Francesca Mariano is an exemplar of balance in unbalanced times. Spanning media (and maybe even multiple dimensions), her creative practice carves out space for connection that encourages pause and pleasure, contrary to the Internet’s default setting of disembodied drift and information overload.
To me, the most salient dimension of Francesca’s work is that it affords generous space for nuance and contradiction. She approaches online life with a rigorously critical gaze, yet the Web is a frequent subject in her work and her visual output drenched in digital aesthetics. From Instagram dance documentation to movement seminars in “Archaeo-Choreology” and “Water Info Transmissions” (with dance therapist Sophie Mars), Francesca probes the somatic-political pools of perception.
Her projects range from experimental music à la Intuitive Gestures to leading residencies at Nuova Atlantide fusing exploration of language, movement, and landscape. She draws on the language and history of the New Age movement but works strenuously to avoid appropriation, criticizing the commercialized “wellness” industry as vociferously as she critiques the Enlightenment idea of a mind-body divide.
A further testament to this nuance is the deliciously ironic fact that Francesca and I first connected via Instagram. I can’t remember exactly how I found her, but I recall the moment of being moved to tears by a video of her dancing to Burial. For a platform that essentially generates revenue by making us feel inadequate so that we compensate by compulsively buying the products that pop up in our feeds, I have to hand it to the algorithm for doing right by me on this one.
I had the pleasure of participating in a virtual movement session with Francesca a couple of months ago, our curiosity and mutual care conveyed across undersea cables from New York to Milan. She has inspired me to start dancing again after a decade-long hiatus from my own formal training. Below are excerpts from what has become an ongoing conversation between us, extending across emails, DM’s, WhatsApp messages spanning time zones, and, dare I say, even the astral plane itself.
dance and somatics can help find a third way: movement is information for our dynamic system. Information is awareness. Awareness is embodied. Embodiment is transformative. Transformation is new information in our system, there occurs healing.
When did you first start dancing? Did you study dance formally?
I did. I studied dance formally beginning at the age of 10 with urban and contemporary. During my teenage years, dancing supported me in finding courage through the emotional troubles and hormonal changes of the time. Around the age of 20, I quit because I wasn’t resonating with the classical studios settings: there was a lot of competition, a sense of hyper-performativity that made me feel pressured. I stopped having fun.
A couple of years later I was going to therapy for body-related issues; my confidence as a womxn was completely buried. I was out of touch with my body. So I chose a type of therapy that was based on movement healing techniques and dance came back in my life as an agent of transformation: it gave me the courage to dig deeper into the discomfort I was feeling. I had no idea I was going to turn it into my work…
I took a lot of workshops until I found the two approaches that are the foundations of my current practice, Anna Halprin’s landscape, ritual, and performance practice and Rosangela Silvestre’s contemporary dance technique. Both of the approaches pay particular attention to landscape. It is really amazing to study with women teachers that I admire so much, to be in the presence of someone guided by a vision and inclusive of everyone, non-hierarchical.
You’ve said before that your dance pieces are informed by the specific physical landscape that you inhabit while you create them. How has the pandemic — and its attendant obligation to essentially stay in one place — affected your creative process?
I spent more time alone and I’ve focused more on music. Being inside a lot, music really helped with zooming into more possibilities of movement, of imagination…
We were also really lucky to be able to run Nuova Atlantide in the summer, a residential workshop on experimental movement, mythical language and landscape. The idea of moving in communion with other bodies seems like a dream right now so we are looking forward to unveiling the details of the next edition.
Talk a bit more about some of your philosophical or theoretical influences: Silvia Federici is one that comes to mind; who are some others?
The past two years I’ve been really into Astrida Neimanis’ hydrofeminist theory, it’s been very informative in my somatic practice, realizing that the personal is global, our watery bodies are part of the same oceanic body and in constant processes of intake, exchange and transformation. And I’m a bit of a dance geek: I’m influenced by Alexander Lowen’s bioenergetics, Maxine Sheets-Johnstone’s phenomenology of dance, Merleau-Ponty, Margaret H’Doubler’s dance pedagogy, who then influenced Anna Halprin’s environmental and radical dance as form of community healing. H’Doubler advocated a type of work that was based on experience, re-establishing the connection of art with life and therefore with the body and its senses, as well as with the environment that surrounds it. We investigated the environment as movement during Prima Materia, a workshop I created in 2019 co-curated with Studio Concreto at Fondazione Lac O Le Mon in Puglia .
I’m also influenced by some really amazing artists: Shana Moulton, Mariko Mori, Tabita Rezaire, Mara Oscar Cassiani, and Siet Phorae are my favourites. I’m interested in the way in which priestesshood is evolving in the digital age.
Where and when did you start incorporating New Age philosophies and healing practices into your movement work?
At 22 I moved to Brighton, UK for my masters degree, writing a thesis on eco-feminism. In those years the “goddess rising” movement was also becoming more popular online & offline, and I was reading classics of feminist and post-colonial ecology (Vandana Shiva, Starhawk) and Spiritual Feminism (Judith Plant, Gloria Anzaldua). To be honest, today I find the ‘goddess’ movement a bit redundant and essentialist, the way in which it is commodified, centering mostly white women… but I understand how it has, at times, been useful as a process of re-establishing a confidence that was very much buried within a religious heritage and a social system that didn’t have any female or queer figures. In a way, the ‘goddess’ archetype is able to give our identities a mythic horizon, an ancient legitimisation.
My family is from Calabria and Napoli, places that still have a mystic and pagan aura. So I guess the New Age or Witchcraft influence in my work is a way to not give up entirely to materialism. To infuse matter with spirit. And dance is about that!
Personally, I found academic feminism to be very brainy and exhausting. I became aware that as we are addressing issues on the macro-scale through theory and academia, we also have to take care of the ways in which they impact us on a personal level, and vice versa.
Although I don’t really identify myself with the New Age movement, I think many people of our generation are a bit New Age in some form or another, as evidenced by the booming of astrology memes. Dismissing everything that feels New Age as pseudoscience is a patriarchal, positivist attitude. It’s the same attitude that justified the witch hunts. I personally find it interesting to dive into the sci-fi side of the New Age, via music especially. Or the dance work of mysterious figures like Mary Wigman, Isadora Duncan. Were they healers? Maybe any art that removes a limiting belief in the mind is healing.
Right, right, those misgivings really resonate. In so much Western so-called “healing” work, there’s this almost fetishistic, Orientalist obsession with Eastern spirituality. Likewise, the New Age movement has been rightly criticized for commodifying ritual, for appropriating Indigenous thought and repackaging philosophies that come from marginalized experience into “wellness” trends for the privileged. How do you navigate around these currents in your own work? How do you explore these issues sensitively?
It is a big issue, and being silent on it would implicitly further it. There is certainly a huge problem with the way that some dismiss the social and historical context of colonialism and white supremacy as we approach healing practices. We are still blind to white privilege in many ways. As much as I experience limitations related to my femmehood, the colour of my skin hasn’t reinforced them or made them worse. Acknowledging that I come from this standpoint of privilege, I try to hold space for other perspectives, especially Black femmes, to take center stage in leading the charge for collective healing. Dr. Joy de Gruy Leary has shown how racism has effects on the immune system and therefore on mental health. I follow the works of @idealblackfemale, Alice Walker, Navild Acosta, Fannie Sosa, and I love Oroma Elewa, all pioneer artists of colour of our times.
As white people we are often afraid to talk about race because it is discomforting to acknowledge privilege; because we are afraid we could say something wrong. The lines between exchange and appropriation are thin. In practical terms, I try to avoid falling into appropriation by not teaching dance techniques that come from marginalised communities. One of my teachers and mentors is Rosangela Silvestre, who created the Silvestre Dance Technique in Brazil. Her incredible work is rooted in sacred Afro-Brazilian dance. I could never teach that, it is too deeply tied to the sacred embodiment and social justice of Afro-Brazilian communities for me to ever claim that level of authority or expertise over.
Another way I remain vigilant about avoiding appropriation in my work is to look outside of our earthly world altogether: I sometimes delve into alien exoticism or use traditionally physical performance tools (like gym balls) to create an ethereal landscape rather than trying to replicate forms of spirituality that are tied to the sacredness of other existing cultures. In my Water Info Transmission research, which usually takes the form of experimental sound and dance healing workshops, I take terms from water engineering tools and transfigure them into healing technologies.
I’m not particularly interested in being labelled as part of the “wellness” sector. I am more interested in finding creative paths for evolution, embodied agency and empathy. Sometimes I open the ‘gram and I feel overwhelmed by the amount of advice and coaching I come across, the way in which wellness is branded…. and then I realise I’m part of it, I’m also giving advice. It’s like a serpent eating its own tail. Sometimes the advice is useful; sometimes it creates performance anxiety, inundating us with new ways of working tirelessly on perfecting ourselves. I’m learning to take some distance online, to ground myself in my creative processes instead of that neoliberal hellscape.
Definitely. With the so-called spiritual, as with so much else, context-collapse and loss of nuance come up when we flatten everything to the quality of images. To flesh out some of that complication, I think that when we talk about the limitations of the New Age movement, we also can’t dispense entirely with the critique of its opposite, the Western, Enlightenment-era conception of Cartesian dualism. How can dance and somatic movement help us break out of this faulty belief in a mind-body divide?
The dualistic mindset is so embedded in our culture of domination, but the archetype of the witch and a generally sexist attitude dates to long before the Enlightenment period. Ancient Greek gynaecological texts are based on the female body’s inferiority and proneness to disease. So, a somatic movement practice rooted in feminism is about reclaiming agency over one’s body. I think the Western body is still dealing with Christianity’s heritage as the most disembodied religion. In Christianity, there are essentially only three postures: sitting down, standing up, going on the knees. The body was essentially demonized. Then we shifted to consumerism as religion glorifying the body in its most narcissistic expression. So in a way, we went from one extreme to the other. From disembodied to hyper-embodied. And now virtually-hyperly-dis-embodied at the mercy of our devices...
In this context, dance and somatics can help find a third way: movement is information for our dynamic system. Information is awareness. Awareness is embodied. Embodiment is transformative. Transformation is new information in our system, there occurs healing. It is not as linear as I just made it sound, though. There are elements of mystery, curiosity and faith throughout the process.
I appreciate your capacity to hold both of these truths at once: your work is deeply attuned to embodiment and spirituality, but at the same time, it’s never luddite-ish or technophobic. We’ve talked before about our shared love of artists like Tabita Rezaire, whose video art similarly reveals the ways in which technology itself can be spiritual. How do similar themes manifest in your work?
Yes! Tabita Rezaire is a priestess from the future! Technology advances for the sake of advancing, and our ethics often lag behind. We need to elaborate our framework for coping with the issues that technology poses from an environmental, social and psychological perspective. Personally, for many years, the internet seemed to be an amplifier of my insecurities. As Tabita once said, why do we feel like shit on the internet? Her work inspires me to practice being mindful and notice when my nervous system begins to shrink down into insecurity and sadness while scrolling.
My relationship with technology changed a lot when I started working on the project Intuitive Gestures with Seif Gaber (aka Polonius). It was a dance performance which incorporated elements of an archaic imaginary and an educational speculative tech-health protocol from the future, similar to Tabita’s video work but through sound. We began the research from a book about a benevolent alien civilization teaching humans simple, cosmic healing tools. It turned out to be a blast of alien ceremonial dance. We made the sound together and in that process I learned to love machines, synth sounds.
Through this performance we also met really incredible people and collectives, like Depuratore in Veneto and Possibility of an Island in Tuscany. We invited our friends to perform in the hall of our house in Milan during a series of intimate gatherings, hosting artists like DJ LSP, TOTALE, Mouth is a Vessel. Unfortunately we had to stop them because of the pandemic, but the desire for intimate spaces of sharing is still very much present. So the way in which technology can become a spiritual tool manifests in my work mostly through sonic explorations.
Also, this year, I’ve concentrated a lot on Water Info Transmission and Archaeo Choreology, two research projects and dance spaces (both now moved online). I work with people 1-on-1 and in group sessions, where participants have brought really inspiring insights into the practice, exploring how moving in their rooms while being connected virtually to the group felt like a whole new way of being online, free from judgement. I also work with my amazing friend Sophie Mars on ‘Fluid System Resonance,’ a joint practice on hydrofeminism and digital healing through movement. Water and the Internet are so very similar. Chaotic, polluted, connected, playful, deep, sensual.
Say more about that! Maybe this is a good opportunity to talk about your side project, Hydrofemme?
On Hydrofemme I create elixirs and relaxing music, using traditional Italian recipes. It is born in the digital underworld of nymphs, fairies and elves. I love these virtual identities. Hydrofemme is conceived exactly for them. And for everyone who loves massages and spas. It’s a project about archetypal gestures of care and intoxicating love.
How did you start making music? Who are some of your influences? I know we share a love for Pauline Anna Strom, who very sadly passed recently. Who else inspires your musical production?
I have a very deep love for Pauline’s music, and I’m happy to know you love her too!! The day after she passed away we paid tribute by dancing to Transmillenia Consort during the Water Info Transmission online gathering. It was beautiful.
I started accidently two years ago with Intuitive Gestures, the story is pretty funny actually.. Polonius came to Milan to rehearse a dance for his new album LOLOPHOPHORA (out on Pampsychia) and the day before he arrived I got bit by a spider on my foot and I couldn’t move nor dance for 10 days. I was taking antibiotics for my swollen foot and was in a lot of pain so he handed me the keyboard and I loved it.. After that we worked together on Conference of the Angels, a New Age tape we released via Hydrofemme. Then, during quarantine, I was supposed to do a dance performance for the online festival Avantgardening, but I had some music I wanted to try to play live. From there, I started working on my first solo album Ianassa Alga Miraggio (Ingrown Records), a journey into underwater fantasia, made of nymph mirages and strange electric, translucent creatures.
I’m very inspired by my friends, Pampsychia, Artetetra in Italy and the Belgian folks Orphan Fairytale, Nonlocal Research, Spencer Clark. An album that really inspires me is The Music of Belief by Dolphins Into the Future, maybe one of my all time favourites. I also love as I mentioned above, older New Age works from Iasos, Suzanne Doucet, and Enya of course! Also Gregorian chants, Ariel Kalma and Italian 80s dream pop star Mango, timeless.
Can you speak more on the relationship between movement and making music? How do these facets of your creative practice reciprocally inform each other?
Music goes so much beyond the physical plane that it really inspires to crystallise ideas into forms of movement. Dance evolves as music sensitivity evolves.
‘What came first, music or movement?’ My teacher Vera Passos once said. They go hand in hand. The Maenads back in ancient Greece were both great musicians and dancers. I’d like to further that lineage. Dionysus, can you hear me?
Finally, it would be fun to end our conversation by thinking a bit about how work like yours can help engender a more positive future. You’ve written before that “femme consciousness is one of the solutions for establishing new relations of being comfortable with chaos and relating to each other from a place of curiosity and care rather than fear and mistrust.” How can movement teach us to practice curiosity and care?
It’s about developing ways to support and be supported through the kinaesthetic sense. To be witnessed in our process. Developing listening skills and ways to see with new eyes, curious, childlike eyes. Blindfolded exercises, for instance, they heighten perception and we let go of our judgements. In dance we temporarily strip off concepts and tap into universal metamorphic qualities. This process creates new possibilities rather than habitual responses. The nervous system establishes new connections from previous fractured trauma responses.
Movement can also support the so-called ‘shadow work’, initially introduced by Carl Jung: when we are able to see our shadows—the parts of us we feel ashamed of—and integrate them, we begin to listen more carefully to our needs and those of others.