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BWW Review: FINI DANCE FESTIVAL Parties La Via Italiana

Antonio Pio Fini and Lauren Jaeger
Fini Dance Festival 2016
Photo Credit: Rachel Neville

Though it was hot and muggy on the evening of July 24th, 2016, the jam-packed audience at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center was grinning agog like newly minted parents infatuated with their brood. The cause: a troupe of adorable bambine from Staten Island Ballet performing Ellen Tharp's "Tarantella". Though only one of these girls was delivering the movement nel modo Italiano, they were all so lively with their tambourine strikes and hops that even the most curmudgeonly of audience members applauded with gusto. That perfectly encapsulated Fini Dance Festival; a party that kept you grinning even when things did not land perfectly.

Antonio Pio Fini
Fini Dance Festival 2016
Photo Credit: Rachel Neville

Founded in 2013, the idea for this festival was born during producer Antonio Pio Fini's time at The Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. As a new arrival to this country from Calabria without a word of English at his command, Mr. Fini found himself babbling with gratitude at a fellow dancer after overhearing mention of her Italian ancestry. Much to his dismay he discovered that this potential compatriot - like many Italian Americans - was completely cut off from her homeland and unable to understand a word flooding from his mouth. Inspired by this incident, Mr. Fini resolved to bridge the gap between Italian Americans and Italy. What better way to do so than with a celebration honoring rising Italian dancers and icons?

This year that icon was Jacqulyn Buglisi, the acclaimed choreographer and former Graham superstar who was awarded the festival's "International Lifetime Achievement Award"; previous honorees include Alessandra Ferri, LUIGI, Elena Albano, and Edward Villella. In tribute to Ms. Buglisi, the long serving married principal dancers of Buglisi Dance Theatre, Virginie Mécène and Kevin Predmore, delivered a ravishing account of "Sospiri". This piece was last seen performed by Mr. Predmore and the Buglisi dancer So Young An; in the same way that Christopher Wheeldon's "After The Rain" belongs to Wendy Whelan, this piece belongs to Ms. Mecene and Mr. Predmore. When they come together, they simply stop time. Their performance was dedicated by Ms. Buglisi to Aldo and Renata Masella who recently suffered the loss of their daughter Micaela in a horrific explosion. Every moment of the concert was a tribute in one way or another - mostly, as is appropriate for Italians - to life. During his introduction of Ms. Buglisi we learned from Mr. Fini that she is essentially the "Martha Graham of Italy" in that she founded the first school of modern dance in Spoleto and was a founding member/choreographer of Italy's first contemporary dance Company, Teatro Danza Contemperanea di Roma. It seems that all Italian modern dancers can trace their lineage to Ms. Buglisi. In accepting her award, Ms. Buglisi read from a four pages long speech that grew more beautiful and life affirming as it unfolded.

"Each day that you look into the mirror you say that life is a miracle, and therefore you are a miracle. Never, never give up."
-Jacqulyn Buglisi

Additional highlights from the concert came from the other honored dancers. In accepting her award as "International Extraordinary Dancer", the Boston Ballet Principal Petra Conti charmed the audience with her generous words.

"I see so much passion and when you see that, it means that dance will never die."
-Petra Conti

To honor her, Luigi Crispino - a native of Naples who attends the Jacqueline Onassis School of American Ballet Theatre on full scholarship - performed an athletic exhibition of self love and remarkable split jumps choreographed by Mr. Fini. It was touch like the athletic demonstrations from Alexei Ratmansky's "Bolt" melded with a self involved 80's sensibility as set to Vivaldi's Presto from "Summer".

Greta Campo - a leading dancer with Nai-Ni Chen Company - delivered a bewitching interpretation of Ms. Chen's "Yu Ryung". Ms. Campo seemed to slip between dimensions as she thrashed her hair in this mesmerizing solo. I have no idea what the dance was about but I found myself unable to look away from Ms. Campo and wished that the dance could have lasted even longer. It is no wonder that she was given the "International Female Rising Star Award". It was the same for her male counterpart, the prodigiously talented soloist with The Martha Graham Dance Company, Lorenzo Pagano. Performing an excerpt from Graham's "Night Journey", Mr. Pagano raised the temperature five notches as he preened across the stage as the arrogant cock of the walk, Oedipus. This masterful performance by Mr. Pagano was the perfect evocation of hubris; "pride goeth before a fall" indeed. In receiving his award as "International Male Rising Star" Mr. Pagano echoed Ms. Campo's sentiments of gratitude and joy at being able to share Italian culture with their new home, New York City.

In a major boon that turned into a double-edged dagger, Mr. Fini presented Paul Taylor's "Piazzolla Caldera" performed by Taylor II. Here is where the evening unraveled. An evening of excerpts and short choreographic baubles is a poor match for a full-length work especially when that work is one of Mr. Taylor's more popular. "Piazzolla" is difficult to pull off for even the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre let alone the Taylor junior company. While I admired Rei Akazawa and Alana Allende for keeping the sultry feeling alive, I found myself wishing that the company had been limited to an excerpt or not invited at all. Besides the length of the piece, contrasting anything save Ms. Buglisi's work with the genius of Mr. Taylor completely unbalanced the evening. Despite the imperfect performance, asking one to go from looking at a Taylor piece to lesser choreography was simply de trop. Not even the skillful dancing of Mr. Fini with the luminous scarlet haired Blakeley White-McGuire could revive the diminished spirits of this audience. What returned the evening to its earlier glow was hearing Mr. Fini give thanks to our mutual mentor, the wonderful choreographer Michael Mao. Similar to Ms. Buglisi, Mr. Mao is a spiritual parent to many successful dancers who populate the dance scene. He has led many of us to where we are now.

Though there are still a number of production kinks to be ironed out in his presentation, Mr. Fini has a solid concept. As with many festivals, this evening lasted half an hour too long, though - coupled with his natural Italian charisma and excellent speaking - not even that was insurmountable. So long as Mr. Fini stays on topic and remembers that the point of his festival is the Italian connection - rather than presenting unrelated though acclaimed companies - then he is on a sure path. One thing is for sure: his Gala reception - which I visited briefly - was a smashing success. Here's to an equally successful performance next year.

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