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For Spellbound Dance Company, movement is the lingua franca

Choreographer Mauro Astolfi’s Spellbound Dance Company makes its Boston debut with two performances this week.

Matteo Carratoni

Choreographer Mauro Astolfi’s Spellbound Dance Company makes its Boston debut with two performances this week.

“I never had the same source of inspiration. I just start from life — a vacation, a hospital, children playing, all different aspects of life, hundreds of billions of information every day.” Speaking by phone from Italy, Spellbound Dance Company founder Mauro Astolfi has a slightly limited command of English-language subtleties, but the choreographer’s expansive creative vision is unmistakable. From his celebrated “Carmina Burana,” which has been performed more than 100 times around the world, to his “Don Giovanni,” made for the 2008 Venice Biennale, to his latest work, an ironic look at seduction, Astolfi is a choreographic explorer with a wide-ranging curiosity and a need to communicate.

Astolfi and the Rome-based Spellbound, making their Boston debut with a pair of Celebrity Series performances Friday and Saturday, are known for provocative works that seed a rich movement vocabulary of supple, graceful athleticism with nuanced emotional connections. Company cofounder and executive director Valentina Marini calls it a kind of “breathtaking painting onstage.” Astolfi, she says, “did not want to give a precise message through his dance, but push the audience to open the inside mind and soul to accept the beauty of a body moving . . . dynamic, elegant, extremely fast, but at the same time full of pathos.”

“Beauty for me comes from a lot of energy. I like intensity, strong energetic personality onstage,” says Spellbound founder Astolfi.

Cristiano Castaldi

“Beauty for me comes from a lot of energy. I like intensity, strong energetic personality onstage,” says Spellbound founder Astolfi.

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It’s an aesthetic that has made the nearly two-decade-old, nationally supported Spellbound one of Italy’s premier contemporary dance companies. Surprisingly, however, while the troupe tours extensively in Italy, other parts of Europe, and Asia, it has begun making its way onto American stages only in the past few years. Celebrity Series president and executive director Gary Dunning saw Spellbound two years ago at a showcase and, he says, was immediately taken with its European aesthetic in music and production values, as well as its style of explosive, quick movement. “It’s extremely balletic and lyric, with very nice lines, but very athletic,” he says. “Mauro studied and performed with [Merce] Cunningham and [Paul] Taylor, and I could see that kind of movement, though a little lighter, not quite as grounded. I thought the combination was very interesting.”

Astolfi, now 50, spent nearly 10 years in America, starting at 17, studying the techniques of modern dance pioneers Martha Graham, Cunningham, and Taylor. He was 19 when he began choreographing. “It was natural just to create new steps after finishing class,” he recalls. “It was another way to spend time with friends. Now, it’s the best way that I have to communicate myself.”

After a lower-back injury ended his performing career at 30, Astolfi started choreographing full-time and founded Spellbound in 1994. Currently, the company is made up solely of Italian dancers whom Astolfi has chosen for their strong ballet training, presence, and “fire for learning.” He says, “Most dancers in Italy just want a contract. I prefer dancers who really need to dance. I get bored with beautiful dancers with nice feet, nice legs, nice technique, but dance like they are trying to save themselves. Beauty for me comes from a lot of energy. I like intensity, strong energetic personality onstage.”

Astolfi also looks for dancers who can make fluid connections in passages that often have them entwined in convoluted tangles that morph in the blink of an eye. “We work very fast, and it is so difficult to remain soft and connect things that are very intricate and having communication,” he says. “I like to think of it as working with one body with 20 arms and legs.”

That approach is especially apparent in “Downshifting,” one of the works Spellbound will perform in Boston. The piece, created in 2009 during a difficult transitional phase, when the company was trying to return to the essence of its mission, is strikingly stark, yet full of lush, unrestrained movement as dancers connect and disconnect, one impulse seeming to set off another. Astolfi’s program notes put it this way: “The nine dancers return to the pure movement, to the essential language in order to rediscover the origin of the Company’s strength.”

“Downshifting” is set to a medley of music, ranging from J.S. Bach to the Swedish electric-strings-and-percussion band Fläskkvartetten. Astolfi says he is drawn to an eclectic selection of music, often by little-known composers, because that “represents more the diversity of my actual life.”

“Lost for Words” (2011), another piece on the Boston program, reflects the role language plays in what Astolfi calls “a culture of communication dominated by empty words.” It is set to a collage of music and texts, including work by Scott Morgan’s electronic/ambient project, Loscil. “Lost for Words” is also notable for its dark, streaky lighting, which creates a kind of moody chiaroscuro. “Sometimes I don’t like it if the stage is too light,” Astolfi says. “Sometimes having dark areas are more interesting to the human eye, draw my attention to trying to discover new aspects.”

Leavening the program is a brand-new work set for its world premiere in California on Tuesday. The lighthearted “She is on the ground” arose from Astolfi’s amused observation of male flirting. “Men spend a lot of energy trying to seduce women,” the choreographer says. “It is a waste of time. Women know exactly this show of money and power.” The piece, he says, is “an invitation for men to be more themselves instead of creating characters. It contains a lot of ironical situations. It’s not dark. It will make you smile.”

Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.
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