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Shining a spotlight on the spectator: BAM! meets Francesca Pennini

By 23 October 2020October 26th, 2020No Comments

BAM! interviewed Francesca Pennini during the most recent Gender Bender – International Festival.

A dancer and choreographer, Francesca Pennini founded and took on the direction of the CollettivO CineticO in 2007. This multiple award-winning group (UBU 2017, Hystrio Iceberg 2016) involves over fifty artists from the performing arts.

In this interview conducted by Massimo Finistrella on behalf of BAM!, Francesca Pennini shares some of her reflections on subjects such as the relationship with spectators, the role of cultural institutions and the impact of digital technology on live shows.

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Let’s start by talking about the show that made this meeting at Gender Bender possible. What should we expect from Dialogo Terzo in a Landscape?

To all intents and purposes, this show is a hybrid created out of the desire to mix with others, with other signs, with other ways of working, and to host these signs on our bodies. Working with people whom I greatly esteem and with whom I also have a strong friendship was a gift to myself. Alessandro Sciarroni and I had been waiting a long time for this.

Alessandro came up with the basic idea when thinking about working with us and it tied in with an object he wanted to explore. The process was developed through detailed observation, as he is a great observer. It’s not a question of premeditation, but permeability with respect to what we were as dancers and artists. It’s a work born out of a process undertaken together. We put ourselves at his total disposition as performers, while Alessandro was the producer. It’s called In A Landscape like the piece by John Cage. It works a bit like meditation, both for those on the stage and those off it. Doing this performance is a real experience every time. It’s very intense and involves an energy other than “kinetic energy”.


Audience engagement has always been a central aspect of your artistic reflection if we think about works such as 10 miniballetti, in which you physically explored the relationship of closeness to/distance from the spectators, or Amleto with the creation of the applausometer. When did you realise that the time had come to involve the audience more actively in your performances? What triggered this need?

Shining a spotlight on the spectator has always been a very strong requirement for me. Sometimes it involves putting a mirror in front of the spectator in order to show them their presence, the importance of the quality of their attention, their thoughts and their decisions. In other cases, it involves thinking about them without directly involving them. Nevertheless, they always remain an extremely active subject during the creation phase, almost as if the performance itself was a tool for exploring and getting to know the spectator sitting opposite.

This mechanism of permeability, namely the fact that the live performance has to react to the gaze of those on the other side, is a very strong paradigm, which I also experience as being very strong in political terms. Cases in which the performance is interactive can highlight this paradigm, which is always there, and are not so much about introducing a playful dynamic. What is more, opening up to the spectator’s choices means being ready for variety, for putting oneself at risk as an artist, baring oneself.

I don’t think this engagement has been gradual in the case of CollettivO CineticO. This interest was already evident in our first works. It may have even been much more drastic in the beginning. I’m thinking about performances such as D- monoscritture retiniche sull’oscenità dei denti in which we crumpled up the theatre programmes and gave them to the spectators. They were blinded the whole time and their gaze was put to the test with a view to inviting them along a winding path to be travelled together. Another project from 2010 also comes to mind. It was called The Uncertain Scene: reformatting the performative event. The idea was a transposition of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, according to which the spectator’s gaze influenced the scene. In the subatomic world, the principle is that observation influences the observed object, meaning that measuring something modifies the object of the measurement, so that you can never look at something without changing it.

They were drastic experiments, with the spectators completing a sort of obstacle course that could last three months. It could potentially be infinite and last for months at a time. In my opinion, this engagement them softened with maturity. It is still present, but less violent.

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Collettiv0 Cinetic0 is considered a company that gravitates illegally into the territories of contemporary dance. In your opinion, who makes up today’s contemporary dance audience? Who comes to see your shows? Is it the traditional dance audience or do you attract different audiences?

I don’t think our audience coincides completely with the typical contemporary art audience, given that contemporary dance sometimes has the problem of being a niche interest (although it depends on the performance setting). In these cases you run the risk of dealing with a spectator who speaks exactly the same language as you, such as critics and those in the industry, and this tends to generate a linguistic asphyxia, in the sense that we understand more and more but only among ourselves. For me, on the other hand, the challenge has always been about opening up this potential and not thinking of the spectator as my colleague. I want to hope that our audience is a bit anomalous. We attract quite a young audience who come along and go away happy and this cannot be taken for granted.

Some works struggle to catch on with a certain type of audience. Perhaps the fact that the engagement includes a playful and fun aspect can help, perhaps it’s an element that triggers that mechanism. And there are different levels at which the work can be accessed, including pop. I like the fact that our performances are appreciated by those from outside the industry. I think this is something very healthy and it’s not necessarily a symptom of populism or popularity, which involves making oneself understood at any cost. What’s more, I really esteem our audience. I don’t think we should have to dumb things down to attract people or gain access to more people. Very difficult things are absolutely fine. Just think that you’re interacting with someone and invite them to participate in this difficult thing, bearing in mind that they will need to tolerate the fact that some aspects may be difficult.

In my opinion it is dangerous to think that there is just one type of audience to reach. I’m very happy when I speak to an unlikely person, who also seems unlikely with regard to my expectations. Is this necessary? I think that it is perhaps necessary for young people to see our shows. I’d like them to speak to those who thought they didn’t love the theatre or dance: the unlikely audience. But how can you speak to this unlikely audience? It could be a cry to the wind.

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You’ve been in residence at the Teatro Comunale di Ferrara for a number of years. What kind of relationship do you have with the audience at this institution and, above all, do you think you have brought a new and diverse audience to the Comunale? 

Over the years I’ve seen a change in the spectators who follow us at the Teatro Comunale di Ferrara, first and foremost in terms of quantity, perhaps due to the fact that they didn’t know much about us at the start. Ferrara is quite a sceptical city, so it’s certainly possible to shake things up here from a cultural standpoint. This couldn’t be taken for granted in the beginning, but an audience has gradually been created and even the most reluctant have come along to see the “strange” things we were doing and what people were talking about.

I’m also happy about the spectators that sometimes come from secondary schools. We carry out various kinds of educational activities with the local teenagers. Many of these young people have become season ticket holders. They didn’t want to become performers themselves, but they’ve become spectators and for me this is perhaps a more important achievement than the ones who have gone on to become dancers.

Our projects are often very inclusive, so you find yourself not only watching something but getting involved too.
Our current agreement expires in December and has not been renewed.
The theatre in Ferrara has often been held up as being virtuous for having us in residence, but I don’t know what will happen now. I hope that this vocation for the contemporary will remain, even when our agreement comes to an end, and that the seeds that have been sown are not lost, for example with regard to the style of the programming.


In your opinion how important is it for certain types of cultural institutions to host artists of different kinds and encourage audience diversification? (with all the pros and cons that this entails!)

A cultural institution cannot be a bubble that is disconnected from the local area. Instead, it has to have a synergic relationship with it. But it’s also good for it to attract an audience from outside, because this creates a mirror for the city, allowing it to recognise itself. An entirely Italian battle to be fought with regard to so many different cultural fields is not to build a wall between the generations, with respect to the contemporary that is to say and everything that is not traditional.

In the theatre too, it is very important to assign value to the contemporary, especially in these more traditional settings. I don’t feel that it is necessarily a courageous operation, but I think it the intelligent thing to do, as well as being useful for the institution and not just an act of charity for young people. For age-related reasons, the audience at certain institutions is dying out, in the sense that there will no longer be any season ticket holders left soon. This means it is already a very pragmatic necessity. However, I also think it is important as a sign of cultural openness, even in more traditional fields such as opera: this is precisely where the element of alternative thinking needs to be included.

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One of the your latest creations for the Comunale di Ferrara was Cinetico Voodoo, in which you aimed to explore and raise questions about what it means to communicate from a distance, even using the technology and tools we have resorted to over recent months. Using digital technology creates new combinations and innovative spaces for performance. What impact do these aspects have on the creative process in your work? What have you learned from this most recent piece?

I don’t think it was the direct result of this experience, but something that fermented during it and was perhaps already bubbling away at its origin. I think we’re very behind with regard to the absorption of tools that we use so much, with respect to the critical gaze, the development of awareness of how we use them. Perhaps there’s a technical awareness (I can use that technological device), but I apply the same methods that I use without that device whatever the setting, which may entail different methods of communication.

This happened with the performing arts when lockdown triggered the desire to do everything online, but it became a rather unquestioning translation about what that dimension means and what resources it can effectively offer. Sterilising the performative phenomenon, but also the potential of that method that, from a philosophical standpoint, puts you in the position of asking yourself whether presence is actually needed? What influence does real presence have? How can it be changed? What forms of virtuality are also present without devices? And what warmth and empathy can be found when you detach from it?
Cinetico Vodoo was a whirlwind of technological complexity, we had become a kind of RAI headquarters. I’m not yet lucid enough to gather together all the praise. I can say that I thought it would be impossible to create with artists from a distance and yet it proved very productive, direct and real. I didn’t feel the alienation that I feared would be a risk with this phenomenon. Instead, the fact of sharing something as intimate as creating something together with someone who was far away generated a very strong bond.

It wasn’t a question of going ahead despite the camera, but instead understanding the anatomy of this technological body. That body can speak in a certain way, at a certain pace, with certain variables and certain unexpected scenarios! Perhaps the face is pixelated and the anatomy of that body is a pixelated face in that moment.

Instead, I felt the spectator’s gaze as the most dangerous thing. If all the artists involved had a strong dimension, it was not the same for the spectator who watched the phenomenon via Facebook or YouTube. I felt the danger of that empathic detachment that allows for potential mischief, although this didn’t actually prove to be the case because even the way in which the comment arrived meant that it was a comment with a different power from the one a spectator has when communicating directly with you, running the risk with you because they are there with you. Instead, people feel much safer at home, and we need to work on this, because you can’t be so safe, it’s dangerous!

Interview by Massimo Finistrella 

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