by Janet Clancy-Feliciano
Like a revered, admired art piece, the old, stately theater in the Appenine mountain village of Cagli, Italy, commands respect. Inside the theater, the chatter and bustling of the audience is heard through the tall, thick, deep red curtains that will soon part and reveal a dance company prepared to deliver gifts of magic and imagination to the people who fill the seats.
Backstage, the dark floor absorbs and radiates heat from the bright, colorful lights. Younger ballerinas watch the older dancers from the wings, admiring their disciplined and more advanced contemporaries. Dancers prepare for their performance as they laugh, tease, and flirt with one another while stretching and warming up. They eagerly anticipate opening curtain.
Artistic Director Benilde Marini enters the stage from the wings. The hard sound of toe shoes on the wood floor comes to a halt. In her black dress and high heels, she walks onstage with a graceful gait and impeccable posture that reveal her life spent dancing. The respect these fifty or so students have for their teacher is palpable and shows as they stand straight, pull back their shoulders, and face her attentively. Benilde smiles in approval and summons her dancers to join together with her in a big circle. Holding hands and in unison, she leads while they enthusiastically whisper a ceremonial cheer akin to wishing each other a fantastic and successful performance, signifying that the tough work of rehearsals and preparation is done; it is now time to perform. The audience has no idea of the private ritual happening behind closed curtains a mere ten feet away from the first row.
Benilde discovered her love of dancing as a seven-year-old living with her Italian family in Switzerland. At 14, Benilde began dance school in Perugia, Italy. She was passionate about the arts and dreamed of owning her own dance studio. In 1991, having grown into an astute businesswoman, she saw an opportunity to purchase studio space in Cagli and opened the Movement and Imagination Performing Arts School. Her school has grown beyond dance to encompass art and photography, and includes a dance company that travels, works collaboratively, and performs with other creative groups throughout Europe.
The Dance Immersion Festival is the crown jewel of her art program. The festival’s sole purpose is to aim the spotlight on young emerging dancers and dance companies. Many of Benilde’s dancers eventually become professionals in their own right. Among the many awards won during her tenure as the school’s artistic director, she herself has been honored with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) award for promoting the arts throughout Italy. She is also a member of the UNESCO International Dance Council. She works 12-14 hours every single day, “It doesn’t feel like work at all. I love it,” Benilde says.
As director, Benilde stands onstage, arms crossed, and checks her watch. Her deep red hair and strong, passionate voice provide a sophisticated contrast to her casual black outfit and gray scarf. Her manner is disciplined and respectful as she goes about the business of auditioning the younger dancers for next weekend’s performance. She whispers and gestures to the choreographer, discussing the dancers who are performing their best. The competition is fierce, as the dancers are competing for a spot in a show where there are fewer parts available than there are dancers. Under the warm lights, Benilde observes her choreographer who is working directly with the dancers, making adjustments to any hands or feet out of place. Moving to the back of the theater, Benilde sits at the control board, operating the sound system like it’s second nature. She shushes the children who are waiting, having had their turn on stage. Huddled together, they are laughing at something silly on a glowing phone screen. At exactly 5:30, she stands up, smiles, and dismisses the group. Auditions for the older dancers are set to begin. They are there, ready, and waiting in the wings.
Benilde Marini is an edgy, creative, modern artist who lets her art speak for itself, saying of her recent adaptation of Ophelia, “if you watch this, you will know my work.” She is always reflecting on what the future holds for her artistically. One thing, however, is certain, she says: “no matter what, the dance school will always be here in Cagli.”