After a glorious, windblown Salento day that foretold a serious summer on the way, the Berkeley Circle gathered in numbers at the Masseria Solicara. The night was soft and still as if retreating to make way for our celebration. We were marking the end of another season of congenial socialising and the juggling of ideas. Our guest, the American, Danielle Pinney, was bringing to an end a very different year-long adventure. She spent it travelling on a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. This remarkable instrument of education should make us—Italian and British, Stay-at-homes and Brexiteers— give a thoughtful whirl to our library mappamondo desk globe. The Fellowship insists that the recipient stay clear of United States borders for twelve months. In other words, it calls for genuine adulthood unwrapped in back-yard patriotism or Mom-and-Dad supervision. It’s a first step toward citizenship of the world.
Which chimes with the bells of Danielle’s alma mater, Union College. This Cinderella of ancient (New World time scale) American higher learning has been tucked away in a dignified and private corner of Upstate New York since 1795. One guesses that the founders were looking east to Massachusetts Bay and not south to the island metropolis to be. Travellers (and donors) on the path from Montreal to Manhattan shouldn’t miss a visit to this realm of the liberal arts. Joseph Ramée, a Frenchman, drew up the campus plan, the first of its kind, in 1813. Its quirky circular gem is the Nott Memorial, finished later in the 1800s but redolent of earlier utopianism and innocence.
So much for background. Danielle’s aim for her year of travel was precise. She would familiarise herself with some examples of folk dancing around the world and attempt to understand how they related to storytelling. Putting the question was simple enough. But she had soon become aware that hammering out an answer would take much pondering. In the meantime, she had her priceless experience and shared it with us. Her mastery of her material meant she had learned to perform it. We were regaled by samples of far east dance of a quasi-sacred sort that cut deep into ethnic identity. Was the glimpse of a move from Thailand that we were shown part of a story or itself the story? Was the careful contrast demonstrated between a Japanese Noh play—a dance drama—and a movement from a dance of the same country both storytelling? All this was strange indeed and a shade magic, especially in the balmy air where Danielle has just finished her study of our very own pizzica (no oriental subtlety but noise worthy of Dionysus). After a few crucial steps of an Irish gig, we sat down to our supper.
One theatre buff could not help thinking of Danielle’s past year as the first stage in an itinerary in the mould of Julie Taymor’s. In the 1970s, Taymor went to Indonesia to study its traditional dance drama. She concluded that some Javanese and Balinese technique could be used to enrich the America stage. In another two decades her Lion King appeared to acclaim on Broadway. Her brilliant Shakespeare and Carlo Gozzi productions profited as well from the curiosity of her youth about cultures so different from her own.