At Last: The Gran Gala and parting thoughts from Pietrasanta

July 7, 2017

We knew the people, we loved the food, we handled the heat, and the DAP Festival students danced with professional choreographers and dancers. The last few days of the festival represented a simultaneous settling and upheaval. While the TROY family began to feel as if we understood our place in this artists’ town, our departure from the Milan airport hung over our heads. We ignored that gray cloud for the most part, though; other things required our focus. The TROY dancers had classes and rehearsals for the Gran Gala performance on Saturday evening, while the theatre students provided help to the festival coordinators.

The days gave moments of busyness and rest. TROY students finally had a few hours off to go to the beach, so close that the water could be seen from the top of the hill in Pietrasanta. Sunbathing, feeling the Mediteranean sand and dipping toes in the ocean preceded what would become one of our longest nights in Pietrasanta. Everything so far had led up to the Gran Gala, which would feature pieces by Thomas Johansen, Tamara Fragale, Benjamin Millepied, Thang Dao and Sebastian Kloborg.

Art is part of the identity of Pietrasanta.

Art is part of the identity of Pietrasanta.

One of my favorite images from the trip was walking into dinner on Saturday night and seeing the TROY dancers, wearing mostly black, sitting at a long table at Papa’s. The powerful feeling that the all-black garb gave off did not last, as we frantically scarfed down plates of pasta and fried meat when we realized we had to be at Teatro la Versiliana in less than an hour. We regretted not having an leisurely dinner on our final night with Papa, but he assured us that he would be at breakfast the next morning. This reassurance sent us off to the Versiliana stage.

Teatro la Versiliana Marina di Pietrasanta is the full title of the outdoor stage where the DAP Festival dancers had rehearsed over the past two weeks. In order to get there from the town square of Pietrasanta, one must take a bus down to the beach and walk through a garden. A ticket office and museum face each other at the entrance, and gravel greets each person with a crunch under their shoes. All the ladies in heels somehow remained elegant despite the uneven ground.

The stage itself is even farther into the park. “It is absolutely breathtaking out there,” says Emma Shepard, who danced in Kloborg’s piece “The Crowd.” “I think one thing that will always come to mind when I look back on the trip is the stage at Versiliana.” As opposed to the raked stage at the Teatro in Pietrasanta, the stage here is (fortunately) flat and has plenty of space for elaborate, larger than life pieces. This made it ideal for Kloborg and Dao, who managed to utilize all of the space to its maximum potential.

The dancers’ ability to command the space struck me as I watched the performance from my seat. From the ensemble pieces like Dao’s and Kloborg’s, the two of which included both large groups of dancers and individual work, to the duets performed by guest artists, every single dancers knew how to take the space the stage gave them. A particularly enchanting example of this was Kloborg’s duet, “Closer” by French choreographer Benjamin Millepied, with Russian dancer Maria Kochetkova. Filled with dramatic lifts, intimate moments, and floor work, the artists had a presence that radiated from the stage.

Thang Dao’s piece, a dance with contrasting elements, commenced the evening. First, the DAP Festival students, donned in all black, showed their cohesion as an ensemble with a complicated series of lifts. These movements highlighted the person being lifted, allowing them to give their own feeling to the piece, as no two dancers moved the same. A section followed this featuring two ballet dancers from Ballet Austin. Their cream-colored costumes stood out from the previous, overwhelming black, and gave the piece a new delicacy.

TROY students enjoy the Italian scenery.

TROY students enjoy the Italian scenery.

Thomas Johansen and Tamara Fragale followed Dao’s piece with a second performance of their dance “Subliminal Wind,” the perfect marriage between the two elements that Dao had introduced with his choreography. Then came the duet with Kloborg and Kochetkova. Intermission meant a moment to absorb the overwhelming sensations induced by the dancers, and a moment to note how chilly the Italian evening had become. The audience could only imagine what would come with Kloborg’s ensemble number.

“Eerie” is a good word to describe the thoughts in my mind as I watched Kloborg’s work. “The Crowd” earned its title from a replica of a statue standing in Pietrasanta’s main square, a muddy resemblance of people crowded together, either protecting something between them or huddling for comfort from an exterior force. Guest artists Johansen, Elena Martinez, Ana Sendas, and Csongor Szabo were the main dancers who initially presented a uniformity that soon was challenged by an unknown force. The DAP Festival students performed with clay all over their bodies, emerging from the shadows of the statues.

“I thought having us cover ourselves with clay so that we blended in with the statues was genius,” says Shepard. “It was almost like we were the statues, coming to life and pulling in the dancers.”

At the end of the performance, following an improvised piece by Fragale, Dr. Hawkins and the TROY faculty and students surprised the mayor of Pietrasanta with a copy of the Rosa Parks painting by Nall. It came along with grateful thanks for the hospitality of the town of Pietrasanta and the hope that the partnership between TROY and Pietrasanta will continue through the years.

The TROY dancers gained experience and insight during their time in Pietrasanta, through their work with the professional dancers, participating in the festival, and living in the sweet town. Alexus Crooms feels that “working with the professionals was fulfilling because moments like thos are the reason I study dance. I strive to become a professional and when I am able to get a taste of what it’s like, it makes me more motivated to continue my work.” Neely Aaron agrees, saying that dancing with professionals gave her a glimpse of what will come in her future. The TROY students also appreciated Pietrasanta for the exposure it gave them to Italian culture.

A look at Pietrasanta.

A look at Pietrasanta.

“My favorite part of the trip was simply experiencing a new culture and how to adapt to it,” says Aaron. Shepard believes that the students were able to “get the real Italy experience by staying in such a beautiful town right next to the mountains.” One of Crooms’ favorite memories was performing at the Naal Peace Frame. “It was more of a personal feeling for me. I could not believe I was dancing in Italy.” She was also happy that she could make her best friend, Kenzie Haynes, proud of her choreography.

As we piled on a bus to Milan the next morning, our bodies and minds were tired, and each conversation managed to include the food we were excited to eat when we returned home. The people we met, like Papa, Greta, and Thomas, will remain in our hearts for a long time. The kindness and hospitality of Pietrasanta’s locals have made a lasting impression, and each dancer made friends through classes and rehearsals. For now, we will keep up with everyone through Facebook and Instagram (thank goodness for the Internet). Maybe in the future, Pietrasanta and dancers from around the world will greet us once again.