The writhe stuff

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 February, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 February, 2004, 12:00am

A FAINT ITALIAN-ACCENTED voice trickles down the phone line linking Hong Kong with Amsterdam. The voice belongs to the elfish, shaven-headed Emio Greco, one of the hottest names in modern dance. This emerging talent's groundbreaking style - a form of manic movement of his own invention - is causing critics to speak of shamanic powers and miracles on stage.

It seems, then, a shame not to be meeting him face to face. yet it doesn't seem to matter at the end of an hour of fascinating discussion about dance: Greco is as elegant with words as he is with his body.

Local dance lovers will have a chance to see him perform during the Hong Kong Arts Festival. Since he set up the revolutionary dance company Emio Greco/PC in 1995, he and his creative partner, the Dutch theatre director Pieter C. Scholten, have been astounding audiences and critics with daring and innovative dance theatre that brings metaphysics and philosophical questions into a physical space.

Greco's particular style of dance is so astounding it is described as having a 'shamanic intensity'. He races across the stage, flipping from mad explosions of movement to sudden and absolute stillness. His shows have thrilled dance enthusiasts, philosophers and mathematicians. The performances inspired the Flemish philosopher Antoon Van Den Braembrussche to write a paper on the trilogy Fra Cervello E Movimento in 2001.

'Dance for me, is to penetrate or to travel through something,' Greco says in initially wobbly English. (He's fluent in four languages, and soon warms up.) 'The dancer is able to create time and space. It's a philosophical theory, but with the body it can become very real. It means measuring time, and the ability of the body to be conscious of that measuring. Something happens not because of a movement, but an awareness of time moving by. The time can be a fraction of a second or minutes. It allows me to create acceleration or disappearance, or a vacuum.'

Greco's manipulation of his body, and the curiosity with which he approaches dance, is a testament to a lack of formal training in his youth. His is the story of how a peasant child from southern Italy became a modern dance and choreographic sensation, how failure and difference was grasped and turned into gold. Billy Elliot, eat your heart out.

'I'm the son of a peasant, and part of my childhood was spent on a farm,' Greco says. 'I worked pretty hard with my father and uncle in the fields. Of course, I studied at the same time. But to dance, that was a dream since I was very young. It was a dream that slowly faded out - I had no connection with that world.'

As a 21-year-old he moved to Cannes in the south of France, and finally trained as a ballet student. 'It was a very painful realisation,' he says. 'I saw how old I was, and there were so many talented people around me. There was a clash of realities. There is a certain culture within ballet and people think they know where the talent is ... I realised that the only way I could go on with something was to create my own method of working.'

After travelling around Europe for several years, working on his own movements, he was given a frame and a stage when he linked up with Scholten in 1995 to form Emio Greco/PC in the Netherlands. The pair viewed the medium of dance as a form of invention and exploration. They released a manifesto and seven so-called commandments beginning with 'I must tell you that' - the first being 'I must tell you that my body is curious about everything.'

'It was to try to elaborate or recognise who we are in relation to the environment of where we are, to define what belongs to you and what is learnt and influenced,' says Greco. 'For me as object and subject, as dancer and choreographer, it was a search for a new form in dance.'

Combining Greco's strange movements with Sholten's theatrical tricks of slicing the stage with columns of smoke and shafts of light, the pair have left audiences and critics breathless, often claiming the experience bordered on religious.

'This is dance that reaches spiritual dimensions,' says the programme notes to one of their most applauded works, Conjunto Di Nero (Conjunction Of Black), which will be performed at the Kwai Tsing Auditorium this month. 'To see in the dark, to hear in the silence, to taste movement in stillness.'

Conjunto is an exploration of black - combining Greco, two other male dancers and two female dancers all dressed in woolly, black shifts. The group performs on a stage divided by smoke and lighting - the lights and the dancers' bodies cut shafts in the smoke to form spaces of their own. In Conjunto Di Nero we want to give light and sound a physical appearance,' Greco says. 'The darkness itself can be an element and matter. It's a presence. It's not a colour but something you can shape and sculpt.'

They disappear, reappear, roar and hit stillness to the accompaniment of moody, unmelodic music. Ultimately, they twist with existential notions of what is and what is not. Since its debut in 2001, the show has won euphoric reviews, many applauding this spiritual element. 'It's tragic and heroic and divine at the same time,' Greco says. 'Many people have felt this.'

When I ask whether attaining this spiritual essence is his intention, he recoils. 'I don't think it's appropriate if I tried! It would be artificial and opportunistic. For me I try to achieve a certain dimension and if that isn't considered divine that is fine with me.'

He pauses, then with another surge of inspiration coursing down the phone line like lightning, he says: 'Art is an autonomous and independent island where it can be received or rejected. I'm fascinated to do different art forms not as an academic possibility, but as an explorer.'

Conjunto Di Nero. February 17-18, 8pm. Kwai Tsing Theatre Auditorium, Kwai Tsing. $100-$260 Urbtix. Tel: 2734 9009