Keeping Things Moving: An Interview with Paolo Mangiola

ZfinMalta is the archipelago’s only National Dance Company, and one which enjoys a reputation for original thinking and innovative contemporary choreography. Its Artistic Director, Paolo Mangiola, is a dancer, educator and choreographer who brings a wealth of experience to the role, a post he has held since 2017. His output has been performed in various countries around the world including the USA, UK, Italy, Norway and Serbia, and has included the creation of works for notable companies including the Royal Ballet, Tanztheater Nürnberg, Aterballetto, Szczecin Opera Ballet and Balletto di Roma. His inspirations are eclectic, encompassing globalisation and the environment, the interplay between dance and movement and the emergence of new technologies. We caught up with Paolo to discuss the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, science-fiction and why everybody should dance.

Paolo Mangiola

Paolo Mangiola Photo: © Photo Credit: Matteo Carratoni

Paolo, can you start by telling us a little about ZfinMalta, its artistic vision and what separates it from other dance companies?

Yes, so ZfinMalta is the country’s national dance company set up in 2014 and is a fully funded government body. In fact, it’s the only organisation that deals with dance specifically to receive government funding. That already makes a huge difference. It’s not a school or a private company, but one where we welcome professionals from all over the world to come and dance with the company for a couple of seasons. The company is composed of both Maltese and international dancers and is a very eclectic group, creating works for different types of audiences.

It's a repertoire company which means that, like many other national dance companies all over the world, we have a variety of works in our repertoire — like a menu, if you will. This repertoire of work ranges from big accessible titles, more balletic works, into the more conceptual kind of ‘arty’ fringe works. And everything that is in the middle. What's beautiful about ZfinMalta is that it's a very small company, which means we can travel lightly. We don't have, for example, 60 people with us as some companies do. So it's a very adaptable company. And the dancers that make up the company, they're all artists, very versatile. They're not only doing one particular style. The vision of ZfinMalta is to keep cultivating a culture for dance in the country. We do that by providing excellent work to the Maltese audience and abroad. So this is really what our vision is.

How did you come to be involved in ZfinMalta?

I’d been a dancer for many years, before moving into choreography. A lot of mentors helped me out in this transition. So, in 2017 after completing a Masters in London, I moved to Rome and was the resident choreographer for the ballet company in Rome. There was a call-out for the post of Artistic Director for ZfinMalta. I knew the company because I had come here before as an assistant and choreographer at the University of Malta.

I saw the call for the post of Artistic Director, spoke to my agent about it and she was supportive. She told me: "I think it's good for're a very young leader at the moment so I think it's good to try." So I went for it and I got the job [laughing]. It was a big surprise, because honestly I didn’t expect to get the post, being around 37 at the time.

I was the youngest director in Europe to have an institution like this, so I was thrilled and scared. Because of course on paper you're prepared, but then on the job you need to really learn everything as you go. So that's been incredible and I'm still learning a lot.


ZfinMalta. Photo Credit: Matteo Carratoni

ZfinMalta's Qalbna project. Photo Credit: Matteo Carratoni


Would it be right to say that a company like ZfinMalta gives one a high degree of creative freedom, and perhaps more free reign to explore new artistic directions? 

Absolutely! And I was very lucky because I could build on the fact that the company was already established. But yes, because it's a very young organisation I sort of had carte blanche and I had the full support of the board, meaning I could really allow the company, the brand, to get bigger and bigger. In fact now the company is big, and receiving recognition both here and abroad, and I’m confident that it will keep growing.

In your 21 Dances for the 21st Century, you incorporate video and 3D printing in addition to dance. How do you perceive the role of so-called ‘crossover’ or multidisciplinary factors in contemporary dance?

I think nowadays when we look at dance, we need to look at it outside of the bubble of ‘dance’, and the conventions and preconceptions that go with that. I really want to provide a platform for different artists, for different mediums and for different disciplines, to come together in dialogue with dance. The same is true for choreography. For 21 Dances I collaborated with an amazing visual artist based in Malta. We created these videos as well as a huge object which was actually 3D-printed, and the piece basically unfolds through the use of these mediums. But I think what's really important to me nowadays is for contemporary dance to have the same kind of authority as other art forms, and so I think it's important to keep putting it in a position where it’s forming dialogue with other artforms. Concretely. Getting to the studio, speaking to the artists, sharing their ideas, understanding their practise, their strategies and if those strategies can be applied to dance. That's how you keep developing dance as an art form. Otherwise, this art form will die.

This work — as one example of ZfinMalta’s output — discusses ideas such as AI and climate change. How important is it for contemporary dance to address modern concerns, and what additional conceptual challenges does this present choreographers?

Very important, and of course there are many challenges. The first one not to fall into a didactic know, we don't want to teach the audience about algorithms and biotechnology and the emergence of these fields. What we can do however, is to create an experience that engages people in those issues — it’s more about giving people things to think about. It’s true that 21 Dances explore topics such as climate change and artificial intelligence, but what you put on stage you do through evoking certain questions. We don't pretend to have the answers to these problems, also because it would be pretentious for dance to say, "Oh, there's a solution." After all, this kind of discourse is so complicated and so complex. So really it’s the starting point. Then through the eyes of the artists and through the medium of choreography, you provide a platform for the audience to sort of, ‘get lost’. Hopefully when the audience leaves the theatre, this will stay with them which might mean they investigate more and learn something later on. Of course the biggest challenge is to not fall into something obvious.

Your Voyager project deals with matters less close to home, exploring mankind’s venturing into space. What do you think it is about space that has inspired artists and composers for centuries?

I was born in the 1980s and grew up with science-fiction. I'm a huge fan of dystopian storytelling science-fiction, and of course, space exploration. What really inspired me and the thing I’m still very much inspired by, is the unknown, the idea that clearly we're not alone in this universe. It's interesting again for an artist to get lost speculating and to say, "Oh, what if? What if there's something out there? What if — in the case of Voyager — what if really the golden record which is on the spacecraft will eventually be taken by some sort of extraterrestrial intelligence?” All these topics are so engaging for me, and when something triggers curiosity there's already something that I want to explore. So if we talk about space, it's just a beautiful topic.


ZfinMalta's Voyager project. Photo Credit: Matteo Carratoni

ZfinMalta's Voyager project. Photo Credit: Matteo Carratoni


Turning our minds to the activities of the company in the last year, how did the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent containment measures impact your work?

The coronavirus affected us a lot, though I would like to start by saying that we have been very lucky due to the way Malta is dealing with it — it's different than in a lot of other countries. I know many of my colleagues who are still in lockdown, including those at national dance companies. They can't work, they can't produce, they can't programme any performances, so by contrast we've actually been very lucky. We opened the season in September, then performed another show in November at Spazju Kreattiv. I'm really grateful that we are still able to go ahead with our activities, even with the restrictions. One thing I think is important is that we didn’t want to settle for putting everything online. 

We got the team together and discussed one very important topic in relation to the pandemic, which for us is art’s role as an essential element in society. We were hearing a lot from politicians and policymakers about what is essential, what is necessary. I thought about this a lot and so asked my team: “Guys, is art for you a necessity or not?" For us, of course, it is. Art for us is as important as any other element in life. With that in mind, we wanted to narrow it down, and we said, "Okay. Is dance important? Why is it important for people that never dance?" Then we looked at this on a deeper level, and agreed that dance is movement, movement is life and everyone moves. So it is important for us to move, to feel ourselves in our bodies, to experience the world through movement. And that's why we created a campaign. We ran an online campaign, produced podcasts, videos, interviews, then at the end of the campaign there was a film. We shot a beautiful film in a quarry of limestone here in Malta, and finished the season with that highlight. You know, this pandemic has taught us a lot, and continues to teach us a lot; we should think about the way we work, the way we look at productions, the way we look at touring, the way we think about economies and how and where to shift that tension. We've been consuming so many unnecessary things, so I think as an art organisation ZfinMalta has to make a point, and to send out the message that the environment is the most important thing we have. We can't keep over-consuming, and I believe the pandemic partly to be a product of this culture of consumption. We can’t keep operating in the same way, and as artists we have to draw attention to these kinds of issues.


ZfinMalta's Voyager project. Photo Credit: Matteo Carratoni

ZfinMalta's Voyager project. Photo Credit: Matteo Carratoni


What is your view on the proliferation, and some may argue, ‘takeover’ of video content produced by many arts institutions due to the pandemic?

I don’t believe anything can replace live performance, because we as humans get a kick when we see something that is live. Nothing will replace ever that sort of experience. There're a lot of limitations when you work online. You have a screen in front of you. Choreography, if I talk about the medium I work with, has one major aspect that many other art forms don't have, which is the ability of the choreographer to guide your gaze. If you're an audience member, I can guide you but let you choose where to look in space. So the composition has the ability to change and you can choose. This is something unique that many other art forms don't have. If you work with video you're going to be guided only through the eye of the director, and there's no space there for interpretation, no space for you to explore. Then there’s the editing, the cuts, you know. Theatre is another experience, and nothing can change it. So, I'm a huge advocate of getting back to the theater with all the measures and restrictions as necessary to make sure that everyone is safe. But we need to go back and experience live performance as soon as we can.

How practical is it to incorporate COVID-19 prevention measures physically when practising your art? 

Dance is all about contact, you know. Removing this removes a dancer from a part of their instrument. That's a huge challenge for choreographers. Also, dancers need space — you can't let the dancers do their class in front of their fridge, the living room, or on the chair in the kitchen. It was a huge challenge, but, as I said at the beginning, here in Malta we were lucky and could return to the studio relatively soon. We kept the distance as specified in the guidelines, everyone was in their own ‘bubble’ of course and now there's a policy in place that they have to be swabbed every 4 weeks. Every artist, every person that comes into contact with the bubble of the dancers, they are required to get a swab test.


ZfinMalta. Photo Credit: Matteo Carratoni

ZfinMalta's dance film, Aħna. Photo Credit: Julia Boikova 


How are your plans looking for this year?

We'll keep carrying on! We'll carry on with everything, despite the restrictions, making sure that everyone is safe first and foremost. Since the start of the season in September we have already done two major projects, two major premieres, and we are already working on the third one, which opens in February at the Valletta Campus Theater. The dancers are working every day — they're wearing the masks of course — we just cannot sit and wait. That's just not how it works. We have to go on and find solutions to these conditions. That's it.

Any final thoughts?

Yes, I think everyone should ‘get back into their bodies’ — everyone. And that anyone can dance. The moment you have movement, you're able to experience the world through this. The next step is to start thinking creatively and use creative tools. Then anyone can dance. You know, we see dance as an art form, but dance also has a lot of therapeutic aspects to it. When you move you activate so much within your body, that after a session of dance you're going to feel better. So again, whoever wants to start dancing — even if they are 85 — should do it! Of course, most probably won't become a professional because that’s something else, but nevertheless, it's important to experience dance and to just move your body.

21 Dances for the 21st Century will take place at the Manoel Theatre on the 6th and 7th March. For tickets, visit the Manoel Theatre’s official website.

By James Cummings


ZfinMalta Paolo Mangiola

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