Last night Alessandra Belloni and her venerable New York City-based Italian folk music and dance company I Giullari di Piazza presented the maiden voyage of a show recreating the folk rituals of the Feast of the Tarantati. The production stitched together music and dances relating to the symbolism of the bite of the tarantula as practiced over the centuries in the Puglia region of Italy and elsewhere, with Basque, Greek, and French elements added to the mix along with a few original pieces by Belloni.
The folk dancing was colorful, fun to watch, and evocative; at times their movements and costumes let me imagine I was in an Italian village centuries ago, witnessing these ancient woman-focused healing rituals in the local church. Adding to the spectacle, stilt dancer Mark Mindek in various roles (Dionysus, the Sun) loomed with humor and grace over the female dancers. The musicians were excellent, with violinist extraordinaire Joe Deninzon especially animated.
However, a number of problems with both the structure of the event and the venue made this first outing less than it could have been. Although many of the songs and chants have roots in pre-Christian culture, evolution over the centuries has grafted them into church ritual, so Belloni understandably wanted to stage her version in a church. Unfortunately, the acoustics in the chosen chapel at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine made the sound very muddy.
Still, the musicians were admirably tight, including Belloni herself, who sang many of the numbers and demonstrated her expertise on various traditional Italian hand drums. But clumsy amplification garbled her vocals. Giuseppe de Falco, the evening’s excellent secondary singer, performed without a mic and sounded much better. Amplification or no, voices and instruments would have played to much better effect in a modest concert hall, or in a small church without such boomy acoustics.
So would the dancing. Without a raised stage, much of the time audience members couldn’t get a good view of the dancers, or any view at all during the numerous passages choreographed in crouched positions or on the floor. (Some spectators migrated to stand in the side aisles to see.) This was a shame, as the visual component of these rituals is at least as important as the music.
The second problem was a lack of distinction among the numbers. Despite purplish narration by the excellent Silinea Lucius and program notes that explained the background of each song or dance, the evening often felt like one long and monotonous performance piece. I know budgeting is a challenge, but a printed program with the lyrics in the original language and in translation, like you get at a classical choral concert, would have helped in that regard, along with more frequent narration.
Belloni and her wonderfully talented and enthusiastic company put a lot of hard work into their first presentation of this fascinating cultural tradition that most of us know nothing of. Here’s hoping for a better venue and a sharper program next time around.