DOC Journal: September/October 2011, 1st Article

Claudia Brazzale covering ground: dancing, choreographing, filming and writing an interview by Tanja Meding 


Claudia Brazzale has worked in dance, film and academia for numerous years. This interview is a view into her creative process: how one piece of work that started as a video experiment at home grew, developed, and matured over time and became richer as life and work experience added to it. What once was a short film became a full evening choreography and has now developed into an interdisciplinary performance piece, including dance, choreography, video and writing.

claudia A conversation with dancer, choreographer, filmmaker and scholar Claudia Brazzale. Claudia Brazzale is an artist and scholar from Italy. She received a Master in Performance Studies from New York University and a Ph.D. in Culture and Performance from the University of California, Los Angeles. As a dancer, Claudia Brazzale trained at the London Contemporary Dance School and the Merce Cunningham Studio. Her interest in movement has taken her to South East Asia and West Africa as well as throughout Europe and North America to explore diverse forms of dance and performance genres—from postmodern dance and Butoh to South Indian and West African dance, from Strassberg Method Acting to experimental theater—and to study dance and the body through different approaches and media. Besides dancing with several independent performance groups in Italy and the USA, Brazzale created and performed her own choreographies and dance-videos. In collaboration with filmmaker Peter Goodman she created Looping Corridors and  with Italian filmmaker Giancarlo Torri she produced the video support for the performance The Aging Daughter.  At present, she is working on two dance documentaries: Choreographies of Afropean Bodies and Retracing Steps. (Photo Credit: Susan Stava)   Your dance training took you from Italy to the UK and New York and later to India, Indonesia and Senegal. What prompted you to go outside the studio, pick up the camera and venture into film and video? (Photo Credit: Luca del Pia) looping I approached video through two different experiences. My studies in anthropology first sparked an interest in ethnographic filmmaking and documentaries. At the same time, my interest in dance as an artistic form drove me to explore the field of video-dance and eventually to experiment with the intersection of the two media. After a dance training that ranged from the London Contemporary Dance School (1988-89) and the Merce Cunningham studio (1989-92) to independent studies in different postmodern dance forms and Somatics practices, I went back to college. In college I fell in love with anthropology. In one of my anthropology courses I met Kristy Schultz, another dancer with whom I shared a passion for ethnographic documentaries. I remember Kristy and I ushering at the Margaret Mead Film Festival at the Museum of Natural History to see as many documentaries as we could. During one of those evenings, Kristy talked to me about folklorist Alan Lomax and his films and research on world dance. Upon learning about Lomax’ research, I looked him up in the phone book and set up an internship at his Association for Cultural Equity. A collector of folk music, Lomax was first involved in devising cross-cultural comparisons in music and later applied his methods to dance. With the help of Irmgard Bartenieff and Forrestine Paulay, he devised a cross-cultural codification of dance known as the ‘choreometrics’ system. Film and video were fundamental in Lomax’ research. As a matter of fact, his method of analysis was based on dance footage from around the world (his work was critiqued precisely for relying solely on films and other people’s footage, among other things). In addition, his ‘Global Jukebox,’ an interactive multimedia program based on his Canto- and Choreo- Metrics, deployed dance films to teach his codification system. My internship experience with Lomax was important because, alongside learning choreometrics, I had a chance to be exposed to his archive of old dance footage from around the world. Nowadays you can easily access disparate dance traditions on the internet or Youtube, but back then it was very different. Except for my familiarity with West African dance, at the time I was mostly ignorant of other non-Western dances or even different European folk dances. Therefore, I was fascinated by all the dances I viewed during my internship. Such exposure influenced not only my dance trajectory but also determined my interest in documentary filmmaking. My other approach to video occurred through my involvement in the artistic dance scene and, more specifically, during a course I took in Italy for Executive Artistic Directors sponsored by the region of Tuscany (1996). Part of the course involved attending different performance festivals, among which there was an event on European video-dance. Through that event, I became acquainted with what was then still an emerging field. Influenced by that exposure, upon returning to New York and to my choreographic work I started experimenting with video, creating a trilogy that became the visual support for the performance The Aging Daughter, a performance project that grew hand in hand with my video experimentation.    What ideas in regards to movement and content did you play with in your first video? My first video and performance idea came out of a multilayered, fluffy, white petticoat I once bought at thrift-shop on Broadway and a Tarkovsky movie I rented at Tower Video (both stores have now disappeared). I cannot recall if I was watching Sacrifice or Andrei Rublev, at any rate, I clearly remember how Tarkovsky’s use of Bach’s music in the film inspired me. I grabbed my recently purchased petticoat, which stood up on my bedroom floor by itself like a tipi, and hid inside it. I slowly began moving my hands and arms to emerge out of the tipi’s top as the movie and St. Matthew’s passion played. While moving my hands through the taffeta net-like layers of the petticoat, I envisioned long hair leaking color under water and hands and arms tangled up by webs of hair surfacing water. The image was so clear in my head that I just wanted to try and translate it through video. This is how I was first inspired to work with video. The fact that my partner at the time was a video maker and had an editing studio facilitated my experimentation with the medium. He shot the video for me and helped me edit it. Since the video was about a very simple image, the whole process was quite fast.   How did your second short film, Looping Corridors develop and what ideas did you explore in this work? After completing the first video, I began developing the initial idea and image further. For me the webs of hair entangling my hands and the petticoat layers coiling around my body symbolized forms of constriction, while the fading hair color also pointed to time passing. I was interested in exploring opposite images to those of constriction, confinement, and time. This resulted in a second video, Looping Corridors, which explored mobility as a form of movement in a wide open space and form of traveling across different landscapes and terrains in a suspended sense of time. I worked again with my partner to shoot and edit the video. Every time we went on a trip somewhere I took my petticoats with me and had my partner do the same with his camera in case there would be chances for a good shot (at the end, the footage used for the final video was mainly shot in two locations, Baja California in Mexico, and the Berkshires in Massachusetts). I loved the experience of running and dancing everywhere I went, it made me live the places I visited in such a different and profound way. If Looping Corridors visually contrasted the constriction symbolized by both hair and petticoat, its portrayal of a woman’s character in a perpetual wandering without reaching a destination also signified a kind of immobility or ‘being stuck,’ a sort of self-induced paralysis (hence the title, which for me was about passages that lead nowhere). In addition, Looping Corridors was very much influenced by Graciela Iturbede’s photography and Juan Rulfo’s novel, Pedro Páramo. I was drawn to these Mexican artists’ work for their vivid and yet fleeting sense of place and time, which I sought to recreate in both my videos and performance.   After filming your material, how did you go about structuring and editing it? As I mentioned before, I conceived all the videos as visual supports for an eventual performance and the process of making those videos was intimately connected to the idea and development of the performance itself. With Looping Corridors, however, I decided to edit the footage for a stand-alone video-dance piece. Working on the editing part of this video proved challenging. My first lesson was to learn to let go of the performed movement phrases, something I did not have to worry about with the first piece because it had no danced sequences. I also learned that editing is quite similar to writing: You need to map things out and have outlines. This seems a lot more obvious to me now, after my academic experience. But at the time, I was exploring movement improvisation and I was into the notion of a subconscious creativity or an inner body-mind drive. I discovered improvisation, first through Sara Pearson and later through Contact Improvisation and Authentic Movement, after a traditional and regimented dance training that stereotypically approached dance as competition, absolute devotion, and self-inflicted suffering. Therefore, my rejection of structures was initially symptomatic of an unimaginative disciplining of the body. I think my work is still marked by a constant negotiation between relying on a corporeal ability to improvise and the need for more formal structures. Besides editing your footage, how did you deal with sound and music – Looping Corridors has an intricate sound design that combines natural location sound with music and sound design – how much were you involved in the creation of it?  During the editing of Looping Corridors I learned to edit sound. A musician friend had created some samples for me to choose from for a possible soundtrack, but I did not want to settle for a uniform melody. So I started searching for music, sounds, and samples that would fit specific parts of the video and eventually edited them together, juxtaposing and manipulating them. The sound was mixed with Media100, the editing software that my partner was using at the time. This experience gave me a certain degree of familiarity with the process of editing sound, a familiarity that later helped me to create the soundtrack for The Aging Daughter. For the performance soundtrack I worked on creating my own sounds: I borrowed a digital recorder from a friend and took it with me everywhere to record anything I found interesting. I also set up some of the recordings – I recorded my mother’s voice while she shared past experiences with me as well as a group of women reading passages from Juan Rulfo’s book, Pedro Páramo. I ended up with so many tracks that I had to ask for help from a friend and professional sound mixer, Francesco Ballerini, who owned a recording studio. Because the studio was free only at night, we worked through the night into the early morning everyday for over two weeks. Once completed, where and how did you present your video dance Looping Corridors? After completing the piece, I started sending copies to different dance on camera festivals around the world. At the time, VHS or mini DVS were the common format, so you had to make VHS copies and send them via the postal system, a process that was still relatively expensive (compared to today) and, of course, with no financial return. I never attended the festivals that screened the video. That was unfortunate because I did not get to experience the reaction of the audience or receive feedback. Still, it was somewhat rewarding to think that my video was screened in different cities around the world, such as Buenos Aires, London, and Naples.   Can you tell us about the development process of your solo piece The Aging Daughter – how did you incorporate the video work into the live performance? It was a slow process and overall it took three years to realize. Like I said, video helped me to work through my ideas and to begin realizing some of them. Video served as a powerful tool not only in creative terms but also in the sense that it helped me document my work and use it to ‘sell’ the piece. While in New York I had limited opportunities and no appropriate networks to book a venue for an evening performance, therefore video allowed me to develop my ideas independently and eventually pursue a venue to stage and perform an evening long piece. I ended up staging The Aging Daughter when I moved back to Italy, where I had an incredible crew of friends and colleagues ‘working for me.’ It was amazing how they believed in my idea and came together to help me realize it. I think a piece is always the result of the many contributions people offer. daughtersaging Photo Credit: G. Giraldo When I moved back to Italy I started working on a third video. My plan was to explore and redefine the journey of Looping Corridors. I wanted to portray the character arriving at an old, abandoned house – perhaps a return to her native place – where a seemingly sense of entrapment enables change. My storyboard had few sequences. Drawn to enter the house, the character becomes trapped behind the walls, rooms, and doors of the house together with the echoes of her mother. She finds herself caught in memories until old age. Eventually, a transformation occurs within this confinement: A metamorphosis into her mother. I had a perfect location for this. The video was going to be shot in the ‘patriarchal’ house where my father grew up and where my mother moved after she married him and lived there with his extended family for over ten years. I first researched the possibilities of filming in the house with a photographer friend, Luca Del Pia, who beautifully translated the ideas I had for a third video into photographs. 

lucalucalucaPhoto Credit: Luca del Pia

The two dance videos I had made in New York and my friend’s photographs helped me sell my idea for a performance to the artistic director of Fabbrica Europa, a major Italian dance and theater festival in Florence. With dates booked to present at the festival, I started working on the final video and the performance piece. Theater director Roberto Mazzi followed me throughout the entire creation of the performance and the choreographic part, offering invaluable dramaturgical advice. Videographer Giancarlo Torri together with Daniele Botteselle, a professional gaffer and director of photography, helped me figure out the video projections during the performance (Daniele also did the light design of the show). Giancarlo filmed the third video, which was edited in two versions to be projected onto different screens (a main background screen and two giant petticoats that descended from the ceiling at one point of the performance).   In the shooting of this final third video, Ritorno (Return), I also involved my mother. While images of her hands come up throughout the piece, it is at the end that my mother’s entire figure is seen walking out and away from the house. Parallel to this point of the film, during the performance the woman on stage merges with the woman in the projected video, where she is simultaneously seen transforming into an older woman. The performance was an uncanny premonition of my mother’s death a few months later. I still get chills thinking about how the piece became a farewell to my mother. When I filmed this and staged the performance I had no idea she was going to pass away.


 Photo Credit: Luca del Pia After the premiere of The Aging Daughter in 2001 you embarked on a PhD program and started writing. Your latest performance piece is titled Uncovering Ground – and combines your film work Looping Corridors, your performance piece The Aging Daughter and your writings. How did this piece come together? Soon after the premier of The Aging Daughter, I was offered a full scholarship for a Ph.D program in Culture and Performance at UCLA. I packed up again and moved back to the US with the intention to continue performing the piece. A month into my doctoral studies I was invited back to Italy to perform it at the Bagnolet competition—the VIII Rencontres Choreographiques Internationales de Seine Saint Denis, but soon after that my mother died. The loss and the connection of the piece to my mother made it hard for me to go back to it. Moreover, it was rather impossible to find time to promote the performance while pursuing a  Ph.D. on the other side of the world.  It was only recently that I returned to The Aging Daughter, when I realized that an essay I was writing addressed themes similar to those explored in the videos and the performance. This is when I decided to put the two together in a ‘performative lecture,’ during which I had the performance and the dance-videos projected on a screen and on a white petticoat I was wearing, where I had pinned scraps of papers with excerpts of my essay. Although the essay was experimental, in that it threaded auto-ethnographic anecdotes with critical theory, its tone was quite scholarly. For this reason I felt that I needed to balance its scholastic notes out with performative moments that went beyond the projections. The unpinning of sheets of papers and their unfolding, the holding of the sheet, the reading of the typed text, the crumpling up and throwing of the sheets resonated with some of the actions in the videos. In this way, the visual effect tripled the woman character while the essay articulated experience into words.  rutgers   The academic revisiting of “The Aging Daughter” has given the piece a second life. I was recently invited to screen my dance videos at the Mable Douglass Library at Rutgers University. And I hope to present the performative lecture at other dance departments in the near future. Excerpt from  (Un)covering Grounds: Spatial Discourses in Dance   Over the years you have been teaching a variety of courses at UCLA, in Italy, more recently in Princeton and at Rutgers. With your artistic and scholarly experience,  how do you design your curriculum and how do you approach teaching?  My artistic experience across genres deeply influences how I design a course and how I approach teaching and the classroom. I like to encourage students to make connections across disciplines and artistic genres, to approach academic texts as inspirational tools both for critical thinking and artistic research, and to adopt a self-reflexive ethnographic approach that prompts them to question their own positioning. If working in a dance department, I also like to integrate theoretical scholarship with performance practice in order to encourage students to develop social commentaries through performance.   And what is your take on using film and video in the class room, in regards to teaching dance, dance history and criticism? Whether teaching a Dance or Women’s Studies course, I always use the support of documentaries films and videos as they provide fast access to the subject matter and settings. I also think students have much to learn about the viewing process, therefore I ask them to  view films actively, questioning the director’s viewpoint, the perspective offered by the camera lens and the sound while at the same time noting their own bodily reactions to the film.   So what is next for you? I am currently working on a project about the recent popularity of West African dance and drumming in Italy, a topic I am exploring through scholarly research and documentary video. For the past two years, I have been filming African dance festivals, performances, classes, workshops, and conducting interviews with African and Italian artists and students. Together with anthropologist Cristiano Lanzano, a colleague from the University of Turin (Italy), I have written an article, Dancing Through Otherness: The Circulation of West African Dance in Italy, that focuses on the relationship between the circulation of African dance and recent migration fluxes from Africa in Italy. As I take this project further, I would like to focus on the diffusion of specific dance forms and their developments. When I started working on this topic, I realized that there is very few written records on the genealogy of West African dance in Italy. Therefore, in both my documentary and future articles I plan to start tracing the genealogies of West African artists in Italy and focus on the ways in which these artists helped forge new dance communities. (VIDEO AFROPEAN BODIES- work in progress)   For more information on Claudia Brazzale and to see more of her work, please visit:  
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