Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Alessandra Belloni Part 2: Techno Tarantella

This is a transcript of the podcast appearing on our Podcast Page.

Carolyn: Techno Tarantella is a show that blends myth, reality, fevered dance and music, fire, gods and goddesses. In recent years it’s been performed at various New York City venues, including the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. This show is being developed and nurtured by Alessandra Belloni, a world-renowned percussionist, singer, dancer, composer and arranger. The Techno Tarantella was born from another of her shows, called the Dance of the Ancient Spider.

Alessandra: It’s been a long journey. I began to visualize a show about the myth of the spider bite, of the tarantula, in 1995 and I was commissioned by Lincoln Center Community Arts Project to do a show at Alice Tully Hall. I said, OK, this would be the time to do it because I saw it in a grand style. So I wrote the show called The Dance of the Ancient Spider and it premiered at Alice Tully Hall.

So I wrote that story back then, and how the bacchante, the women at that time became possessed by the Dionysus god to release all of the poison out of the body and it had to do with the depression of young women connected to the myth of Aracne.

In that show, we used only folk music and acoustic music, and I kind of told the story of a woman who became a tarantata and how she was healed by the dance and the rhythm. So we did that show for about 4 years on and off, and it was the title of that CD, Taranata, Dance of the Ancient Spider. But then I started to listen to this really interesting electronic music fused with folk music. The way I used to do this was very folk music, beautifully done, but very much of an elite audience that would never grab young people, on a bigger level.

Carolyn: So has the change to techno music changed your audience?

Alessandra: I used more of the techno music and modern dance, now it grabs more of a younger audience.

Carolyn: So how did this change begin?

Alessandra: I would say starting in the year 2002, 2003 I was in Brazil, I was performing in a club. A friend of mine owns this fantastic place called Grazie a Dio in Sao Paulo. And he has a very good DJ working there and very good sound people. So, as we finished the performance, we ate and then we came back to the club to dance and I heard this really cool music. It sounded very familiar and I said, “Wait a second, I heard this before!” and it was my music they had recorded in the concert but the DJ put a techno feel to it.

Carolyn: So it’s your music done in a techno style?

Alessandra: Yes. And then I went , “Wow, what is that?” and he said “It’s you!” “Really? That sounds really good!” So we started talking about this project in Brazil, you know, like, we’ve got to do this techno thing and that was back, the end of 2002, beginning of 2003.

I went back, then I did a show 2005 for Carnival in Brazil and this guy has a group that is well known for electronic music, improvised on stage with acoustic music on top. He asked me to be a guest in his show, and I said “I have this dream of one day doing a show called Techno Tarantella” and he goes “I don’t know what it is, but let’s try it.” So we did. I started singing and they started improvising and they put all the technology in it and it was beautiful I thought “Wow, this can really work”. The whole audience was dancing, my voice, my drum and everything was looping then I stopped playing and singing and I started dancing and I said “I can really do that. I can have a machine reproduce what I do, and dance.”

Carolyn: Since then, Alessandra’s show, Techno Tarantella, has developed and showcased the talents of certain artists she met along the way.

Alessandra: Originally the group was founded by me and John LaBarbera, the guitarist.

I owe a lot to Joe Deninzon, who is a violinist from Russia. He has fantastic training of classical, jazz and rock. His band is a jam band and he’s known around the country as Jimi Hendrix of the violin. So when I first got this idea of the Techno Tarantella I thought to ask him and he was totally into it. He the one who put the most time into developing those sounds because he’s specialized on all the effects. So he created all of those amazing sounds. I think that’s why the show works, because it’s not my usual ensemble that has guitars, violins, flutes, mandolins, and all that. I don’t think it needs all that. I think Joe, with all of the effects is great and a lot of percussion. Percussion’s very important.

Carolyn: Well, what I remember about Joe is that during the Pizzica, he was dancing and he was on his back playing this incredibly fast, complicated rhythm, rolling around on the floor.

Alessandra : I think it’s spectacular. Joe Deninzon, yeah, he’s the man.

So the other person that is important in this is the actor that plays the narrator, Ivan Thomas. He’s a baritone, and he’s part Italian, part African American and he’s an opera singer who has toured all over the world. And his main role was in Porgy and Bess. When we met 20 years ago he was doing a lot of opera but because he feels so close to Italy because of his grandmother was Italian from Siena, he loved working with us, always. And then he got cast to be in River Dance, and he was the only live singer that they had, everyone was on playback in River Dance. The singers, not the band. The band was amazing. So he gave me a lot of input about how to evolve a show that has the potential of River Dance.

Carolyn: Another artist who brings Techno Tarantella to life is Antonio Fini. Dionysius, the Greek god of ecstasy and wine, plays a large part in the myth and in the Techno Tarantella. Antonio plays Dionysius and his breathtaking dance of fire is one of the show’s highlights.

Alessandra : Antonio I met here in NY. He was studying at the Martha Graham school, the ensemble, and he’s from Calabria and he’s a really gifted dancer from the South of Italy and the region I love the most, Calabria. His main training is modern dance. And when I started to audition dancers for the show, when he came, I just saw what he did and I said “This is it! It’s him!” But I didn’t know what else he could do. Then he told me “I dance with fire and I do this, and I do that” and I know we share a very similar spiritual quest in our life. He’s very young but he’s got an incredible mind.

So I kind of took a leap of faith because he wasn’t a choreographer but a young dancer with a lot of gifts. But because we both believe in many things and we know these dances in Italy were done for the solstice and were done in the woods as gatherings. Sometimes people were accused of witchcraft, and they were not witches but were someone in the power of the fires, the elements, of the sun god. We both agreed that these scenes had to be part of the show.

Carolyn: So Techno Tarantella not only signals a change in the musical style of the story of the ancient spider, but also a change in the breath of the show.

Alessandra : It was no longer just the story of the tarantella, as I had done before, and the woman, the tarantata. It had to embrace all the elements that are a part of our magic ritual ceremonies. So that’s why the show has all those elements.

Carolyn: Let’s go through the different elements of the show.

Alessandra : It starts with the myth of Aracne and how this young princess was such a skilled weaver and how Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom is very jealous of the young princess and all the nymphs admire her. I chose to be Athena who challenges her, because the relationship being older and younger woman, the crone and the maiden. And Athena accepts the challenge to the weaving contest and Aracne wins. Athena gets very angry, destroys the linen and Aracne, out of humiliation, hangs herself, and Athena transforms her into a spider. That’s the prologue part.

And in the show, very important to have Athena have a mask to represent the gods. A lot of the things I do go back to the ancient Greek, Roman theater and some of it is Renaissance. So using the narrator as the one character out of the story and describes the story. That’s typical way of actor and chorus. And then I chose to use masks again following that kind of style and my dream was always to have an aerial dancer that could be the spider. So of course I’m really glad I met Fran Sperling as the aerial dancer. So when I transform Aracne the aerial dancer comes out and she used the net, which was amazing. So she hangs herself from the net and it’s very powerful because I directed her a little bit but not much. I just said, please work with spider moves and feeling of hanging and killing herself. Which she did.

The show goes on how the girls are affected by the suicide mania because they are not free. So I use that piece during those scenes; the transformation to the spider. And it’s a sad song of a young girl that dies of love.

In the first part of the show we show also the Middle Ages, death coming, the plague, the stilt dancer. I think he’s amazing. I couldn’t believe what he was doing. But that’s the first half. The ending of Act I is a dance that comes from the Renaissance called Bailo di Sfezania, where people dress like devils and dance to exorcise the fear of death and contra malochhio, against the evil eye.

In the Renaissance it was a very popular thing and people dressed like that in the streets to do this dance. The awkward movements using the fingers in the position of the horns. And to do that dance I studied prints from the Renaissance, then I gave it to Antonio and another dancer, and then became a modern dance choreography.

Carolyn: So the roots of that Renaissance dancing is in this Tarantella?

Alessandra: It’s all based in authentic tradition. What I always do is look at the books, the prints, and study them and then direct and come up with the choreography.

Then the beginning of Act 2 is rebirth; the hope of light coming after darkness. That’s why we began first with the sun chant which is so much part of our tradition. It’s a very powerful healing chant and then the fire. And that song for the fire was the song I wrote for my mother and that helped me heal my pain but also, when we do it I really feel her and I feel the meaning of it, the rebirth. That she’s not really dead, and that fire brings her back to life.

Then we talk about how the people suffer from the tarantismo and the woman tries to win the love of the young man and then the group dances that develops. And I used those songs from Puglia that are used for the cure that are really strong. And Antonio did a great staging of the madness scene when they are all going crazy together. And the spider is there, still biting in the subconscious mind. And at the end we did the techno Pizzica which I think works really well because it gets you going. It’s much more powerful I think than the acoustic one that I’ve done for 27 years.

I like things that are much more wild. And Tarantella is much more wild. That’s why I think it has a great potential. It has the flavor of some Cirque du Soliel. I have a vision. If I had, even a quarter million dollars, I could have a lot of dancers flying at some point, so when they are bitten, they go up and they’re flying.

And I conceived the show also with a real group of Arabs coming, when the Moors meet the Christians. In the show you saw, because of our low budget, we have to do everything ourselves. All I know is I was always changing masks and costumes. Who am I next?

Carolyn: Although Techno Tarantella is steeped in myth, many of the rituals it depicts are still with us.

Alessandra: The spirit of Dionysius never died. He is still celebrated in Brazil more than anywhere. But it’s also celebrated in New Orleans, Caribbean in Carnival. That’s why I wanted to leave the audience with a blessing of love because once you celebrate Dionysus, you are much more in ecstasy.

So I see it as a spectacle that has a lot of possibilities. A message of healing through music and dance and drumming and with a multi-cultural cast, and with a message of peace. Because I think the world is going crazy. What I would like to convey is that young people can have fun and have a Techno Tarantella ecstasy without taking ecstasy. We are all one when it comes to rhythm and dance. The Islam, the Christian, Brazilians, Africans, we all worship Dionysus or Allah or you name it, it’s the same God.

Carolyn: To watch video clips fo the Techo Tarantella performance, go to the Essence of Italy links page and click on Essence of Italy at YouTube.

To learn more, visit

This is Carolyn Masone at Thanks for listening!

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