Friday, December 18, 2009

Sacred Art of Fire Dancing –From Calabria to New York

Carolyn: Fire and dance have been combined to enhance the sacred for millennia. From Greece to Bulgaria, from Native American to Maori tribes in New Zealand, fire and dance have spun together to capture the imagination and raise the consciousness of the dancers and viewers alike. Over time, this sacred art entered the realm of performance, but the raw power and grace of the human body dancing amid circles and arcs of flame continues its hypnotic effect.

One man who brings the sacred meaning of fire dancing into the world of performance is Antonio Fini. Antonio is a professional dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company and the Whitney Hunter Dance Company, both in NYC. In 2005 he won the Olympic dance game in Milan for his choreography. He has danced for Teatro Massimo di Palermo, Campagnia dei Giovani Carcano and Talenti in Scena. He danced and choreographed for Ethno Show at Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan, and Diego e Isabella at the Siris Festival. One of his passions is fire dancing, which he explores as a member of the Italian performance troupe, I Giulliari di Piazza.

Antonio was born and raised in the little town of Villa Piana Lido, on the Ionian Sea north of Cosenza, in Calabria, Italy. Antonio learned about playing with fire when he was 16 years old from his sister, Grazia, who returned to Calabria from Naples where she was attending University. Grazia is a fire breather.

Antonio: She come back in Calabria and she was playing with the fire And we were in the beach at night and she was also, like, blowing the fire; it was really amazing. I don’t even remember the first time that I tried with the fire. But what I remember, I remember when she was blowing the fire and we were in the beach and many people were there. She didn’t want actually to play, other people were kind of playing with the fire, and this guy was blowing the fire. So at one point he heard that my sister know how to do it, so he was like, oh, let’s see, you know? Really because she was a girl, they were like, oh, what she can do? So when she starts to playing, when she starts blowing the fire everybody went nuts because she was not just blowing the fire but she was blowing the fire with the dragon.

Carolyn: To blow fire with the dragon means breathing fire in such a way that the flames begin very close to the outside of the breather’s mouth, closer than is considered safe by many.

Antonio: Also the way that she was moving, she was like going back and she was blowing out and it was just amazing.

Carolyn: She must have been magnificent.

Antonio: Yeah. Beautiful.

Carolyn: It turned out that Antonio also had a natural affinity for the fire.

Antonio: She teach me a little bit without fire and it was funny because I learned really fast. She was upset about it. She was like, Oh this is too hard, maybe start with this, and after I was doing that and even more. So, I learned really fast how to do, how to play with the bolas.

Carolyn: Bolas is a Spanish word used to describe a certain type of fire dancing equipment: 2 small metal dishes at the end of chains held in each hand, that the dancer swings and twirls in performance. Each dish usually contains Kevlar blended wicking material that is easily ignited.

Antonio: It’s an experience. I didn't have enough time to practice that with my sister, so and actually it’s hard to do it in New York for many reasons. We had the opportunity to do the fire in theater, but blowing the fire from the mouth, that’s another story. So, I had the experience in Calabria it was just me And my sister, she was coaching me how to do it, how to be safe and everything, so it was our experience. I never performed that.

Carolyn: Rather than fire breathing, Antonio developed his skill as a fire dancer. One night in a park in Milano, he and Graceila met another woman who would further challenge Antonio’s abilities.

Antonio: We were just playing, dancing. So she start to show me some new stuff and I get some of that, and after she’s like, can you play in your back? I was like, what do you mean? And she’s like can you do all this movement but having your hands in your back? So and I was like well, I thought about doing that but I never tried.

Carolyn: it sounded dangerous!

Antonio: Well, without the fire I started to try And try and in the end of the night, I was doing it. And so she didn't know how to do it, my sister, either but at the end we came out with something. And so that makes my fire dancer even more particular, I think. I can go in this really hard combination. But at the same time I don’t do that often on stage even because it takes a lot of my attention on doing that and I think it’s just nice if I can dance thru. So, not have too much attention on what is the movement of it.

Carolyn: Antonio’s relationship with the sacredness of fire is at the core of his dancing.

Antonio: Having this relationship with the fire, it’s so strong, because it’s something dangerous. But at the same time you move with it, there is the music and it’s energy around you, you control this fire in a way. But I think it’s really interesting when you perform in the street, it’s a performance but in the same time it’s you learning this art. It’s really magic. Each time that I was playing in the street it was a performance but at the same time it was just like my time in a way. And I think that’s the magic of it. When we have in Calabria, many times we go on the beach at night and we can light fire and we can just stay there And play And dance, you know. I played a lot also in there with the fire, just for us.

Carolyn: it sounds like it’s a very intimate experience.

Antonio: It is.

Carolyn: As a viewer of the fire dancing, that’s the amazing thing. Watching the shapes that are created by the flames because they linger in the air after they’ve passed a certain point and they’ve already started to make a new shape, but the old shape is still lingering in the air and it is just so breathtaking. And especially when the movements are really fast, there’s no way to know which is the present moment flame and which is the flame past, and they meet in the air so often And it is just magical to watch.

Carolyn: Antonio is a principal dancer in the troupe, I GP, with Alessandra Belloni. In the production, Techno Tarantella, Antonio performs a breathtaking fire dance as Dionysius, the god of ecstasy and wine.

Antonio: I think my fire dance grows a lot with Alessandra because of the music. I dance the fire dance in the song that she wrote for her mother, the Requiem. And before sometimes I was thinking which next movement I was going to do or whatever, but going thru. And the music is telling me where to go, And the movement. Because I think is maybe different from other people playing with the fire that I am trying to dance more.

As you say before, it’s really personal in a way, even if you’re still performing for somebody. It’s magic, it’s powerful, it’s alive. And many people are like, are you not scared, the fire’s so close to your face sometimes, because I really like to do this thing with the fire going in front of me in a circle and I’m going backwards in a cambre, so it makes this illusion that I’m going one way And the fire’s going another way. And when I go all around me really fast, sometimes, you know, the fires touch my skin. But it doesn't burn, it just really slightly going and but it’s always fine.

Carolyn: in those moments do you remember how hot it is? Like do you kind of forget?

Antonio: Actually you can hear the sounds of the fire.

Carolyn: You can hear the flames?

Antonio: Yeah. That’s really intense. And it gives you strength. Even if you play slowly with it, if you go fast, it makes you so strong. And sometimes I think everybody should try.

Carolyn: Well, you make it sound really intriguing, I’m sitting here And I’m thinking, wow, this might be fun!

Antonio: It totally is fun!

Carolyn: if I don’t set my hair on fire! It could be fun.

Antonio: I think you should try first of all without fire.

Carolyn: I think so too.

Antonio: Actually I have a story about that. The mother of a singer, she made this gold bathing suit. It was a little bit puffy on the side of the back so I was worried that maybe some of the material was going in fire. It was the first night, after we practice in theater And I was fine, while I was dancing I think one of the bolas with fire touched my butt. And I start to feel a smell of burning And I was like, Oh my God, I’m on fire, but I keep going And I was trying to looking in my back if everything was fine, because when it touched my skin I know I could feel it that it’s fine.

Carolyn: Although Antonio lives in NYC and Grazia lives in Switzerland now, playing with fire still captures their imagination.

Antonio: So we are thinking about having a fan with fire, closing and opening maybe, it starts closing And opening and it has like moving in the back, they become the wings.

Carolyn: does this thing exist?

Antonio: I’m not sure. I saw once a bellydancer with something but she was just moving, she was not using as a bolas. I think there is. I mean I’m sure somebody tried but what I would like to, because from the bellydance they are really small and I want to create something bigger so that it has…

Carolyn: more of an effect.

Antonio: more fire. And you can move it faster.

Carolyn: No matter how much we talk about Antionio’s fire dancing, it has to be seen to be fully appreciated. To watch a video of Antonio’s performance in Techno Taranetella, go to the Essence of Italy links page and click on Essence of Italy at YouTube. To see photographs of his various performances, you can find them throughout the written transcript of this podcast on our Italian Journal page.

This is Carolyn Masone for Thanks for listening!

Voyage of the Black Madonna - Concert Dedicated to Mother Earth

On December 6, 2009, the laments and celebrations of the Voyage of the Black Madonna rang in St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in NYC. The performance was a showcase of some of the music and dance from the full theatrical production. Evocative music, whirling, colorful costumes and interpretative dance told the story of the poet Virgil and his encounters with different faces of the Black Madonna. Written by Alessandra Belloni and Dario Bollini, the story is based on various legends from Southern Italy. In this version, Virgil is awakened to understand the essential nature of Mother Earth through his experiences with seven Black Madonnas.

The show includes original music by renowned composer, arranger and musician John T. LaBarbera. La Barbera, Belloni and Bollini spent many years researching the origins and celebrations of Black Madonnas around the world, and the music that drives those celebrations. In Voyage of the Black Madonna, the rhythms originate in Italy, Africa, Brazil and the Gypsy musicians of the Basque Regions of France and Spain. During the show La Barbera expertly played various stringed instruments, including mandolin and battante. His versatility and musicianship gave the impression that there was an entire string section, instead of just him. Susan Eberenz‘s flute, piccolo and recorder added just the right amount of brightness and flow to the pieces. Entertaining us on violin was none other than Sebastian, Eberenz and La Barbera’s son who, at 11 years old, is already a performing veteran. As the show contained highlights from the full production, the narration read by Dolores Deluise was essential to the audience’s understanding of the onstage events.

It was Belloni’s clear, strong mezzosoprano voice and incomparable frame drumming that guided the production. Surrounded by her many frame drums, she played the various Black Madonna characters who enlighten Virgil as to the true nature of Mother Earth. Virgil was played by dancer Mark Mindek, whose flowing movements told the story of seeking, learning and finally, comprehension. Mindek, who is normally the stilt dancer for Belloni and La Barbera’s theatrical company, I Giulliari di Piazza, still gave the impression of towering above us all even though his feet were on the ground this time.

Special mention must be given to the costumes. The deep, rich colors of purple, turquoise, reds, yellows and blues added a sumptuous feel to the dark, heavy wood of the church. It was the combination of these flowing colors, expressive movement and soaring music that made it a unique experience.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Francine Segan Shares the Joys of Italian Desserts

Author, lecturer and food historian Francine Segan spoke at 92Y in NYC on Tuesday, December 15, 2009 on the fun and flavors of Italian desserts. Fresh from her most recent Italian trip researching her upcoming book, Segan entertained us with recipes, anecdotes and several desserts that she made for the occasion.

One of the memorable quotes from the evening was something an Italian chef told her about the philosophy behind Italian desserts: “we are always thinking of ways to keep you at the table”. When you think about it, this explains so much about Italian cuisine in general, whether in a restaurant or at your Nonna’s house. So much attention and love put into each ingredient and stir of the pot, all designed to keep you at the table, keep the conversation going, keep the laughter ringing through the house.

Segan presented the history of Italian sweets from the Renaissance to modern times. She included desserts designed to be enjoyed with luscious liquores such as vin santo. She discussed the history of chocolate in Italy while circulating trays of Italian chocolate gathered on her recent trip. She enlightened us about the baking and uses of Panettone and Panforte. She fed us wonderful desserts that she made from these ingredients and sent us home with Panettone and Pandoro di Verona, compliments of the Bauli company.

True to the spirit of the season. Segan discussed St. Nicholas and Santa Claus and how they are so differently perceived in the US and Italy. In the US, Jolly Old St. Nick and Santa Claus are synonymous, while in Italy they are very different. St. Nicholas is a saint whose feast day is December 6. He is most famous for tossing gold coins into the empty shoes of poor people at night. On the other hand, Santa Claus is Babbo Natale, or Father Christmas, a wonderful but distinctly different character. And then of course there is La Bufana, who brings sweets to children on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6.

Learn about Francine’s upcoming talks at

Click here to hear Francine’s Essence of Italy podcast, Italy & Chocolate – An Affair to Remember.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Pizza Napoletana Now Protected by EU’s Traditional Specialty Guaranteed (TSG) Label

Every pizza lover knows that the texture, aroma and taste of Pizza Napoletana are unparalleled. And every pizza lover has bitten into something claiming to be Pizza Napoletana that clearly wasn’t. Neapolitan Pizza is the world’s standard, but many inferior offerings masquerade as the real thing.

Happily, an historic moment in pizza history was reached in November 9, 2009 when the European Union granted its trademark Traditional Specialty Guaranteed (TSG) label to Pizza Napoletana. Now, serving this traditional Neapolitan pizza requires adherence to strict guidelines regarding ingredients, preparation, cooking and presentation.

Naples, Italy celebrated this protection from inferior pizza clones by handing out free pizzas in the Trieste e Trento Piazza. Sergio Miccu', head of the pizzaiolo (pizza-maker) association presented a 'Superpizza TSG' with the quality seal spelled out in basil and tomato strips. Yes, he was excited.

Some of the TSG requirements include a ban on rolling pins or machinery to stretch the dough (hand stretching only), cooking in a wood-fired oven only, round pizza only 35 cm or less, crust that is easily manipulated and using only traditional ingredients.

Italian Agriculture Minister Luca Zaia issued a statement saying "Europe has awarded the work and the tenacity of Neapolitan producers… for a product that too often and too long has been the subject of bad imitations that have nothing to do with the true Pizza Napoletana."