural artist, Peña was born in Colombia in 1990 and is now based in Montreal, Canada. She “hopped around a lot,” moving to Toronto with her family when she was young, then back to Colombia, then to Vancouver, to San Francisco, then back to Vancouver. Through all these moves, she danced.

Those who’ve seen Peña’s genre-defying work might be surprised to learn she is a classically trained ballerina, but she very much is. She started dancing at Ballet Anna Pavlova in Bogota, “doing Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, all these very emotional ballet things.” She went on to dance professionally with Ballet BC, then moved to Montreal to work with Ballets Jazz Montréal, but during her first year with the company, she tore both of her menisci and fractured a rib, ending her performance career.

At age 23, Peña “quit dance,” assuming she’d never return and went back to school to study industrial design. She also began working in the fashion industry. When she eventually returned to the dance field as a choreographer, all these aesthetics and skill sets merged and “little by little, through the last nine years, have been sewing themselves into what is AP&A.”

‘BOGOTÁ’ is a work inspired by Bogotá but is not about the place. Photo: andrea avezzu'

Though Peña enjoys taking her time to build her multidisciplinary pieces, she only had seven months to complete BOGOTÁ, her most ambitious work yet, before it would premiere at the Festival. All the elements had to come together at once: the visual design, the costumes and lighting and set, the sound score and, of course, the choreography.

“Choreography can sometimes really be built from the top down,” she explained. “I remember saying to my team, I wanted to build a piece from the back door and from the bottom up.”

It wasn’t an easy process, but it was worth it. Her bottom-up approach looked like this: Together, Peña and her “interpreters” (“I never refer to them as ‘dancers’. I always say, Guys, leave your dancer at the door. I want to know who you are.”) would create a movement “system” she would then sculpt further and put inside improvisations to create “situations.” These “situations” eventually linked to create a sort of movement score. Once that score was complete, they spent three weeks undoing everything: “exploding the piece, breaking it apart, exploring what things could be based on what we already created.” And then they spent the two weeks before the premiere “piecing everything back together” into a clear blueprint with enough elasticity to allow for choices in real time during the performances.

The interpreters/“amazing human beings on stage” included François Richard, Jean-Benoit Lebrecque, Frederique Rodier, Erin O’Loughlin, Charlie Prince, Nicolas Bellefleur, Jontae McCrory, Chi Long and Jo Laïny Trozzo-Mounet—an eclectic group both in dance background/training and nationality/ethnicity.

BOGOTÁ’s set design is—unsurprisingly, considering Peña’s professional background—stunning. Even the teaser is a work of art. She worked with designer Jonathan Saucier to create an industrial landscape with scaffolds on the stage, a pile of speakers and piles of light. There are big white bags you’d normally see filled with concrete that are instead filled with pebbles that the dancers are interacting with. She wanted the space to feel post-industrial but also hint at the wildness of the Amazon. The venue, Arsenale Tese dei Soppalchi, a huge old warehouse with brick walls “that literally crumbled when you touched them,” added to the atmosphere. There were two big doors that opened to the water and “for the first half an hour of the show, the sunset was bouncing off the water to the brick walls. It was insane. It was so beautiful.”

The musical score, composed by sound artist Debbie Doe, echoes what the choreography and set and even the sunset are doing—a layering of light and shadow, of the sacred and the profane, ancient and contemporary. Woven throughout the electronic soundscape are recordings of birds in the Amazon, flutes played in the Andes mountains and the voices of the indigenous people Peña connected with while there. There are modified Gregorian chants and—right in the middle of this complicated, beautiful aural experience—the Colombian National Anthem.

In the performance, after the anthem finishes, Peña comes onto the stage to mop up the dancers’ sweat. This interruption was not part of the original choreography but instead was added during one of the rehearsals when she noticed the pools of sweat on the stage and worried her team would slip and injure themselves. She came down from the light booth, got on her hands and knees and wiped it all up. This became an important act for her—symbolizing her gratitude for the artists and deconstructing her role as choreographer while paying homage to female Latin American immigrant labor.

There are other moments of note in this challenging, gorgeous 90-minute piece—when the audience enters into an “always-already space” where they get the sense that they are interrupting the not-yet-begun performance, when the performers spill themselves across each other in Baroque poses, when they climb up the scaffolds and fall off again and again—but this is the one that I keep coming back to. To me, this is the heartbeat of BOGOTÁ. 

Luna Cenere’s Vanishing Place (2023)

A woman with long dark hair wearing a blazer
Luna Cenere. Photo: Federica Capo

From her home base in Italy, Cenere told me she is not interested in making people uncomfortable. Instead, she hopes to put them in a state where they feel very confident looking at it. By it, she means the naked body, which all her work features. Vanishing Place, the winner of the Italian call for a new choreographic creation that had its World premiere at Teatro Piccolo Arsenale on July 21, is no exception.

McGregor said that “with Vanishing Place, Luna Cenere… continues her research on the naked body, posture, object, landscape and gesture, in startling dialogue with one another—piercing the very heart of what it is to dance.”

So, what does it mean to dance? What is dance? Who, exactly, is dancing? Cenere and I talked a lot about these things during our deeply philosophical conversation. She is not only interested in looking at the human body as a landscape and at nudity as “a necessary condition,” but also the act of “disappearing to let the body speak.” The concept is inspired by the text The Invisible Actor by Yoshi Oida and Lorna Marshall, and actor Peter Brook’s method of having the actor “disappear” to allow the performance to appear. It’s about dissolving into the movement, she clarified, not out of it.

Cenere strives to abstract the naked body so it can become something else on the stage, something that is not merely an anthropomorphic form, but also “collective memory, suggestion for the spectator, an element of the landscape in which everybody sees something.” To help with this abstraction, her choreography often hides the dancer’s face and front, which might distract and embarrass the audience.

Nude dancers on a red lit stage
Dancers in Luna Cenere’s ‘Vanishing Place’. Photo: andrea avezzu'

While Peña asks her performers to leave their inner dancer at the door, Cenere asks hers to shed the self. And while Peña’s approach to contemporary dance has a post-ballet/industrial design/bicultural sensibility, Cenere is steeped in the European experimental dance world.

Cenere was born in 1987 in Naples and returned there after training at the Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance and working in Brussels, Belgium for several years.

In many ways, Vanishing Place is a continuation of the concepts she has been working on for many years: the abstraction of the nude body and the practice of disappearing, with a preference for adagio movement. Many of the dancers—Marina Bertoni, Francesca La Stella, Ilaria Quaglia, Davide Tagliavini, Luca Zanni—had worked with her before, so were familiar with her approach. She was pleased with the group dynamic and very grateful for how they worked together and supported each other in what might feel like an emotionally, if not physically, risky endeavor.

Cenere’s creation process is also collaborative, though a bit more top-down than Peña’s. First, she shares her specific disappearing/meditative practice, which involves slowing down, focusing on the breath and mapping the body. “I’m always inviting them to use the breath in order to feel the connection between one movement and the other.” And then she shares some rules. “The basic rule is very simple,” she explained. “It’s never go back.” When they are improvising and creating new material, she asks them to never ‘go back’ in the movement, but to “always process something and then go on.” The same rule is translated into the space: the bodies make logical paths across the stage, always aware of each other but moving in their own trajectories.

Dancer’s bodies are abstracted in Cenere’s choreography. Photo: andrea avezzu'

Because they are working with nudity and the meditative practice, Cenere records rehearsals so everyone can see what they’ve done. The dancers are often in such an intensely concentrated state that they are unaware of how they appear. Angles get tweaked, set pieces are rearranged and gestures are added (“I’m very obsessed with the use of the hands, how you touch the space, how you move the space.”) until everyone feels comfortable and confident in their experience.

Vanishing Place plays with the idea of disappearing not only mentally but also physically. Body parts hide and seek behind five panels (created with designer Raffaele di Florio) that the dancers move around the space throughout the performance. For the first 20 minutes of the 50-minute piece, dancers conceal their heads behind the panels while crossing the stage and the effect is uncanny. There were moments when my visual perception tripped—when an arm became an elephant trunk, a curled back became a snail shell. It’s not just the dancers who slow down. It’s hard to watch Cenere’s work without entering a kind of meditative state yourself.

The piece also deals with dreams and memories, “something that is there and it’s not there.” (I couldn’t help but think of Peña’s “always-already space,” and how these spaces are in conversation with each other.) Movements never end. Time morphs and ceases to make sense. Giulia Broggi’s saturated lighting feels almost psychedelic. Composer and electro-acoustic musician Renato Grieco’s score accompanies the dancers as they seem to float across the 6×6 white carpet in a black box. It’s often unclear what—music or movement—is leading what.

Cenere and Grieco worked together to create an “evanescent atmosphere that makes sense, but it doesn’t completely make sense… where the same sounds, they come back, like when you are in a dream and you constantly come back, or when you fall asleep, you wake up and then you fall asleep again, and you are again into the same dream. Or even when you dream of someone and you don’t know this person, who is this person? You cannot really recognize it, but you give it a name sometimes.”

Set pieces are rearranged by dancers in the piece. Photo: andrea avezzu'

All of these elements—the bare bodies, the tilting panels, the haunting sounds—combine seamlessly to create the otherworldly dreamscape that is Vanishing Place.

At the end of McGregor’s presentation, he said, “Our Altered States Biennale Danza invites you to change your internal chemistry, to shift your states of being through experiencing dance, dancers, choreographers, composers and artists work designed to take you somewhere else, somewhere new, somewhere deeper.”

Without a doubt, both BOGOTÁ and Vanishing Place do just that. One is intense and gritty, the other slow and surreal, but they are both unforgettable. “And if nothing else,” he continued, “let the exceptional dance transport us beyond words, outside of our rational and more towards this felt-sense—our very own Altered States.”

When the Biennale Danza officially announced the winners of the calls for new choreographic works, Peña and Cenere immediately reached out to congratulate each other, floored by the lucky coincidence. Look at that, they wrote to each other from across worlds. See you soon.

Exploring What it Means to be Human (Or Not) at the Biennale Danza 2023