An isolated hand brushes the air away. We can hear Fox Whitney speak in looped audio, but all we can see is one forearm to fingertip. Four fingers round and a thumb connects, forming a circle that relies on a buoyant wrist to bounce up and down in the camera frame. This hand then morphs once again, beckoning towards the audience before flattening to expose the palm, wiping in a semicircle. It later waves goodbye, holding a glittery lump of coal. Whitney’s hand narrative is concise and amusing.
Produced by Alice Gosti’s performance company MALACARNE, La Befana takes its name from a figure in Italian folklore—an elderly woman dressed in black who rode a broomstick through the air on the night between January 5th and January 6th. La Befana filled stockings with gifts and sweets for good children and coal for bad children. Program notes explain, “She is a human personification of winter, and also a personification of the year that has passed.” In addition to Fox Whitney’s piece, the virtual show features a mix of live and pre-recorded performances by Sarah Hogland-Gurulé, Sara Maurizi, Teresa Noronha Feio, Alia Swersky, Tyisha Nedd, Cecilia Ventriglia, Alyza DelPan-Monley, Kusanagi Sisters, and Neve Kamilah Mazique-Bianco. These performers showcase works inspired by La Befana, engaging in the ancient ritual of shedding the old year and inviting a new one. Gosti writes, “We always need this practice. Now more than ever.”
Alyza DelPan-Monley animates cutout drawings with their hands. Accompanying the movement of these detailed drawings is a narration of La Befana’s story, revisiting the ancient tale and then beginning to question how else we can interpret it. Is coal actually a gift of punishment, in the midst of a cold winter? Is it up to La Befana to determine if we’ve been good, or can we choose to reflect ourselves? DelPan-Monley suggests that perhaps we can utilize our own agency to sweep out the old year without La Befana’s help.
In a film created by NYC-based Tyisha Nedd and Nico Tower, Nedd faces away from the camera before playfully turning around to smile, revealing teeth covered in a black substance. The substance originates from a bathtub, filled with black water. Nedd repeatedly scrubs her face with the water, performing this common movement with intentional vigor. She takes her hands to the heart and lets them relax down slowly, a peaceful gesture of contentment. Curiously, she holds her knees into her chest and kicks legs out one by one. It is as though she is bathing in the movement as much as the bathwater. Nedd is calming to watch, inviting the audience into her world and displaying delight in choreography.
In the next piece, the camera begins positioned on a beach with the waves crashing. Performer Alia Swersky emerges from the side view, crawling onto the sand. Camera angles switch and occasionally the video retrogrades, but Swersky’s movement remains consistent. She is slinky and swervy, exploring the natural landscape. Her choreography evokes a conscientious monster – one with all of the power to crush mountains under its feet, but that chooses to step thoughtfully instead.
Layered video permeates a work by Kusanagi Sisters, an interdisciplinary art company co-founded by Lisa & JuJu Kusanagi out of Tokyo. The performers undulate in silhouette, overlaid with video of colorful fireworks. It is an oddly peaceful combination. The film cuts to a sea of blue feet, with many pairs of legs weaving and moving around each other over another video of a changing kaleidoscope. The layering techniques allow for a fresh approach to what movement is capable of.
Some artists utilize the tale of La Befana to launch their own storytelling, expressing visual and auditory narratives. Sarah Hogland-Gurulé tells an original short story of a woman who is absorbed by the moon, perhaps inspired by La Befana’s adventures through the night sky. Sarah Maurizi’s film includes images of shadows and black boots dancing, referencing the image of La Befana and allowing it to take on imagined choreography. Each work demonstrates the renewing ritual in movement that is unique to them, honing in on a dance cleansing practice. These practices differ greatly in style and presentation, but appear cathartic to the movers, which is, in turn, cathartic to watch.
La Befana highlights how film and live video extrapolates the variety that can already exist when multiple artists head off from the same starting point. This performance facilitates nuance in interpretation, but grounds itself in the ritual of welcoming a new year. It is a needed invitation to greet dance with new insight in 2021.