In the Paralympic sport goalball, two teams of visually impaired players compete to score goals by hurling a heavy ball into the opposition’s net. The sport, that originated in a rehabilitation exercise for World War II veterans, is comprised of two three-a-side teams the members of which are made equal by their wearing eye patches covered by eye masks.
Italian choreographer Alessandro Sciarroni saw in goalball the sport he had been looking for to complete a trilogy of extraordinary performances that go under the overall title Will you still love me tomorrow? Individual shows, Folk-S (2012), Untitled (2013) and Aurora (2015), on stage as part of the ongoing Festival d’Automne à Paris, champion life-affirming themes of struggle, fortitude and resilience. Aurora was co-produced by Barcelona’s Mercat de les Flors and recently featured in its Capacitats cycle, a series of performances aimed at challenging preconceptions of ‘handicap’ as hindrance. “Goalball players are my heroes,” said Sciarroni in an interview given for the Parisian Festival, “They have the capacity to transform their disability into a superpower.”
Staging the strange
Citing the photographer Diane Arbus as an inspiration, Sciarroni seeks out unconventional even uneasy subject matter to stage it “like a ‘readymade‘”. In Folk-S, a group of contemporary dancers were asked to learn and then perform the complicated steps of a Tyrolean / Bavarian folk dance called the Schuhplatter. “A bore, you might imagine?” wrote American magazine Vogue, when Folk-S was performed in New York’s annual Crossing the Line Festival this October, “the energy of this work … is nothing less than electric.” More importantly, to Sciarroni at least, Folk-S had even won over the Tyrolese: “When we asked them to teach us their dance they were unwilling, so we learnt by ourselves. When we performed in front of them without music they said that we had understood its spirit: we had seen that unity and rhythm were its most essential elements, and after that they kindly offered us their help.”
In the subsequent piece Untitled, a group of jugglers throw clubs in complex, precarious formations. As in Folk-S, the performance continues indefinitely until one audience member or one performer remains. “I always thought jugglers were bonkers because they were fighting a losing battle with gravity,” says Sciarroni, but in placing an activity in an unexpected context – not in imitation of it but as a form of transference -, he says, “you are able to respect its gestures and rules, and reveal their meanings. Now I think of juggling as a form of meditation”.
Dawn of the senses
Aurora similarly seeks of a new way of seeing through darkness: “I have never been interested in sport. My dad always tells me that when I was a kid he took me a football match and I stood at the bottom of the stands throughout, facing the public and not the match… So I ask myself now, what is it that makes people passionate about sport..?”
In the one-hour performance the usual bell inside the goalball ball has been removed. Silence is called for repeatedly by two referees with players relying on it, on sound and on touch to communicate with each other and to distract the opposition, tapping goal posts, making ticking sounds, and false runs up. During the match, the light is gradually decreased until the audience too is steeped in blackness: the game continues without pause, the thumping of the ball left, right, left, is hypnotic. Later, the volume of the music is raised to deafening levels: players become disorientated, one becomes enraged and throws his mask to the ground. But there is no red card, we all watch and wait as he vents, calms and is prepared to play again.
Juggling, folk dance, goalball… all rest on patterns of “pure rhythm and focused energy”, embodied in the performer / player in the repetition of practice. But it is not perfection he seeks in his performances, says Sciarroni, but the authenticity of fallible skill: “chaos is boring (but) it’s vital for me that my choreography is imperfect. As soon as it is too beautiful, too controlled, too dramatic, it breaks.”
Unlike the other performances in the trilogy, Aurora has a provisioned end, yet intrinsic to its duration are the pre-match preparations in which teams silently form and players bond, shaking hands, orientating each other to their positions. After the match, as teams disband, their rivalry dissipates and referees and players intermingle as individuals, equal and united. “What I’m trying to show is the beauty of effort,” says Sciarroni, “If someone continues to dance despite fatigue it is life affirming. It is the essence of survival.”
Alessandro Sciarroni / Aurora
The Paris Autumn Festival
Théâtre de la Cité internationale, Paris – Nov 23 to Nov 27 2015
le Centquatre-Paris – Dec 2 to Dec 4 2015
Thank you to Mercat de les Flors and to Festival d’Automne à Paris for the interview (I’ve translated from French).
Link to more Alessandro Sciarrioni on Vimeo.
Read a conversation between Alessandro Sciarroni and Amy Bell, part of European dance project Performing Gender, here.