Act your age

by Mary Paterson (2014)

In response to What age are you acting? Silvia Gribauldi & Domenico Santo

In the foyer there is a conversation about dancers’ bodies – beautiful bodies, lithe and athletic bodies, young bodies.  This is one of the reasons people go to see dance, the conversation decides, in more or less dismissive tones, and with a shake of our messy heads: to see beautiful, lithe and young bodies.  Not us.  We don’t believe in that kind of body fascism, we mutter to each other.  We want to see all kinds of bodies.  We are open to all shapes and sizes.  It is implicit, in the midst of this conversation, that none of us inhabits a beautiful body.  Ours are in turn, older, flabbier, taller, shorter, more creased, less toned and more boringly coloured than the kinds of bodies I will see the following day, in the café of this same Danse Hallerne: three straight-backed extras from an ancient Greek forest, stretching their long limbs down one side of the bar.

‘Silver Threads’ is an evening of performance about non-beautiful bodies.  Or,  I should write, ‘non-beautiful bodies’.  Because what is clear from the moment that Silvia Gribauldi steps on stage is that her body is beautiful.  This is despite – or more accurately: with no relation to – the fact that she does not slip soundlessly into the tyranny of images and ideals that sediments into the unspoken, and/ or unspeakable, context for our conversation in the foyer.

Silvia Gribauldi emerges, naked, while the house lights are still up.  Members of the audience are shuffling coats and bags and making themselves comfortable.  She smiles nervously, shrugs her shoulders, and says something in a quiet voice.

This is the life, eh?

She smiles again.  She scans the audience for a reflection of her mood.  She smiles.  She gestures.  Across the barriers of language and the formalities of this performance space, Silvia Gribauldi seems to be celebrating something – ideas, exploration, dance. Something like ‘depth of thought’ is communicated with a plunge of her hand down to her waist; something like ‘concentration’ is communicated with a  tightening of her facial muscles.  The movements are slightly clownlike, in order to undercut the awkwardness of the fact that she is naked and we are not.  The gestures give a function to her physical presence.  Which, by the way, is magnificent.  Here it is: her naked body – beautiful and round, worn casually by its diffident owner, caressed by the stage lights into a series of soft curves.

Are you one of those people who pretends not to look at naked bodies on stage?  I am not.  Nakedness is a trope in performance art – at worst it is a lazy symbol for transparency or vulnerability; but at its best, it is a dive into intimacy with the viewer, like Gribauldi’s hand, reaching further and further towards an idea.  To stand on stage is to invite people to look at you.  To stand on stage naked is to invite people to think about how they look at you.  I look. I take my part in this dialogue about aesthetics, politics and personal relations.  I keep looking.  And there’s a pleasure in this looking, too – not a pleasure derived from the mastery of the gaze, but a pleasure in watching real bodies ripple with meaning.

Gribauldi jumps across the stage.  She transforms, suddenly, into a balletic dancer, her body chiming effotlessly with the classical accompaniment.  At the time, it makes me smile.  Later, when I see her co-performer, Domenico Santo Nicola, pretend to fire a machine gun, I realise why.  The machine gun happens towards the end of the show.  It happens after Gribauldi and Santo Nicola have melted from gods into jesters, from nymphs into satyrs, from people who talk to people who dance, from a strange and beautiful animal blowing clouds of white powder across a dark expanse, to a lascivious older man chopping up a cucumber, expectantly.  It happens, in other words, after a waterfall of transformations, the cumulative effect of which fills me with a feeling of warmth and potential: a glimpse of lives that could be lived, of experiences gained, of all the ways in which the self that you or I occupy at any given moment is both inescapable and subject to total and immediate change.  At the cresecendo of this exquisitely chaotic stream of possibilities, Santo Nicola grins, bends his arms at his waist, ricochets his body forwards and backwards, and fires several rounds of imaginary bullets into the audience.

He was in the army for 35 years!

Says Gribauldi, by way of explanation.

The movement comes so easily to him.  It inhabits his skin with the same strength of belonging as the gracefulness of the dance that leaps into Gribauldi at the start of the show.

To move like that, to dance with such precision and care, such elegance and ease, such weightlessness; to lift yourself out of the reproductions of body images and their networks of meanings, to jump into the abstract rhythms of music and movement alone, is to demonstate a hidden facility – years of training and discipline, practice, sweat and failure conducted behind closed doors and thick black curtains when the lights are down.  When Gribauldi starts to move, it makes me smile because it lifts a veil on her hidden histories.  It sets the tone for the cascade of potential that is to come.  And the cascade builds, minute by minute, scene by scene.  So that when Santo Nicola lifts his imaginary gun, it pierces the carnival atmosphere like – well, like a bullet.

This man’s hidden facility is combat.  This body is trained, practised, disciplined in how to strike the life out of other bodies, and leave them limp and leaking.


Santo Nicola makes the sound of a gun.  He hisses it out between his teeth, inside a grin.

What age are you acting?, asks the show’s title, and I was expecting to think about age.  But now I am thinking about the other part of the phrase.  What is the difference between acting and being?  If you act in a certain way for long enough, can you act yourself out of your own history?  When does acting stop being something you impose on your body and start being something that is inscribed in your body from the inside out?  When does your body stop transforming into other bodies and finally become something, something that cannot be unbecome?  How does it feel?  Is this what we mean when we say we feel younger than we are – that we don’t recognise the remains of our own actions? Is this what we mean when we talk about age –the ossification of practice into nature?  Is the magnificence of Gribauldi’s body the magnificence of the idea that the disciplines of the past are traced across her flesh like lines drawn in water – dissolved as soon as the movement ends, soon replaced with the gush of something new?  Is the piercing fear brought about by Santo Nicola’s imaginary gun the realisation that in fact nothing is washed away– that our actions tattoo our memories under our skin, ever-drawing an unspoken and/ or unspeakable net, wiry and invisible, in which our limbs are already entangled, flapping uselessly, casting grimacing shadows on a distant wall?

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