Rocco's choreography puts you ringside

Amsterdam’s Emio Greco drew on his own father’s boxing days and a classic Italian film for the power-punching Rocco

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      Boxing has always been seen as a kind of brutal ballet. Muhammad Ali used to talk about floating like a butterfly and his “dance under those lights”. Sugar Ray Robinson once said “Rhythm is everything in boxing.”

      Now those ties between the bloody sport and the graceful art form become even more pronounced in Rocco, a dance work that literally puts its performers in a boxing ring—and some of its audience members in ringside seats. It even includes a dinging bell to signal scene changes. The brainchild of Amsterdam-based, Italian-born choreographer Emio Greco and Dutch dramaturge Pieter C. Scholten, Rocco explores brotherhood, masculinity, and the mythology of boxing, while pushing its four male dancers to physical extremes.

      “I had a connection, since my father was a boxer himself,” Greco explains, speaking to the Straight over the phone from Amsterdam, where he and Scholten run the dance-theatre company Emio Greco | PC out of the International Choreographic Arts Centre (ICK). He and his partner are preparing to split their time between the Dutch metropolis and France, where it’s just been announced they’ll take on directorship of the prestigious National Ballet of Marseilles starting in August. “It was something around my childhood: it was something that was part of us growing up.”

      Looking back on the reasons his father became a fighter, Greco grew fascinated by the sport’s social aspects, and the fact that, in the past, it was almost literally a battle for survival. “At the beginning of the last century and after the Second World War, boxing was done mainly by the lower-class people because it was one of the few chances to change your life. In this case, that also was the reason my father started in the sport: he also came from quite a poor family and boxing was a way to redeem your life.”

      In a unique partnership that puts a great deal of emphasis on research and story, innovators Scholten and Greco have drawn on everything from Dante’s Divine Comedy to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema. For Rocco, they drew inspiration and imagery from Luchino Visconti’s classic film Rocco and His Brothers, about a group of boxing brothers, two of whom clash over the love of a prostitute. They also enlisted an Italian boxing coach to teach the performers technique.

      Greco and Scholten never set out to stage a literal boxing match, and Rocco enters some highly emotional and sometimes surreal terrain. Still, Greco couldn’t help but see the similarities between his own style of dance and the sport.

      “In my way of dancing, I’m never standing in an ending position; every position is on the verge of moving to another place. I’m always in a temporary balance,” says Greco, a former dancer with the Ballet Antibes Côte d’Azur who spent years as a solo artist before working on group pieces with Scholten. “So there has always been a little bit of these changing positions and the shifting balance of the boxer—the need to keep moving, not being a fixed target who is easy to hit.”

      Greco also sees similarities between the boxer and the dancer in how they use their instincts to generate action. “Part of being a good boxer is having an intuition of the movement of your opponent,” he says. “There is never really a hate between the opponents; they’re just using this technique and a lot of reading the other. Like dance, it’s a lot about listening to the body, and that fascinated me.

      “And then there is the idea of just the beauty of the punches that is also really iconic,” he continues. “That propulsion has a certain power.”

      Emio Greco

      Just like in a boxing match, the dancers in Rocco are pushed to their absolute physical limits. They are drained by the end, but the movement that’s taken them there is not exactly boxing—it’s more like a dance that takes its figures through combat, comfort, erotic love, and exhaustion.

      “It’s about observing two people facing each other: their strength, fragility, passion, hope. It’s really about what we are, the beauty and contradiction of the human being,” Greco says.

      Rocco is not always dark and violent: aside from the central, bare-chested fighters in the piece, there are mouse-eared buffoons in spangled tights who turn the evening, intermittently, into more of a surreal cabaret or circus than a pugilistic match. “Despite how intense it can be, there is always a way to escape from it,” the affable Greco says. “There’s always a moment of lightness. It refreshes everything.”

      In all, Rocco captures the elements that have pushed Greco and Scholten to the forefront of European dance, and into their exciting new post in Marseilles: the mix of choreography and theatrical drama, the inspiration from a meticulously researched source, the pummelling physicality, the epic motifs, and the unbridled imagination. For Greco, boxing brings it all full circle.

      Unable to stop himself from drawing another parallel between the sport and dance, he says: “Being on-stage is like being in the ring: you defend yourself. You always fight for your gesture to mean more than just the act of dancing.”

      DanceHouse presents Rocco at the Playhouse on Friday and Saturday (April 4 and 5).