Melbourne Festival: Lexicon

Director Firenza Guidi discusses discovering the arts and creating Lexicon

By Lois Maskiell

“Circus found me in a way,” Firenza Guidi says. “This was in the early ’90s, circus wasn’t even an art form in its own right in the UK.”

Since 1995, Milan-born director Firenza Guidi has created award-winning productions for NoFit State Circus. Beginning with Autogeddon followed by international tours of Immortal, Tabú and Bianco, Guidi has carved out a name for herself and her distinct performance-montage style.

Firenza Guidi. Photograph: Seventh Wave.

Nofit State Circus’ latest work Lexicon brings Guidi to Melbourne for the International Arts Festival. In the Royal Botanic Gardens moments after a presenting a work in development to the public, Guidi reveals how she first discovered the arts. “When people say how did you start, I don’t even know because it’s not even in my family,” she tells TheatrePress.

Both Guidi’s parents were chefs who owned restaurants and thanks to a customer of theirs she frequented venues such as La Scala from a young age. “As a child, one of the daily customers who became a friend of the family belonged to what is called la claque.” The claque was group of people who received discounted tickets in exchange for starting the applause during and at the end of a show. “So, from the age of five, I saw ballet and opera and sometimes I would fall asleep, sometimes I would just watch the machinery of it, the spectacle of it,” she says.

Lexicon is indeed a spectacle. The performance is set inside a tent featuring purpose-built apparatus entirely operated by body weight. The concept began three years ago when Guidi decided to create a classroom with nine desks that elevate into the air. “When I first said that, everybody looked at me like I was mad,” she says.

Guidi’s direction takes a series of individual acts and places them in a larger whole each separated by clowning scenes. Her unique brand of physical comedy references past traditions like the Fratellini Brothers and commedia dell’arte by incorporating voice, acrobatics and carefully rehearsed errors that give the effect of spontaneous chaos.

Her sharp comic eye is no doubt influenced by her training with the crème de la crème of theatre, including master clown Philippe Gaulier and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Dario Fo. “Clowning is about accepting some parts of you, and all of you, that have to do with weaknesses and idiosyncratic things,” Guidi enthuses. “With clowning, you need to be kind of born every single time in the eyes of the audience,” she adds.

She comments that the audience might not realise how difficult it is to utilise both the ground and the air when directing for circus. “Sometimes it’s taken for granted when people see my shows, but I don’t mean in an arrogant way, it’s taken for granted that connection between floor and aerial,” she says. Guidi admits that developing the new equipment demanded a great deal of labour. “It took three to four years to create a rig whereby the trapeze elongates by wires and allows the performer to step out, as if it’s an ordinary motion,” she says.

As a freelance director, Guidi’s agenda is filled with projects well in advance. Lexicon tours next to Marseille, though this time she won’t join the company, “I will be going to Chicago to lead ten would-be directors into a process of creating shows for a site-specific location,” she says. On top of directing Guidi runs Elan Frantoio a creation centre in Tuscany. The centre houses an annual summer residency, now in its 27th year, for performers.

For Guidi, interrogation and research are essential parts of serious artistic pursuit. “Circus performers will not all go into Cirque du Soleil, they will not all go on cruise ships, some of them might want to create their own work,” she says. “And who is going to push the boundaries if we don’t research?”

NoFit State Circus’ Lexicon is being performed until 21 October as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival. Tickets can be purchased online. 

Photograph: N.Cioni