‘Tarantella, Spider Dance’ from Italy to Premiere at Theater for the New City

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Dionysus (Antonio Fini) and Nymphs. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Sensual dancers will enact the ancient ecstatic rites of Dionysus when Theater for the New City presents Alessandra Belloni and her company, I Giullari di Piazza, in “Tarantella: Spider Dance” January 15 to 17, 2010. A company of 15 performers’ musicians, actors, acrobats and dancers will fill the stage with a trance dance celebration of culture unique to the Southern Italian experience. The piece is written and directed by Alessandra Belloni. Music is arranged by Joe Deninzon and John La Barbera. Choreography is by Antonio Fini and Alessandra Belloni. Aerial dancer Fran Sperling appears as The Tarantula.

This is the 30th Anniversary season of I Giullari di Piazza. The company’s website, with links to videos and the recording, is http://alessandrabelloni.com/spiderdance.php. “Tarantella: Spider Dance” premiered at Theater for the New City in the Winter of 2007. Following the TNC production, it toured to Italy and Spain.

TNC was formative to the emergence of I Giullari di Piazza. In 1982, Alessandra Belloni and her new company participated in a festival of plays about Nuclear Disarmament at TNC and marched with Bread and Puppet Theater and the TNC company at the head of the 1982 Disarmament Parade in New York City. Now, Ms. Belloni treasures TNC as a place of innovation and artistic renewal, making it important, to her, to appear there in her troupe’s 30th anniversary season.

The Spider Dance, or “Tarantella,” is a wild erotic dance ritual from Southern Italy used to cure the mythical bite of the tarantula. An early version of this production was presented at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall in 1996 and played to a sold-out audience as “The Dance of the Ancient Spider.” In articles on the year’s best World Music CDs, the sound track of this production made the top ten lists of Jon Pareles of the NY Times and Dan Hackman of the Los Angeles Times.

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Antonio Fini in Fire Dance. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

The current production has folk dances choreographed by Alessandra Belloni and modern dances choreographed by Antonio Fini, who is originally from southern Italy. Its music infuses ancient melodies and instrumentation; Arabic, Middle Eastern, and Brazilian rhythms; and techno beats and electronic music. Some arrangements are by guitarist John La Barbera and violinist Joe Deninzon. Some music has been composed by Alessandra Belloni.

Adapting classic forms to a modern context, the piece is aims to involve audiences of all ages in a collective ritual dance of liberation from the spider web of entrapment in today’s society. It aims for an ecstatic release known as the Pizzica, or Spider Dance, whose origins are cross-cultural. Its music derives from ancient Greece, southern Italy during the Crusades, the Renaissance and modern times, blending modern and ancient healing trance dances, powerful ritual drumming and chants in honor of the Black Madonna, erotic sensual love songs and women’s work chants.

Most specifically, the performance harkens back to the historic Dance of the Tarantula, a healing trance dance for women from the Greek rites of the “Baccantes.” Women involved in these rites, called Tarantate, danced the “Pizzica Tarantata” (“the bite of the spider tarantula,” also called “the bite of love”). A bite of love supposedly drove them to dance in a wild frenzy in order to free themselves of repressed sexual desires. The dominant music was percussion, with large tambourines playing non-stop to a 12/8 beat, with loud accents. By spinning and stomping their feet, participants symbolically expelled the “poison” of the mythical bite of the tarantula from their bodies. A double row of jingles on the instruments accentuated the madness as dancers, traditionally clad in white with red scarves and ribbons, moved on their backs like spiders. All participants customarily experienced a trance-like state induced by the combination of music and dancing.

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Spider Dancer: Fran Sperling. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Instrumentation in “Tarantella: Spider Dance” combines the traditional and the modern. Traditional percussion will include tambourines, frame drums, dumbeck, riqq and castanets. Modern instrumentation will include drum set, electric violin, techno beats and electronic music.

In the piece’s underlying story, Arachne, played by aerial dancer Fran Sperling, challenges the Goddess Athena, played by percussionist/singer Alessandra Belloni, into a weaving contest. Arachne wins and Athena, taken by jealousy, destroys her competitor’s creation. A humiliated Arachne commits suicide and hangs herself from a tree. Athena then transforms her into a spider, thus condemning her to weave her web forever. The show goes on to tell the story of a woman (played by Alessandra Belloni) wrongly accused of being a witch during a winter solstice gathering in the woods. She is not allowed to express her sexual desires and turns into a tarantata. Her only cure for depression is to dance the Tarantella. The performance concludes with a collective trance dance cleansing ceremony. The audience is invited to participate in this celebration of life and love with dancing and wine.

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The Sun (Mark Mindek) on stilts in Maypole Dance. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

The musical ensemble includes Alessandra Belloni (lead vocals, southern Italian percussion and ritual dance), musical director is Joe Deninzon (electric and acoustic violin). and John La Barbera (classical acoustic guitar, chitarra battente, oud), Vinnie Sciala (percussion) and Alessandra Tartivita (soprano).

The dance company includes eight dynamic dancers and fire dancers of different cultural backgrounds. These include Caterina Rago, a dancer from the Martha Graham Company; Antonio Fini (as Dionysus); stilt dancer Mark Mindek and various Italian folk dancers who will whirl in a Sufi dance. Set design is by Donald L.Brooks and Arden H. Mason.

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Tarantella! Spider Dance. Foreground: Alessandra Belloni (with tambourine), Fran Sperling (Spider Dancer). Behind: Joe Deninzon (violinist), Antonio Pio Fini (dancer), Joe La Barbera (guitarist). Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Alessandra Belloni (www.alessandrabelloni.com) is a Remo artist with her own line of signature series tambourines. A virtuoso of the instrument, she has documented its use in an ancient women’s tradition. Women priestesses honoring the Goddess of the Earth and the Moon in ancient Egypt , Greece and Rome mainly played tambourines and frame drums. Today, these instruments are still used in Southern Italy. Belloni has mastered the instruments, combining them with singing and dancing. She has been named “One of the best percussionists in the World” by DRUM Magazine and other publications. Belloni has collaborated with many celebrated drummers such as Rick Allen (Def Leppard), Gordon Gottlieb, (NY Philharmonic, Julliard, Steely Dan), Jamie Haddad, (Paul Winter, Paul Simon), Kenny Aranoff, Anthony Miranda, Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco (from David Byrne’s band) and others.

Joe Deninzon, Musical Director, has been hailed by critics as “The Jimi Hendrix of the Violin,” because of his innovative style on the electric seven-string violin and his compositions combining jazz and rock with Gypsy influences. A musician who transcends many genres, he has recorded and performed with artists including Sheryl Crow, Everclear, Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple, Smokey Robinson, Les Paul, and most recently at Madison Square Garden with Bruce Springsteen. He has also performed Richard Einhorn’s “Red Angels” as a solo electric violinist with the New York City Ballet. His band, Stratospheerius (www.stratospheerius.com), has released four CD’s and was named “Best Jam Band” in the Musician’s Atlas Independent Music Awards. He is a ten-time BMI composer’s grant recipient and a winner of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest. His original music has been used on CMT, MTV VH1, Comedy Central, National Geographic, the Travel Channel and the History Channel among others. (www.joedeninzon.com)

John La Barbera (arrangements), originally from Southern Italy, is co-founder of I Giullari Di Piazza. He has developed, taught and transcribed traditional Italian music in the US since 1979. He has composed music for several films and documentaries, including “Sacco and Vanzetti,” “Children of Fate” and the “Souls of Naples” with John Torturro.

The sound track of the production is available on a CD, which will be available at the show. Selections can be found on i-Tunes. This production is funded in part by the New York State Council on the Arts.

“Tarantella: Spider Dance” will be presented January 15 to 17, 2010 by Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue (between Ninth and Tenth Streets) in Manhattan’s East Village. Show times are 8:00 PM on January 15 and 16 and 3:00 PM on January 17. Tickets are $20 general admission and $15 for students and seniors. The box office number is (212) 254-1109. Tickets can be purchased online at www.theaterforthenewcity.net.