The work of Elena Francalanci is a deeply personal creation.
Working across visual arts, performance and choreography, her practice merges the ingrained traditions of Italy and ballet with rave culture and feminist doctrine. Rarely reprising her performances, each of her pieces are like singular explosions, utilising the unique energy of the momentum. The results are raw, unaltered pieces inhabited by a vigorous force, which she employs to forge an identity that is inherently her own and unapologetically authentic.
Johanne Björklund Larsen: Your practice is very autobiographical. Could you tell me more about your background and how it is reflected in your work?
Elena Francalanci: All of my work draws on the moment I’m living in. But of course, it is also influenced by my past. In my work, there is a big connection between the body and materials. I come from a family of shoemakers in Tuscany so working physically with material and using my hands have always been a natural thing for me. At the same time, I danced ballet from when I was 4 until I was done with school, around 19. So I was growing up with this contrast between the rough work with leather and the classical beauty of the world of ballet. But as I got older, I was getting bored of dancing for someone else and being treated like just a body. So I found myself moving closer to the world of visual art and performance, mixing in elements from the raves I would go to on the weekend in abandoned places. For me, these parties were also embodiments of a protest and revolt against what it meant to be Italian and a way to reclaim our identities beyond the structures we grew up within. I think my work embodies the tension between these contrasting fractions: there is the beauty of classical dance, with its perfection and discipline; there is the manual labor of leather work; and there is this need to break with the tight traditions I grew up with. This is a very central point in my research as a choreographer and as an artist in general because I don’t think that my performances are just based on movement; it is based in these pictures and images that I want to create together with the movement. Then through repetition, I create these sensitive, very long moments of tension and play with how to release or to not release them.
J.B.L: What inspires your work?
E.F: My daily life and the relationships between me and the people around me are big inspirations for me; mainly my friends but also my family in some way. I am fascinated by how we can use the body and it can capture something that is concrete but at the same time abstract. I always try to find this ‘in-between’ state in things. I hate it when I go out from a performance and I have this feeling of “alright cool, I got it”. I want to find a million different interpretations in my work because otherwise I get bored with myself. Ballet is of course still a source of inspiration. But for a long time I was kind of ‘fuck dance, let’s do something else’. I think I got a bit traumatized from the dance world, with the incessant focus on how you see the body and the constant strive for perfection; this perfection-state that actually doesn’t exist. I strive to show rawness; I hate a ‘finished piece’. I love to go into a piece when it’s not ready; I almost like it more. I don’t strive for the perfection of a piece through repetition. I want to go in, do it one or two times and that’s it – basta.
J.B.L: A central theme in your work is your body. How is it to work with it as your main tool?
E.F: My whole life, my body has been my instrument. I danced throughout my childhood and teenage years. And during this time, you see so many bodies around you; when you are in the changing room, you are always surrounded by people. So you are getting crazy with all of these bodies. Like for example, this focus on the feet. Feet and legs. It’s really a lot of focus on that in ballet. And to think about that you spend so much time looking at the feet of your friends. Like really. It’s not a fetish, but I’m still obsessed with feet and how they look and how beautiful they can be. And how long legs can be. But of course, how complicated are these instruments? In the end, they are the instruments that I have.
J.B.L: Both ballet as well as Italy as a country, are worlds steeped in a lot of traditions and a lot of cultural history. How do you think this has affected your practice?
E.F: I think that if you want to break something, you need to have the thing first. For me, tradition was always something to break. So, of course, it’s the base of my work but it’s also about deconstructing this fundament that I have. It is similar with Italian traditions and the expectations it has on how you should live as a woman: get married, have children…. There are still all of these very conservative expectations of you as a woman. For example, just look at what Meloni is saying, she’s crazy! We are in 2023! Everybody outside of Italy thinks that it’s a good country. But the truth is, you don’t live well there. There is no hope in this country and think it is partly due to these strict traditions. Yet we are surrounded by all of this beauty and that is amazing. And in the end, of course, without all of these traditions I would have nothing to go against; if you are fine all the time, what do you have to say? If you don’t have something to say “fuck you” to then how can you create? Yet at the same time, I have to be honest, I loved being a ballet dancer and I love the beauty of Italian classicism; it inspires me a lot. So it’s always this relationship of love and hate. It’s a lot about ego, of course: about looking at yourself in the mirror, trying to reach this perfection. Yet at the same time, it makes you crazy.
J.B.L: Do you think there is freedom to be found in a reappropriating traditional structures or do you think we need to completely dismantle and destroy them in order to feel free?
E.F: I don’t believe in completely destroying your traditions. I used to though. I started my work thinking of destruction. Or not even destruction, just simply not even acknowledging my past. And now I’m finally accepting them and seeing it as “Okay, this is what I was. This is my past. This is Italy. This is Elena in Italy.” I think you need to know them; you can’t erase history. You need to know it to not do it again in some way. You can’t walk around and pretend your past didn’t happen. My first work was like a big vomit against everything. I was young and so filled with all of these things that I wanted to say and I put it all out there, going against all the Italian traditional structures that I grew up with: religion, marriage, death… everything in one. I also incorporated the ballet and was wearing pointe shoes… It was like the big vomit. Totally crazy. But now, step by step my past is slowly becoming a part of my work as well as me.
J.B.L: Your work has a very strong, distinctive aesthetic. What does aesthetic mean to you?
E.F: I love beauty, both in people and things. That does not necessarily mean that it needs to be classical and conventional beauty, but there always has to be an element of something that I find beautiful; all of the performers I work with are beautiful to me but that doesn’t necessarily mean anyone else sees that beauty. Growing up in Italy, we grew up with very strict ideas about how you should look and I want to break with these frameworks. I also love contrasting this traditional beauty with something a bit ugly or destroyed; there is something beautiful in the imperfect.