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Behind-the-Scenes at the U.S. Pavilion: Interview with the Athletes

We are now a few months into the Biennale and the Gloria installation at the U.S. Pavilion has maintained a consistently high level of attendance, with over 250,000 visitors since the opening.

Working from Venice for the past two and a half months, I had the chance to assist with the performances and meet some of the athletes. Two of them, Sadie Wilhelmi and David Durante, have kindly agreed to answer some of my questions about their experience at the Biennale.

Dave was a member of the USA Gymnastics team for six years, including a participation in the Olympic games in Beijing.  Sadie is a gymnast with extensive dance and circus background. Before coming to Venice, she performed as a freelance aerial artist with a company in New York and took part in other dance and choreography projects.

Here is what they have to say about their experience at the Venice Biennale:

How did you get involved in this project?

Dave: The IMA and USA Gymnastics are both in Indianapolis. When the project was selected, I was asked to participate based on my background and experience with the U.S. team. Besides performing myself, I am the athletes’ coordinator for the whole project and in charge of the logistics, including finding the performers and runners. I worked with the choreographer and performers who were selected to create the routines. We trained in New York for about four months before coming to Venice at the end of May.  I’ll be here in Venice for the entire run.

Sadie: I got involved through my friend Olga Kaminsky, who is good friends with Dave.

 How long did it take to create the choreography?

 Dave: The choreography took a little bit of time. Initially we did not have the sculptures, so we worked with mats and foam blocks.  Rebecca Davis, the choreographer, was instrumental in putting it all together and bridged the gap between the gymnastic and the dance world.  The performers also had input here and there.

 Sadie: It took us months to put this together. We started in January of this year and it came together during lots of hours of training and rehearsal.

 How many people have performed these routines since the opening of the show in early June?

 Dave and Sadie: We’ve had three guys and three girls for the gymnastics, as well as five runners.  At the opening, we also had Chellsie Memmel, who was part of the team in Beijing, and world champion runner Dan O’Brien.

 Were the artists involved in the choreography?

 Dave and Sadie: They gave us some guideline parameters to work with. They wanted gymnastic movements that one could see during a routine at the Olympics.  The real challenge for me was to take gymnastics and push the limit on what is physically possible on these sculptures, while staying safe and not get injured.

 The routines are much longer than what you are normally used to. Is this difficult?

Dave: Initially the artists wanted the performances to be about a half an hour long. Gymnastic routines are usually between 60 and 90 seconds, while circus routines are normally between six and seven minutes. So to push this to a much longer extent of time (the routines are now fifteen minutes) was a real challenge.  The artists came to New York for a week and we put together a series of little sketches for them. They really liked certain pieces and did not like others, so we cut certain things and started to work with them over that week to put their final stamp on the pieces.

How does it feel to perform so close to the public?

Dave:  It has been the best part of performing, because when you are competing in an area with 15,000 people, it’s just you and the apparatus and the judge watching you. You feel such a disconnection with the public. Here their energy is what you use. They are not speaking, but their eyes are speaking. There is such a connection, you can feel them holding their breath.  They can see you sweat and breathe heavily. That part is really cool for me.

 Sadie: It is such a new feeling for me.  Both with dance and the aerial work there is much more distance between you and the public, so it is really really intimate to have the public so close. Sometimes I kick people or the sweat is flying around. My toe started bleeding one time. It makes it very real when people can see everything that is going on.  It brings people in. They can really follow you once they can connect with that.

 How does it feel to be part of an artwork?

 Dave: I love art and I do a bit of art myself, mostly drawings and pastels. But this is a whole new realm for me as an artist. This is something that I do not think has ever been done from an athletic side of things.  To be a first in that sense is special. The whole ride has been scary at times, not knowing if we could pull everything together in time, and making sure that the pieces were what the artists and the museum wanted.

Sadie: The more I learned about the Biennale and the more involved I was getting with the project, the more honored I felt about being part of it and how we are basically inscribed in art history.  It’s really unique to be part of a performance in a contemporary art piece.  We have had such interesting and good feedback from the audience.

What about your experience in Venice?

 Dave: I had been here a couple of times but living here is a completely different experience. Not too many people get to live in Venice. Being able to come here and perform has been great. Sadie and I have our own blog where we tell all of our adventures and stories here in Venice:

Sadie: I had never been to Italy before and it has been an incredible experience. Coming to work by boat every morning and working in a museum in the middle of a garden is magical. We have been doing the most amazing things. It has been truly the most amazing project I have worked on in my life.

What’s next for you?

David and Sadie: We will be here until the end of November. We are currently in the process of putting together some acts of our own. We have some other gigs around Italy and hope to possibly extend that to New York. We will also be in Indianapolis to perform in March.







Filed under: Art, Contemporary, Exhibitions, Venice Biennale

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