IN THE UNDERLIT BASEMENT SPACE of the Palais de Tokyo, Italian dancer and choreographer Annamaria Ajmone’s La notte è il mio giorno preferito (Night is My Favorite Day) started with the sound of a deep animal howl, the reverberations of which lent dimension to the darkness and outlined the space of the performance, delineating its edges and corners. In the infrared glow of the overhanging green lights, a minimal representation of a forest emerged; a few sparse lianas built the habitat for the performance. Suddenly, a stealthy, human-animal hybrid figure appeared and began an evasive dance, sliding in and out of view behind columns, into dark corners, and keeping low to the ground. Eventually, this figure found itself facing the audience with a cruel, almost combative gaze. As she stood there, she coated her tongue with a clay-like substance. Unnaturally long and sharp, it seemed to lunge out of her mouth, look around cautiously before being laboriously swallowed—performing what Ajmone later described as a “tongue dance.” During this dance, it appeared to possess its host’s body from within, slithering like tentacles inside her arms, her legs, out of her ass, only to reemerge forcefully out of her mouth again moments later. When the 40-minute performance was done, the audience emerged, dazed, in the now-lit concrete bowels of the museum surrounded by a few hanging vines made of found plastics, artificial plants, and wigs. In the silence before the audience dared to clap, the amplified sound of Annamaria’s accelerated breath is all we could hear—and for a while, we listened.
To create this work, Ajmone and her collaborator Stella Succi tracked wolves. They embarked on two residencies—one in Val d’Illiez in Switzerland, the other in the Jura Mountains—to chart the path of the large canines, learning to recognize their strides, feces, and kills. Through the help of videos made with a night-vision camera (the radioactive green gel light of which is quoted in the first section of the performance), Ajmone and Succi studied during the day what they could only hear in the pitch darkness of night, and the sound of the forest—deconstructed into fragments, combined with instruments—became the core sonic element in a track written for the performance by composer Flora Yin-Wong. La notte è il mio giorno preferito is also rooted in an essay by French philosopher and naturalist Baptiste Morizot, who, inspired by Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s research, writes on the ways in which animal tracking can be applied to a philosophical process. Tracking, Ajmone told me, is like a dance: “You are tracking an animal, but they are also tracking you. The audience is tracking me on stage, but I am also tracking them.” The power structure of this kind of exchange is egalitarian: Hers is a dance that seeks no climax, a dance in which no one dominates—or perhaps in which everyone is dominated equally. It’s a sensual, philosophical meandering.
The frontality of Ajmone’s gaze is a signature aspect of her style. In earlier pieces of hers—such as De La, 2016, or her contribution to Virgilio Sieni’s L’Atlante del Gesto, 2015,—she is confrontational, aware, responsive. When in gallery spaces where the audience can circulate freely, she moves toward them, compelling them to follow her. She carves an audience like a sculpture, suddenly capturing an individual with her hyper-focused attention and then, just as quickly, releasing them back into the anonymity of the crowd by turning away. Her movements are visceral and spontaneous, present and receptive. Her dances are not exactly improvisations—she gives herself “tasks” to accomplish—but her gestures are never fixed or sequenced. She leaves herself a wide berth to respond intuitively to the audience, the context, and the architecture of a performance; in La notte, her tasks are the initial “call” in the sound of the forest, the act of tracking in the darkness, and the tongue dance. And, while I have suggested that her movement is animal in its rawness, there is something quite unnatural about it as well: It’s inefficient, monstrous, as though from a mirror-world in which bodies are tangled and their purposes unclear. As she dances, she contorts herself dramatically, disfiguring and mangling her form, her joints seeming to pop out of their sockets. And yet, her eye contact—locked and intense—is unnerving and personal. When we talk about embodiment, she tells me, “I am Annamaria; I am a human,” explaining that she is not trying to be an animal, but rather that she underscores her obvious failure to be an animal. She considers certain moments of La notte a kind of disguise during which she (sometimes proverbially) “wears” features of the wolves (e.g., a wig to provide a furry layer or movement). Her desire is not to be the “Other” (capitalization hers), but rather to learn from the Other’s vantage point, their perspective.
The new piece feels different than her previous ones, arguably because it was created for the theater of the Triennale in Milan (where it was performed twice prior to the night I saw it at the Palais de Tokyo), and therefore possesses Ajmone’s ambivalent relationship to the two-dimensionality of the stage, with its restrictive access to her public. To counterbalance this, she recruited artist Natália Trejbalová and lighting director Giulia Pastore to design and light a “techno-natural” landscape, a set that could properly host and contextualize their collective meditations on nature and culture. La notte was in turn recontextualized by the Palais de Tokyo, which presented her concurrently with the exhibition “Réclamer la Terre (Reclaim the Earth),” showcasing the work of fourteen artists shepherded by two scientific consultants. Billed as a “wake-up call as much as a rallying cry,” the exhibition asserts that the show’s artists and their approaches to materials are catalysts for a heightened ecological awareness and a decolonized approach to the world, one that prioritizes indigenous and ancestral knowledge. While not included in the exhibition, the performance was genuinely connected to its ethos. Intuition is at the crux of the ecofeminist argument, and it is the guiding principle of Ajmone’s approach. Her performance felt like a striking and truly guttural response from within to the ambitious and difficult promise of the exhibition, whose objects ultimately remain artfully placed in the gallery space. Her performance stood on its own as an embodiment of research, and a penetrating sensorial experience for artist and viewer alike.
Annamaria Ajmone performed La notte è il mio giorno preferito (Night is My Favorite Day) at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, on June 9. She will present the piece again on July 8, 9 and 10 as part of the Santarcangelo Festival in Italy.