Category: Feature

Melbourne Festival: Lexicon

Director Firenza Guidi discusses discovering the arts and creating Lexicon

By Lois Maskiell


“Circus found me in a way,” recalls Firenza Guidi, “this was in the early ’90s, circus wasn’t even an art form in its own right in the UK.”

Since 1995 Milan-born director Firenza Guidi has created award-winning productions for NoFit State Circus. Beginning with Autogeddon followed by international tours of Immortal, Tabú and Bianco, Guidi has carved a name for herself and her distinct performance-montage style.

Firenza Guidi. Photograph: Seventh Wave.

Nofit State Circus’ latest work Lexicon brings Guidi to Melbourne for the International Arts Festival. In the Royal Botanic Gardens moments after a presenting a work in development to the public, Guidi reveals how she first discovered the arts. “When people say how did you start, I don’t even know because it’s not even in my family,” she tells me.

Both Guidi’s parents were chefs who owned restaurants and thanks to a customer of theirs she frequented venues such as La Scala from a young age. “As a child, one of the daily customers who became a friend of the family belonged to what is called la claque.” She explains that a claque was group of people who received discounted tickets in exchange for starting the applause. “So, from the age of five, I saw ballet and opera and sometimes I would fall asleep, sometimes I would just watch the machinery of it, the spectacle of it,” she says.

Lexicon is indeed a spectacle. Set inside a tent featuring purpose-built apparatus entirely operated by body weight, it’s also an ambitious piece of contemporary circus. The concept began three years ago when Guidi decided to create a classroom of misfits performing on nine desks which elevate into the air. “When I first said that, everybody looked at me like I was mad,” she says.

Guidi’s direction takes a series of individual acts and places them in a larger whole each separated by clowning scenes. Her unique brand of physical comedy references past traditions like the Fratellini Brothers and commedia dell’arte by incorporating voice, acrobatics and carefully rehearsed errors giving the effect of spontaneous chaos.

Her sharp comic eye is no doubt influenced by her training with the crème de la crème, including master clown Philippe Gaulier and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Dario Fo. “Clowning is about accepting some parts of you, and all of you, that have to do with weaknesses and idiosyncratic things,” Guidi enthuses. “With clowning, you need to be kind of born every single time in the eyes of the audience,” she adds.

She comments that the audience might not realise how difficult it is to utilise both the ground and the air when directing for circus. “Sometimes it’s taken for granted when people see my shows, but I don’t mean in an arrogant way, it’s taken for granted that connection between floor and aerial,” she tells me. Guidi admits the labour involved in developing new equipment: “It took three to four years to create a rig whereby the trapeze elongates by wires and allows the performer to step out, as if it’s an ordinary motion,” she says.

As a freelance director, Guidi’s agenda is filled with projects well in advance. Lexicon tours next to Marseille though this time she won’t join the company, “I will be going to Chicago to lead ten would-be directors into a process of creating shows for a site-specific location,” she tells me. On top of directing Guidi runs Elan Frantoio a creation centre in Tuscany. The centre houses an annual summer residency now in its 27th year where Guidi assists artists to interrogate their work as to “imbue it with a new life.”

For Guidi, interrogation and research are essential parts of serious artistic pursuit. “Circus performers will not all go into Cirque du Soleil, they will not all go on cruise ships, some of them might want to create their own work,” she says. “And who is going to push the boundaries if we don’t research?”

NoFit State Circus’ Lexicon is being performed until 21 October as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival. Tickets can be purchased online. 

Photograph: N.Cioni


Stephanie Lake on her largest work to date

Stephanie Lake takes over Arts Centre Melbourne with a work of colossal proportions

By Lois Maskiell

Contemporary dancer turned choreographer Stephanie Lake, whose work has earned accolades and travelled the globe, stages her largest production to date, Colossus. Backed by Arts Centre Melbourne as part of the Fringe Take Over, it is by no means a small feat.

As a fresh graduate of the Victorian College of the Arts in 2000, Lake immediately earned a Green Room Award for Best Emerging Dancer and went on to perform in the international circuit with Australia’s best contemporary dance makers including Lucy Guerin and Gideon Obarzanek. In 2014, she established the Stephanie Lake Company and has since delivered a steady output of award-winning productions, solidifying her reputation for creating powerful kinetic art with striking visual aesthetics.

Colossus features fifty dancers from Victorian College of the Arts and Transit Dance, marking a sharp departure from Lake’s most recent work Replica which was a duet. A production of such colossal proportions is something Lake has envisaged for some time, though arrived sooner than expected: “To be honest I was thinking it would be something that would be in the future, but I put in a proposal just thinking I’ll give it a shot, and then we won the tender.”

Affording an independent company $30 000 in funding, support and mentorship, the Fringe Take Over is a highly sought after opportunity and a symbolic return for Lake to the festival. “Twenty years ago, when I was a young whipper snapper, I made shows for the Fringe Festival and it was very exciting and thrilling,” enthuses Lake.

Lake’s enduring passion for contemporary dance stems from the mysterious and intuitive nature of movement, which she believes is often difficult to rationalise. “There is a pressure to always articulate what the work is about and I understand that,” she says, “but the beauty of the form that we’re working in is that it is ambiguous and strange, and it can articulate things that are more mysterious.” Despite this conflict between creativity and concept, Lake admits that there are clear ideas she is working with.

By placing fifty bodies on stage, each interacting in smaller formations that contribute to a whole, Colossus poses a simple question. “Essentially it’s about this mass of people,” says Lake. “So these fifty bodies occupying the space together and what is that as a representation of how we organise ourselves as a society?” In terms of what that means for the audience, “I think that’s really going to be open to interpretation,” she says, “I love when people bring their own experience to bear on the reading of the work.”

Rehearsing a production of this magnitude is not without challenges. “It’s really intense,” says Lake, “because I’m working with younger dancers there’s a lot of energy in the room. Everything is amplified, and I feel like I have to make decisions quickly and efficiently.” But for Lake the payoff is huge and with the creative team’s contributions ramping up towards the final stages of rehearsals, opening night brings much anticipation. “It’s just so beautiful seeing that many bodies moving together and every simple idea is expanded in really interesting ways,” she says.

Lake’s creative team, consisting of composer and long-time collaborator Robin Fox, costume designer Harriet Oxley and lighting designers Bosco Shaw and Additive Lighting, will make significant contributions. “The conversations start early,” says Lake, “but that side of the collaboration doesn’t really come together in a crystallised way until you’re actually in the theatre.” 

The premiere of Colossus is inciting a great deal of interest owing to the Stephanie Lake Company’s track record in producing ground-breaking work. It also stands out as one of many tour dates scheduled for Lake’s thriving company. In May of next year, Lake tours to the Théâtre National de Chaillot in Paris, arguably the most prestigious venue for contemporary dance in the world.

Colossus is being performed at Arts Centre Melbourne 26 – 30 September as part of the Melbourne Fringe. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 1300 182 183.