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Blog - Nina Muehlemann

‘Strano’ by Alessandro Schiatarella: Exploring invisible disability through dance

Strano ('strange' in Italian): Five dancers, some visibly disabled, some nondisabled and some invisibly disabled, dressed in black.

Strano, ©Rosa Sanzone

When we enter the performance room of the Tanzhaus Zurich, we are already greeted by a hypnotic rhythm that plays in the background, and one of the dancers is moving along the wall. The audience perceives this as a warm-up, and only starts paying attention as the music and the movement gradually get more and more intense.

In his newest piece, disabled dancer and choreographer Alessandro Schiatarella wants to challenge how visible and invisible disability is perceived. Besides Schiatarella, who sometimes participates in the piece but often takes an observer role at the side of the stage, the other visibly disabled presence in Strano is Erwin Aljukic, a well-known German actor who turned to dance four years ago. The four female dancers, Luciana Croatto, Maryline Muller, Kihako Narisawa and Gavriela Antonopoulo, seem nondisabled, but the underlying issue of invisible disability in the piece complicates this assumption.

The floor, created in painstaking detail specifically for this production, gives the illusion of shattered glass, and together with the repetitive musical score and the fluid intertwining and merging of dancers, the piece often possesses a mesmerising, serene quality. Every now and again, moments of surprise and humour shake the audience up, and as a whole, Strano possesses a subtle playfulness that is a joy to watch. The way the wheelchair is used in the play makes this playfulness most evident, for example when Aljukic becomes a sorcerer who controls the other dancers by turning his wheels, or when two dancers mount the wheelchair backwards and use it like a bicycle to cross the stage.

The audience is seated diagonally on both sides from the stage, and the action of the piece sometimes takes place next to us or behind us, forcing us to take an active, self-conscious role. This technique reminds me of Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis’ production ‘The Way You Look (at me) Tonight’, especially as I know that Schiatarello has trained with Cunningham in the past. However, when I mention this to him after show, he tells me he has not seen Curtis’ and Cunningham’s piece, and it is mere an interesting coincidence that the two works, which both make us aware of the beauty of diversity in bodies, have chosen some similar methods to achieve this.

Both Aljukic’s and Schiatarella’s bodies are used in Strano to challenge the idea of an ideal, normative masculine body. This becomes most evident around the middle of the show, when Aljukic puts on a mask of Ben Affleck’s face and audience members get to perceive the contrast between this idealised Hollywood face and the disabled physique. At this point, however, the beauty of Aljukic’s body has already become so self-evident that there is no need for Affleck. The mask ends up hanging on the back of the wheelchair, another subtly humourous statement in ‘Strano’ that still makes me smile a few days later.

More information to Strano can be found on Schiatarella’s website.

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