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The fate of growing up
by Marco Dallari (Pedagogics lecturer at Trento University)

When Letizia Quinavalla told me that the main characters in Romanzo d’infanzia would be two dancers who would also act, I was overcome by a sort of pedagogical depression. What I was afraid of was that the adults (authors, directors, actors) had made the classic educational mistake of taking what was probably a good or anyway legitimate idea, turning it into a decent plot and then failing in the attempt to put it down in writing and on stage. It happens all the time, or whenever an adult tries to communicate with children without taking time to consider the specific code this requires. It happens at school, when despite faultless programmes and didactic projects the educational event just doesn’t work because the teacher isn’t a good, lively communicator. It happens when children are faced with books that are probably full of stimulating, exciting, fascinating information but have poor graphics or dull language. It happens in theatre, in cinema, even in parent-child relations. It happens every time adult-child communication is perceived as transmission rather than relationship. This was my fear, but ten minutes into the show I had to reconsider.

Antonella Bertoni and Michele Abbondanza have adapted their abilities as dancers to relate to childhood. Antonella’s charm of manner becomes conspiratorial and affectionate, while Michele’s athletic qualities allow him to wink intelligently at situations that recall action movies and cartoons closer to the cultural habits and consolidated topoi in the imaginary world of today’s children. Freed from the risk of rhetoric, dance and words thus become narrative ingredients capable of attracting attention, underlining involvement, moving the audience or getting laughs and applause mid-scene. But because of this ability to get on the same wavelength as the young audience, their original dramatic purpose is also reaffirmed, i.e. to help young viewers distance themselves from the private lives of the characters by raising them to paradigm level.

Behind the story and the characters’ personalities, behind the constant absence of parents from the scene, behind the ever-present misunderstanding hovering over the child-adult relations a symbolic universe thus emerges in which each spectator can discover that the story has been written and staged for her or him alone. In this way the key events in the story become rites of initiation, the separation from parents, school and siblings no longer examples of personal sufferance but fate: the fate of growing up, of emancipation. As in many fairytales, the parent who abandons the child in the woods is, seen through the child eyes of Hansel and Gretel, wicked. Seen again at the end of the story this action is providential, the road to an autonomy which is the sworn enemy of the puer aeterus archetype, allowing as it does the opportunity to live life knowingly, with all the horrible, solitary, but also enticing surprises that freedom implies. The Giornalino di Gian Burrasca (Gian Burrasca’s Diary) also told a story of misunderstandings between the world of adults and children which helped the young Gian Burrasca to reflect, free himself and build his own identity while growing up by keeping a diary. But Wamba had a more moralistic bent, blending elements of social criticism with romanticism and socialism and countering the obtuse hypocrisy of ‘grown-ups’ with the rebellious authenticity of the young Giannino Stoppani.

Romanzo d’infanzia has all the elements of a completely intimate, yet not private, drama which is open to hope, to redemption in the psychological sense of the word as it is used by Marie Luise Von Franz in her studies on the educational function of fairytales. If anything we are closer to something like Truffaut’s masterpiece Les 400 coups (400 Blows) where as the credits appear at the end of the film an image of the protagonist freezes on-screen, summarizing all the determination, character and decision-making ability he has developed to cope with the pain and trials confronted. Can a brother and sister maintain as adults that harmony of complicity and affection with its hint of eros that the dance metaphor correctly reveals? Can exploration, curiosity, transgression and naughtiness (the fire episode is wonderful) continue to be justified in the ambiguous child-parent relationship of dependency and rebellion? The poetical, very delicate story put together by Letizia Quintavalla and Bruno Stori (how could I ever have doubted them?) tells of the personal joys, tenderness, fears and disillusions each individual makes of this common childhood destiny. The performance is easy to watch and enjoy, complex and demanding if it is taken as intended as a sharing of metaphors and paradigms between adults and children. Which is why it was no surprise to be asked by parents at the theatre, or hear them asking themselves, how ‘suitable’ it was…Suitable for what, for children or for the widespread vocation of parents and educators to abstain from providing a sentimental education?