Between Dante, Marla and Princess Leia

Following its premiere at the Mediterranean Conference Centre last Saturday, Peter Farrugia reviews DIVINA, Naupaca Dance Factory’s ambitious adaptation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. 

'Divina' premiere at the MCC, Valletta on October 18. Photo by Charles Paul Azzopardi
'Divina' premiere at the MCC, Valletta on October 18. Photo by Charles Paul Azzopardi
Divina premiere at the MCC, Valletta on October 18. Photo by Charles Paul Azzopardi
Divina premiere at the MCC, Valletta on October 18. Photo by Charles Paul Azzopardi
Divina premiere at the MCC, Valletta on October 18. Photo by Charles Paul Azzopardi
Divina premiere at the MCC, Valletta on October 18. Photo by Charles Paul Azzopardi

‘Divina’ is another ambitious performance by the Naupaca Dance Factory, whose ‘The Death of Snow White’ (2012) and ‘Alice’s Adventures Under Ground’ (2011) both set the bar for contemporary dance in Malta. This time the Gozitan troupe intersperse dance, monologues, lyrics, and a final tableaux, all set to inventive music, with considerable visual flair. Ostensibly inspired by Dante’s Divina Commedia, the piece takes on a surprising life of its own.

The dancers weave in and out of Dante’s psychic landscapes – the grandeur of Virgil, the torture and ultimate release of Dante’s relationship with Beatrice, the suffering in Inferno, and the strange stillness of Naupaca’s Paradiso.

Some of the story is told in the sets, designed by Adrian Abela, well crafted to enhance the drama on stage. As part of a clever promotional campaign across social media, Charles Paul Azzopardi‘s collection of striking photographs primed the audience for what was to come.

Rather than simply enact incidents from Dante’s narrative in a sequence of vignettes, we were brought into a retelling with no obvious centre. In a series of duets, solos and groups, Joeline Tabone has created layers of idiosyncratic movement that captivate the mind’s eye. Tabone is an uncommon choreographer, with the special ability to take her troupe’s raw talent and infuse it with her own secret vision of the body. Divina’s dancing is hauntingly original, crawling beneath the surface of Dante’s epic.

The suffering damned are evoked with wild contortions of shuffling figures, roiling and running, caught up in the power of their stories. Music, composed and produced by the prodigious Mario Sammut, encrusts the performance with extraordinary noises - sounds that sometimes barely murmur above the dancers’ footsteps, and at other times command centre stage. The collaboration between Tabone’s extremes of physicality and Sammut’s auditory fantasies is pitch perfect.

The first act is wreathed in gloom, lit by intermittent flashes of Sergey Kheylik’s turn as Dante, and Francesco Mariottini’s Virgil. Mariottini’s performance had a necessary dignity, shimmering with athletic control. 

Naupaca Dance Factory's DIVINA • Video by Ray Attard

Kheylik wore a scarlet tunic (costumes by Matthew Pandolfino, rather than longtime Naupaca collaborator Luke Azzopardi) and controlled the stage, compelled by Sammut’s atmospheric score. As the theatre began to fill with light, Kheylik was engulfed in a rippling sea of dancers, all arched backs and craned necks; hands fluttering like birds, torsos strained.

Tabone is never easy on her dancers, and the sheer exhibition of stamina at a Naupaca performance is as praise worthy as the technical ability on display. One can’t help wish that more had been made of Deborah Agius, whose role as Beatrice meant she was only really felt at the very end of the final act. Her grace filled the dance, a worthy counterpoint to Kheylik.

Playing with its mixture of nightmare and dream, writer and narrator Maria Theuma has created a compelling reinterpretation of Dante’s narrative. One elegantly crafted monologue begins, “The devil is not a metaphor, Dante”. All surly shades of Marla (Palahniuk’s ‘Fight Club’) and Emily Bronte, with an unexpected (unintended?) visual reference to Princess Leia in the final Paradiso section of the performance, Theuma’s character almost dominates the show.

The effect is not entirely convincing: one felt there was enough communicative urgency in the dancers themselves, interacting with the music, expanding and contracting at the edges of the stage.

The final act, Dante dissolving into the divine and Beatrice’s reification, climaxes in a breathless silhouette. Framed by a cacophony of shattering, crashing sounds that slowly diminish and fade, it felt like Theuma and her creative collaborators were gesturing beyond Dante’s beatific vision to some inscrutable, transcendent oblivion. It would be interesting if Tabone’s choreography encouraged us to join her further into this unknown.

What would a Naupaca performance be like, unencumbered by the reassurances of narrative parceled up in text, literary reference, or plot? Perhaps that is what hangs behind each performance, an echo patiently asserting itself like Beatrice, waiting to be born into more substantial life than as a mere parasite in imaginary landscapes.

We may yet be invited to join the Naupaca Dance Factory somewhere quite startling, only hinted at in the beauty of ‘Snow White’, in the whimsy of ‘Alice’ – into a world of movement, set free of meaning.

Click here for our interview with Naupaca Dance Factory

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