Alfio Giuffrida and the principle of energy transfer in its relationship to everything human.


Creative artists have always been drawn to the theatre.  What else would Dürer's designs for the triumphal arch and triumphal carriage for emperor Maximilian be than early examples of street theatre during the Renaissance?  What the Carceri (Prisons) by Piranesi if not visions of an imaginary theatre?  With the Galli da Bibiena they took complete possession of the theatre, however they returned the artistic responsibility to the tradesmen and workshops of the theatre set decorators in the nineteenth century and were satisfied with presenting the subject of theatre in their drawings and paintings - see Daumier and his caricatures, or Degas with his numerous studies of the ballet hall, the performances on stage and the activities behind the scenes.

A continuous co-operation between fine artists and theatre professionals only came about  - and then in a very concentrated form - through the Ballets Russes by Diaghilev which made headlines in western Europe from 1909 onwards.  Diaghilev, who had come into close contact with the latest trends in the art world at the turn of the century through his travels through western Europe,  had first created a sensation with his art exhibitions and the paper „Welt der Kunst“ (World of Art) which he published as a pioneer of contemporary art in St. Petersburg - in close co-operation with painters such as Alexander Benois and Léon Bakst.  With the founding of his Ballets Russes, which travelled throughout Europe between 1909 and 1929, he revolutionised the European theatre scene by using such famous artists as Picasso, Matisse, Laurencen, Larionow, Gontcharowa,  Derain, Braque, Utrillo, de Chirico and Rouault to design the sets -  but also the brothers Antoine Pevsner and Naum Gabo,  sculptors who designed the constructivistic theatre stage set from transparent materials and the matching costumes for „La Chatte“.  

What great impact Diaghilev's example made is proven not only by the competition in the form of Rolf de Maré who engaged artists such as Bonnard, Legér, Picabia and de Chirico for his Ballets Suédois, but also the works of Oskar Schlemmer, first in Stuttgart and then at the Bauhaus in Dessau for the „Triadische Ballett“ (Triadic Ballet), which was no longer satisfied to act as decor for the stage action but also created a direct relationship between the space and the body moving within it ; Kandinsky's designs for Mussorgsky's „Images of an exhibition“ and  his theatre composition "The yellow sound" pointed in the same direction.

Co-operation between directors and choreographers and the creative artists has been widespread all over the world since the Second World War - amongst them being such famous artist as Dalí, Cocteau, Clavé, Carzou, Buffet, de Kooning, Rauschenberg, Morris and Hockney - or architects such as Aldo Rossi, Mario Botta and Renzo Piano.  Sculptors, who have involved themselves with theatre are more or less the exception - the most noteworthy amongst them being undoubtedly Isamu Noguchi with his room sculptures for Martha Graham, and - very occasionally - George Balanchine.  Maurice Béjart caused a major sensation in 1956 when he choreographed a pas de trois, „Le Teck“, for his prima ballerina Michèle Seigneuret and himself with a sculpture by Marta Pan which, with its fixed, wooden unapproachability and rigid rejection, created a strong contrast to the expressively charged attempts by the two dancers of  drawing close.  For the dancer and choreographer Gerhard Bohner, Schlemmer's „Triadische Ballett“ became the starting point for his danced space explorations where he worked together with artists such as Axel Manthey, Vera Röhm and Paul Uwe Dreyer.

Alfio Giuffrida, born in 1953 in Catania, Sicily, describes himself as a painter, sculptor and set designer in his short biography.  These are exactly the stations of his career, which have led him from his home town via Rome, where he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts from 1973 to 1977, to the Rhineland where he settled in Cologne and Bonn in 1986.

He has trodden the exact opposite path of many German artist, who have been drawn to the South.  The German North has an irresistable attraction for him which continues to the present day.  Where Germans get rapturous in the face of Renaissance palaces and baroque churches south of the Alps, he is fascinated by the northern German Gothic brickwork.  It can also not be overlooked how much he has been influenced by the German theatre and its multitude of presentation forms, in particular the German dance scene which is truly filled by an exploding vitality and creativity. Italy has nothing comparable to offer on this level.

Besides painting, Giuffrida also studied stage set design and costume design at the Roman academy - under Toti Scialoja, who rates as one of the most renowned set designers amongst the Italian artists - together with Fabrizio Clerici, Renato Guttuso and Afro (who have all worked together with the choreographer Aurelio von Milloss, who made them famous in our country during his engagement as ballet director and head choreographer in Cologne and at the Vienna State Opera).  If his early drawings and paintings already appear to be fed by a strong energy and movement current, which ebbs on continuously (without ever dying away) one would look in vain for possible scenic suggestions. However, in his „Human images“ he develops an undertow through the horizontal, serially arranged and rhythmical faces, which pushes beyond the edge of the picture and reaches for continuation in the room - like a choreography which pours into the room in a strict line-up formation.  This advance into the third dimension takes a concrete form in his wooden reliefs and sculptures from prefabricated furniture parts, which, set on a surface and placed infront of it, burst from it and establish a new body-space relation, but which remain tied into the surface and without own motion.

Giuffrida takes the step into free space with his symmetrical, and now moving „Elements“, which are initially in a mini format: iron bands or wooden strips which are equipped with numerous joints and can therefore be changed so that a multitude of  shapes is made possible, thus challenging the observer to create his own version.  Here, the moment of movement is added as transition from the one to the other desired form.  The axial set-up and the transparency remain constant.  Iron and plexiglas are the preferred materials - this also for the „Iron sculptures“ which take on ever larger dimensions and which are subjected to an organic growth process, finally engulfing the room  - that is, they become walk-in sculptures.  They are crowned by sign-like symbols, which are abstractions of  the energies ruling our world and which remind us of high-voltage masts, signal posts or antennas.

Space, bodies and movement are added to the dance -  however, where previous set designers were generally satisfied with  framing the stage action by back-cloths and scenes, at most with the construction of an environment, Giuffrida is intent on integrating the production, respectively choreography and movement - and that means, at least for the dance theatre, integrating the sculptures and space designing elements into the choreography - in other words, the sculptural installations become part of the dance, change with the dance.  His co-operation with choreographer Jochen Ulrich stems from the year 1995 - first with the company of the Cologne Dance Forum, then with various ensembles still close to Ulrich's heart, after his resignation from the Association of the Cologne Opera House.

Giuffrida himself has described his understanding as set designer thus: „It cannot be the task of the set to reconstruct a particular place of action - a form of masquerade.  The set must proceed from the core of the action and develop shapes, which correspond to the universal language of what is happening.  It must become one body with the music, the sound, the direction.  I look for shapes, which focus the emotional substance of the work, which are able the intensify the beauty and the dark side, the strong emotions and injuries.  It is my aim to create signs which dring deeply into the consciousness.  In a world, which is overfull with signs whose validity has already surpassed that of reality, it seems the only way of communicating meaning.  My stage installations are often created as movable objects, which set different signs depending on their position.  They give the audience, which is fixed in its spatial perspective, the opportunity to develop place descriptive associations“.

Jochen Ulrich is particularly fond of Giuffrida's space concepts, because „they totally remove the stage from the decorative.  One can no longer speak about pictures which Giuffrida designs for subjects such as ‘Goya’ and ‘Lorca and Dalí’, they are symbols in space, usually moveable and of  threatening hardness and sharpness, which point like signals to the vulnerability of the dancing body.  Their rhythmic structure has a musical ductus which is created by the element of  the line-up.  Shape and material transform the subject and produce a room sound, which creates disturbance and calm and allocates a new beauty to the dance through the proportion“.

Ulrich and Giuffrida call the product of their first co-operation „Notebook“ - it is a dance piece in the form of a sketch book, that is notes, impressions and memories from the work of the Cologne Dance Forum, which are collected as a loose collage and are danced to the music of Frank Zappa, Darius Milhaud and P.D.Q. Bach.  In this connection Giuffrida speaks about the „collage character of the piece and Frank Zapas biting music“  as the starting point for his design of the stage area.  It consists of  four different sized, semi-circular wooden rings of different height, which have iron rods mounted at four different angles.  These carry and practically penetrate as roofs, another four wooden half-rings in various slanted positions, which correspond with each other - three of them are also equipped with spikes.  These four sculptural shapes are moved around the area by the dancers, are occupied by them, thus resulting in ever new shape constellations: the room flooded in changing illumination dances along.  Another element is a spherical shaped object made of sulphur-yellow rubber - a  kind of ball, 1.40 meters large, half of it decorated with spikes, thus reminding one of a poisonous sun or exotic cactus, and which is also part of the choreography.  In this way the room changes constantly and reflects the collage character of the music.  The audience is requested to let their own imagination dance along in this space.  For Giuffrida himself, it implies: associations of colonnades, which surround a square, carousels, roller coaster, bizarre petrol stations.

Giuffrida was faced with a totally different task in 1995 when he had to design the open stage area of the locksmith's shop in the Cologne Schauspielhaus (Theatre) for Ulrich’s dance theatre work „The engagement of St. Domingo“ based on Heinrich von Kleist’s novel of the same name.  The plot deals with the confusion of  the feeling of love, which sees itself duped in its belief and expectations by a treacherous illusion -  a confusion where a fleeing soldier, who believes to have found safety and love here and who, through a chain of unfortunate incidents, kills his lover who was accused of treachery and after the case has been solved, kills himself.  The haven turns out to be a trap - the apparent protective family zone is a place of destruction.  Giuffrida equips it with pieces of refuse from domestic habitation: bed frames, mattresses mounted on poles tower like signs, suggest private atmosphere and thereby safety and security against the locked-out public.  Monitors, which are also mounted on poles like signals, show interference images, overlay scenes, which show an illusionary idyll, emphasise the endangerment of the most private personal zones in times where everything spins out of control. Wire netting stretched between the steel pylons creates an atmosphere of being locked up in prison.  The only indication of the militaristic background of the original (the slave revolt in Haiti) is a row of worn out military boots suspended from the ceiling.  White, red and black cloths symbolise virginity, blood and death.  Giuffrida: „Public and private areas interlace with their character of boundary, limitation, uncertainty and danger.“

In retrospect we see 1995 as the year of destiny for Giuffrida, for that section of his life's work which is dominated by his work for the dance theatre.  At the start of the new season 1995/96, the first production of the company which left the Verband der Kölner Bühnen (association of Cologne's theatres) and now operates as part of the free scene as the Dance Forum, is the piece „Goya, danzas negras“.  This is neither a biography of the painter told as a dance, nor is it an attempt at creating the contents of his portraits, genre scenes and the major etching cycles with dance, but it is more a psychological  state of Goya, a look into his soul in which his visions are compacted, or the creation process of his ideas.   But these are eminently emotion triggering processes which Giuffrida reflects in the movement dynamics of his stage space. This is bordered by seventy two eleven meters long iron poles, suspended by chains, which hold the room in constant flow through the dancers in constantly new groupings.  An arena-shaped track construction in the rigging loft allows „own“ movement of two pole groups, independent of the dancers. Mechanically triggered, they dance along.  Again obvious here, the prison situation as code for mankind being locked up in the social, political and historical conventions of his time.  Twelve larger iron balls symbolise the inconstancy of fate  - then  there are four flat, narrow hand-drawn carts, a means of transport in a world which cannot find peace anymore.  Giuffrida indicates a room structured by „hard, cold material“, which is „disembodied light reflection at the same time“. In this way the room becomes „a prison, or a forest of entanglement - a symbol of the power which has started to sway and of a force which needs only a small trigger to be unleashed.“

The stroke of  being set free from the municipal theatre operations seems to have released unsurmised choreographic energies in Jochen Ulrich, because two months after „Goya“,  the premiere of „Get Up Early“ followed in February at the opening of the Vienna Festival „Dance 96“.  This piece deals with  „the unavoidable progress from the last phase of the night into the early morning.  Lovers, night owls and dreamers reluctantly slink from the dark and meet sleep-drunken, as well as eager early risers who stride through space with morning clarity.“

Giuffrida separates this space with two different views.  Dominating are three high constructions of iron pipes which look like multi-storey scaffolding, have wheels and can be pushed into the two positions by the dancers.  Set up next to each other and facing the audience they present clear horizontals and verticals.  One of them offers a platform at a height of three meters, where an actress is placed.  Sparingly interspersed, she reads texts by Paul Auster and Marguerite Duras in the manner of a radio presenter.  When turned by ninety degrees the construction presents a totally different picture: the corner posts just perceived as a vertical - an abstract multi-storey architecture - can now be seen as twelve meandering lines stretching upwards, which form a stark contrast to the horizontal straights as waves. Giuffrida sees in these the echoing radio waves of the message read by the actress who appears to be set into a strange state of suspense herself through this.  „The winding iron pipes appear abstractly graphic in the space and are at the same time interpretable as an image of rising morning haze and as a symbol of the beginning day.“

However, there is another element which dominates the space and which is moved intensely into consciousness by the lighting: a glass basin half filled with water which throws a white shadow.  In it is a dancer struggling to come to the surface and, dripping water while crawling over the edge, finds firm ground underfoot.  Later he will return to it and haul water in a bucket in a Sisyphean manner, only to pour it back in and right at the end, pour it out over the stage.  This water is in constant movement, sometimes more sometimes less, and thus takes up the wave-shaped structure of the steles - or perhaps one should say: that the wave-shaped steles reflect the movements of the surging water frozen into architecture.  Not only the dancers fill this room with movement and change it, the room itself practically embodies the element of movement by means of the water which never really reaches stillness and thus enlivens itself by itself.

After the phenomenal success of „Get Up Early“, „Citizen Kane“ was an obvious drop in artistic substance in 1997.  This did not happen without reason.  Although it had been separated from the association of the municipal theatres, there was an agreement by the opera house with the Dance Forum to take over a certain number of performances within the scope of the opera subscriptions, which represented a survival opportunity for the company, even if it was based on clay feet. When the opera's board of managers said goodbye to this commitment and announced a guest performance with well-known foreign ensembles instead, the end of the Cologne Dance Forum was pre-programmed.  No surprise then, that the depressing aspects for the future paralysed Ulrich's recent so creative imagination.  As little as he intended doing a dance theatre portrait of the Spanish artist in „Goya“,  he also not intended doing a choreographic tale of Orson Welles' famous film.  The rise and fall of the American media mogul Charles Foster Kane was used as a parable about a power-hungry tycoon who ends in inescapable loneliness.

Giuffrida saw himself fronting the task of creating spaces which could be danced in in different ways and for which he invented two cube-shaped objects made of plexiglass, in other words, large dimensioned containers which could not only be occupied by the dancers but could also be moved by them into various positions.  Metal rods are mounted on them, which are covered by a disc at the top and which remind us of antennas - for Giuffrida they also suggest overdimensional flash lights, radios or huge perfume flasks with the letter K as insignia of their owner.  The dancers act within them as if they were in display cases - or studios, from where their activities are transmitted via the antennas into the whole of the world.  Giuffrida thus extends the historic events surrounding the newspaper magnate into today's media world, whose invisible electronic energy currents  have long ago made themselves independent and manipulate the human being according to their willpower.  The relative flop of this ballet is to be regretted even more so because the critics certified Giuffrida's designs a „momentous hour“.

Ulrich and Giuffrida once again faced a new situation for the „Performance“ planned for the end of January 1998, due to the situation of the rooms in Düsseldorf’s  Regierungsschlösschen (small government palace) to which the CPD,  Düsseldorf's fashion fair had invited during its associated cultural programme.  The guests surrounded the podium on which the dancers presented the costumes designed by Italian fashion designer Antonio Fusco.  Giuffrida used three of the „iron sculptures“ which he had designed as individual objects without any special scenic reference.  For him,  „the sculptures of these installations“  represent „architectonic elements which at the same time direct to the human figure - or to symbols which deal with human feelings.  For example the heart, which can stand for fashion as passion, as longing for beauty.  The elements can also be seen as gates, at the moment when the dancers glide through them - gates to the feeling which we get, when we slip into a dress designed by a couturier.  This means, entering a completely new room, feeling comfortable.  A purely sensuous moment.  Light also belongs to these elements, it breaks best on the shiny surfaces of metal and can unfold.  This creates the effect of lightness, transparency, shine and colour.“  A member of the audience, who lets his imagination run free may also associate these gates with the security checks at airports which one needs to pass as a kind of lock.

Ulrich's and Giuffrida's next two mutual works also relate to prominent artist personalities: on the one hand to Diaghilev and on the other hand to Garcia Lorca and Dalí.  Again, as already for „Goya“ (and „Citizen Kane“, who had the American newspaper king Randolph Hearst as a real model) one cannot speak of a danced biography.  „Diaghilev: The Revelation“ is the first part of a trilogy about the inspirer and manager of the Ballets Russes, it  premiered with the members of the dance theatre at the Tyrol State Theatre Innsbruck in January 1999 - Giuffrida is not involved in the other two parts.  In an analogy to the Russian newspaper „World of Art“ established by Diaghilev prior to the foundation of his Ballets Russes, one is tempted to speak about a dance theatre piece called „World of Diaghilev“.  Not only is the figure of Diaghilev divided into various personalities (two women, two men), but persons also appear who are not a direct part of his circle of associates, as for example Tchaikovsky, as well as Isadora Duncan and Sergej Jessenin, but who are characteristic for the intellectual climate which Diaghilev characterised.

Different from his other works, Giuffrida, who was concerned with creating plenty of free space for the dancers, was satisfied with placing a construction at the back of the stage area, which links vertical and bent iron pipes together, the bent ones decorated with fake gold leaf, while the remaining elements are made of  unpolished iron.  The serial arrangement reminds us of head bands of earlier painted works by Giuffrida, their form design suggesting the cupola architecture of Russian churches, their golden sheen the gold base of icon painting.  In this way Giuffrida tries to build a bridge between tradition and, due to the material, the industrial age.  For him, the marriage of poetry and technology is the image of inexhaustible energy which emanated from Diaghilev.  The dancers can pass through the spaces between the poles, but these do not cause own space which is perceived as a separate unit in contrast to the remaining stage area.

„Lorca y Dalí, perros de Luna“  has been created for the newly established Euregio Dance Forum, a communal enterprise by the three cities of Heerlen, Aachen and Lüttich, with headquarters in the Dutch city of Heerlen, where it also premiered in February 1999.  For Ulrich it is part of a large scale Spanish cycle which extends over several years (it was preceded by „Yerma“, „La cabina 26“, „Canto General“, „Carmen“ and „Goya“).  It is definitely one of his most reality-related ballets, because it makes reference to the purely homo-erotic early relationship of the poet and the painter, which finds its end with the appearance of a woman (Galas).

This time Giuffrida's task was to create „rooms and pictures for the emotional states and the inner worlds of Lorca and Dalí.“  Again, as in „Goya“, he forgoes any local Spanish imagery (which is probably alluded to by some individual costumes and certain ceremonial rituals of choreography).  Again, as in „Get Up Early“, he works with large sculptural constructions, which look totally different when they front the audience and when they are turned by ninety degrees, thereby revealing their profile.  He himself speaks of „four elements of the same design, made of thick-walled aluminium plates which are used in aeronautical construction work.  The first arrangement is dedicated to the poet Lorca.  The four elements are placed symmetrically towards each other, the dancers can stride through them, dance around them.  The arrangement develops a sacral impression.  It stands for Lorca's deep roots within the Spanish culture.  In the second arrangement, the elements are turned by 900 and are placed closer together.  Viewed from this side, they appear as slender columns, whose building stones appear to be heaped on top of each other in an unstable, disorderly fashion.  They remind us of Dalí’s towers of drawers. This picture is dedicated to Dalí’s world, a world of eccentricities and fast living.“

Ulrich and Giuffrida once again face a new situation with their concept of  „Mon Orphée“, which they create into a collage of Jean-Luc Godards „Histoire(s) du Cinéma“ (History(s) of cinema) for the Ludwig Forum for International Art in Aachen, sponsored by the Foundation Art and Culture of the state of North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW).  The myth about the artist and his artistic mission personified in Orpheus, here appears as a polar conflict between Apollo and Dionysus.  Giuffrida refers especially to the situation of the available space, the main exhibition hall of the museum with the large square of the sunken performance recess accessible by means of a square of stairs, and the support pillars arranged around it which carry the roof.  „I integrate eight replicas of the supporting pillars into this situation.  These are not firmly installed, but structure the room with their mobility and tipping into the space.  At the beginning they all stand neatly lined up as if fulfilling the supporting function, but in the progress of the action, they are brought into other positions by the dancers, are used as a dancing or reposing surface, are turned and pushed, sometimes also tipped over together with the weight of a dancer.  The  hollow wooden elements are also used as resonance bodies.  The tipable pillars tell  a tale of the experience of loss and of the principle of destruction, which precedes each new creation.“
The intimation of a barricaded construction site lies close at hand and is expressly confirmed by Giuffrida as a reflection of the workshop character of the Ludwig Forum.

Their next mutual project, the premiere of the dance piece „Phaedra“ to the music of Eleni Karaindrou for the ballet of the German Opera on the Rhine Düsseldorf-Duisburg, is, at the time of editorial closure of the catalogue, still in preparation, will however have had its premiere when this exhibition opens.  Giuffrida imagines a room, „which corresponds to the archaic atmosphere of this tragedy.  In 'Phaedra', the whole force of  a passionate love raised to madness and into death is unleashed.  The infinite polarity of man and woman, of love's longing and its refusal, power and powerlessness act in everything.  I have developed the stage area for the dance piece in relation to this basic feeling and the strict structure of Racine's drama.“

For this purpose he has created a stage sculpture made of iron plate elements which is more than ten meters high and five meters wide in the lower section and which reaches all the way up into the rigging loft and is positioned in the middle left stage area.  „Individual elements can be moved by means of a hinge construction.  By folding over certain plate elements, four different states of the sculpture are achieved.  The surrounding stage area is lined in light grey and designed for great depth.“

For Giuffrida the fully developed stage sculpture suggests „the association of an overdimensional female figure draped in a long gown and standing on a block-like pedestal.  Only the lower part of this figure becomes visible, everything else disappears in the heights of the rigging loft.  The unusual perspective and the monumentality of the suggested figure form the image of madness and the archaic force, which develop their effect in the story of Phaedra.“

By turning over two plate elements in the top part of the sculpture, the „female figure changes into a male figure in Giuffrida's perception.  Further folding over of plates, now in the lower pedestal area, which the dancers take care of, change this into a pair of columns, on which - depending on the position of the top plates - the male or female figure seems to now balance in an unstable position.  The dancers can now walk through this pedestal area, the columns can be circumambulated - an image of the heightened involvement of the protagonists with each other until the tragic end of the story.“

The whole of Giuffridas’ work shows a concentration on the principle of „energy transfer“ in its relation to the human aspect.  Just as the early abstract paintings were based on the rhythm of a line-up, which expands into the intellectual-emotional movement in the „Human Pictures“, it is the expression of technical, purely physical as well as intellectual-emotional energies, which characterises both the free sculptures and the works for the stage.  In their filigree, technoid structure, the „iron sculptures“ indicate on the one hand the construction of energy transferring power poles, yet at the same time „their curved shapes often subjetising the human figure, evoke thoughts about body energies or the just vanished tracks of danced movement in the room.
From there, it is merely a step to Giuffrida's sculpture group of the „Elements“, the compositions of iron parts linked by joints.  „Despite their degree of abstraction  some of them show clearly recognisable allusions to human body shapes or parts, which - and this can be followed by the observer - are presented in different arrangements of movement states, some also in the combination of two bodies 'acting' together in communication.“

The conection of these two work groups with the stage and vice versa is obvious: „The stage is the place of energy as such for me.  The subjects of human existence and the energies transported with them, find their expression here.  I consider the dance to be the ideal place for implementing my ideas about ‘energy transfer’.  My stage sculptures which are brought into different positions by turning - generally executed by the dancers - are in direct analogy to the movement in the dance.  The dancers' line of movement through the space, my stage sculptures moved by turning and the thereby changed significance together produces a force field, whose energies - together with the music - are transferred directly to the audience.“

The position change of the stage sculptures puts the theatre visitor, magnetised into his seat, into a position to see the object from various perspectives, just like in a museum when walking around a sculpture.  „I transfer this image of a perception process onto the conditions on the stage in combination with the dance.  It is not my intention to simply make energies experienceable, but rather to make the principle of complexity of all being and the change of all living things EXPERIENCABLE in the flow of time.“   

Stuttgart, July 2000