‘Performing’ in the open air; Francesco Barba has been doing it for a long time. As a child and teenager, when he tried all kinds of sports in his native Italy. A little later, when he discovered capoeira and contemporary dance. And for about a decade now at Panama Pictures, where he performs in theatres as well as on festivals. “That’s where all sorts of things happen around you.”

Capoeira is where it started. Francesco: “Yes, around the age of 20 I was looking for a suitable sport, physical activity. I had played football all my adolescence. I tried basketball, volleyball when I was younger. I did snowboard, skateboard, a bit of athletics, swimming. All kinds of sports. But I was looking for something different, something completer and varied. I found it in the Brazilian martial art capoeira. This combination of dance, acrobatics, music and defense techniques was so refreshing.”  

During his training in capoeira a good friend recognized a potential in him becoming a dancer. “It was never a dream or a thought for me, but since that moment I started to think about it, more and more seriously.” Francesco visited contemporary dance and contact improvisation workshops in Italy and the UK.

After meeting dancer/choreographer Simona Bucci (“I saw in her an incredible ability in transforming and transcending from the physical body, and becoming any subject she wanted to describe and experience in her dance. I was totally intrigued.”), for Francesco it’s clear: this is what he wants too. Francesco goes to her school in Florence, takes classes with Simona Bucci and other teachers for two years and then leaves for Amsterdam, to study in the modern theatre dance Department at the Academy of Theatre and Dance art.

A completely new experience

In the Netherlands, a housemate and good friend tells him about Pia Meuthen’s work. “I found her fusion of circus and dance fascinating. I always loved acrobatic movements, and imagined incredible tricks with these impressive movements.”

A meeting followed and in 2014 Francesco performed in ALPHA, the New Wilderness, with Panama Pictures. “This was really a discovery. And very exciting, a completely new experience. A first time pole climbing, exploring space like that. I found it very scary at times, had to gain more confidence in my upper body. But by trying again and again ánd the inspiration of the other performers, I got further and further.”

Francesco has performed in more than 20 different Panama Pictures performances. “With a new challenge every time, I go higher and higher.” Mainly in theatres, but for several years now also at festivals. “Yes, those are very nice experiences. Normally you stand in an enclosed black box, you see each other and the curtains, interaction with your audience is limited to the front row. Then you imagine for yourself a landscape, a confined space in which you move. During a festival, things are very different. There, all sorts of things happen around you: you see the clouds, feel the wind, hear people chatting, music, noise. Then the space seems infinite.”

Playful tension

Do all the influences at a festival make it harder to concentrate? “No, you start concentrating differently. You shift your focus, use a different imagination. It’s more direct. You start talking to your audience, as it were: you look at them, see how they react. It makes you play more freely, anticipate more. For instance, we slow down a scene a little, build up the tension and stretch a movement to make it catchier. Or we speed up and sharpen it, like at Lowlands. We make it more rock ‘n roll, so that it matches the energy and mood in such a tent.”

Most beautiful performance at a festival? It’s hard to choose for Francesco. “Because every festival is so different, so unique. Lowlands, for example, is very impressive because you are in front of a thousand people, there is a wonderfully playful tension there. But Deventer op Stelten was at least as great: in a church, where four hundred visitors entered one by one while we were waiting – very serene, almost hypnotic. Or De Gevleugelde Stad in Ieper the other day, where we met pretty much the entire European street theatre community and there were entire families with babies and dogs in the audience – that noise, that community, it’s joyful.”