The Benedetta Capanna Interview, Part I

I had the good fortune to be able to talk with visiting Italian dancer and yoga teacher, Benedetta Capanna, on the occasion of a recent visit to Buffalo in order to learn a new solo from Buffalo’s Elaine Gardner. She and Capanna originally met when Capanna took classes from Gardner during a week-long intensive for professional dancers in Modena, Italy. Gardner, impressed by Capanna’s expressiveness and power as a dancer, invited her to visit —which she did last month. Capanna’s story about her experiences growing up in Italy, and her discovery of yoga —and rebirth as a dancer— have much to tell us here in America about the common issues facing budding artists from whatever country. The interview is in two parts, and is slightly condensed. Those wishing to read the entire interview can do so by visiting

Steinzor: Tell us about your training.
Capanna: I started when I was six years old in the Accademia Nazionale di Danza [National Academy of Dance] in Rome, in the program for kids that goes from 6 to 9 or 10 years old. Then I did the audition and I started to do the regular programs, they last for eight years, in the same institution. In the meantime I was also attending the regular scuola media [middle school].

And then, when you graduated from there…
Capanna: I didn’t. I graduated from the [scuola media] school but not from there. I had a very bad teacher that made me lose one year in the Academy, and the year after I had a better teacher. But another one prepared me to do a contemporary dance competition that I won. In the meantime, I took the high school diploma. But after that, I got so exhausted, because the Academy was still trying to push me down—I just quit dance for a while. At the point when I started again, I didn’t want to go back in the Academy, because I wanted to find again the joy to dance.

And where did you find it?
Capanna: I found it doing contemporary modern dance. It was in different private studios, where you could go to take open classes. I was eighteen, I graduated—I started to dedicate myself more to modern dance. It actually was what I preferred to do even earlier. When I was a kid I knew that I wanted to dance, and I was going to see ballet and stuff—but as soon as I started to do composition, improvisation, and I started to see things like a movie of Alvin Ailey, or Carolyn Carlson, I felt that that was what I wanted to do.

What was it about the Accademia that disappointed you so much? It wasn’t just that it was hard.
Capanna: No—because actually, I like to work hard. I’m happy when somebody pushes me to improve myself. But what made me disappointed was that they were not trying to create artists and to develop human beings, but they were trying, kind of, to make a clone of a stereotype kind of ballerina. So if you were not that kind of dancer person that they like, you didn’t have any hope over there. I remember when I was 12 years old, they made me lose more than 10 kilos [22 pounds] because I was supposed to be skinnier. But that was at a time when I was growing up, and getting taller, and that made me so weak that I hurt my back because I didn’t have any more strength in it to do the work. But to lose weight was the only way to have the approval of the teacher. And when you are a kid, you’ll just die to have the approval of your teacher. For me, it was a bad environment. They weren’t severe, but at the same time they treated the kids badly. And they’re still doing it. Saying things like, “your legs are like pig’s legs” and “oh my gosh, you are so ugly, how can you think of becoming a dancer”. When I speak with people who are studying over there, who are doing the teacher training, they say that nothing has changed. And some of the dancers that they treated well, they treated too well. Even if they were good, as soon as they went out form the Academy, at the first audition where somebody would say, “sorry, you are not the right type”, they just lost their minds and became anorexic, or a lawyer.

Anorexic, or a lawyer?
Capanna: [laughs] And actually, I discovered that, of [all the students in] my course, I’m the only person that is still dancing. The others got married or housekeepers or clerks or…[silence] Let’s back up. You’re 18, you’re doing projects, you’ve taken class with different people… Capanna: Yes, after the diploma at school, I had a moment of depression. But once I had a dream. I was on a stage, and I was kind of naked, and I wanted to dance, but I had these invisible chains around me. It was kind of a movie, but I couldn’t get up and dance. So when I woke up, I started to dance again. A friend of mine told me there was a good modern dance teacher. I went there, and she did a good class, so I started to study with her. She’s actually an American. Her name is Roberta Garrison. She really helped me to refocus on my dance. Then, after that, I went on scholarship to the Laban Centre in London during the summer to see how it was and to see if I really wanted to be in London. But then an Italian choreographer, Patrizia Cerroni, asked me to start working with her, and so I started.

Was that your first professional work?
Capanna: Yes.

So, then you were working. That must have helped your self-esteem.
Capanna: Yes, even though, I have always had inside me a lot of insecurity. I will never be like someone who’s, like, “ha! I’m doing great!” I always feel like it’s never enough. I’m never really satisfied. So, after her, I had another job in Naples, at the Teatro Bellini. And so, from there, the choreographer that was doing that piece, he called me to work with him in his company.

And this was all modern.
Capanna: Yes, but the work in the Teatro Bellini was more like dance theater. It was “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, a theater piece, but in the woods part, the more magical part was performed by a dancer. I was dancing, but there were the voices of Titania and Oberon, recorded— and all amplified and deformed a little. So I was dancing but kind of acting and, [laughs] playing too. It was challenging. I was kind of young, and it was a big responsibility. I had fun.

And it had a long run.
Capanna: Yes, we toured for two years.

Did you go to other countries with it?
Capanna: We went just to Switzerland. But, the choreographer of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, Aurelio Gatti, had a company in Rome, and so after we finished touring, he called me to work in his company. And with him, we traveled a lot. [Part II of the interview follows next month.]


Mind-Body Techniques: Dance and Yoga The Benedetta Capanna Interview, Part II

This is the second part of a two-part interview I conducted with visiting Italian dancer and yoga teacher Benedetta Capanna, on the occasion of a recent visit here in order to learn a new solo from Buffalo’s Elaine Gardner. She and Capanna originally met when Capanna took classes from Gardner during a week-long intensive for professional dancers in Modena, Italy. Capanna’s story about her experiences growing up in Italy, and her discovery of yoga—and rebirth as a dancer—have much to tell us here in America about common issues facing budding artists everywhere. I know you’re concentrating on yoga now. How did that start? Many dancers don’t start doing yoga until they’re too old to dance anymore. Capanna: For me it started the first time I went to New York. I went to take class at Tricia Brown’s studio, and one of the teachers that was giving class, Kevin Korton, was a yoga teacher as well. In his class, he used a lot of yoga. I was feeling good when I was doing that kind of movement. I was so curious, I tried to do a real yoga class with him. It was the most beautiful thing I had experienced in years. In Rome I had done a little bit of tai chi, but even though I thought it was a very interesting discipline, I didn’t have the same reaction that I did when I did yoga. I mean, in my first class, I just cried. It was like something was opening inside me, like there was a curtain in front of my eyes that suddenly opened up. It was an internal experience. I had never felt that I fit into anything: in the Academy, my body wasn’t right, I was too skinny or too fat—I’ve always had a problem to fit into something. When I was a kid, I was always feeling the weakest part of my body. Nobody was trying to let me see the beauty my body or my mind or personality could have. Instead, when I took my first yoga class, the teacher said, it doesn’t matter who you are, how your body is, don’t be competitive, just be yourself. It just made me feel so good. It was the first time I was working with my body and not against my body.

So was it then that you decided to pursue yoga?
Capanna: It was in 1996 when I decided to try and stay in New York. So from there I started to study yoga. At the beginning, in and out. Sometimes I was so focused. Other times, I didn’t have the money to take class, or couldn’t go because of my very full schedule. But every time I was feeling that I was really getting lost, there was the yoga that would bring me right up.

So your interest in yoga isn’t just because it helps your dancing?
Capanna: No—but it helps my dance too. I feel younger as a dancer than I did when I was 20. When I first started to do yoga, I was always having a lot of injuries. My back and vertebrae were compressed, because when I was weak from losing too much weight, I was doing entrelacé [a dance step]. But now I feel much stronger. I’ve always been flexible, but now I know how to use my flexibility much more. I’m more aware when I dance because, when you have high arms and legs, sometimes it’s difficult to get compact, and to be aware of everything. And yoga was a big tool for me to be compact. Also, artistically, with yoga you have to go much more inside, to be more aware of your thoughts, of your sensations, even to be more honest with yourself. And that, when you perform or you want to create art, I think is just important.

By going inside, what do you mean? Do you mean becoming more aware of yourself?
Capanna: Yes, more aware of myself, of my thoughts, my sensations even to be more honest with myself. I know at the end what I really feel, what I really want.

Does it help with performing onstage, aside from dancing in the studio? Those can be two very different experiences.
Capanna: Yes, I think it does, because it helps you with the breathing, makes you feel calmer. Sometimes, onstage you’re afraid you won’t be able to do something. Yoga helps you be much more in the present moment. Sometimes also, when there is a big technical or mental aspect of the performance, it helps you bring the dance out at a more spiritual level, helping the body mind and spirit work together. For me, the spirituality in art is very important. I find this often in the Asian expressions of art: Japanese theater, Butoh, Indian dance. When you go to dance, people can see it.

But how does yoga itself help you with that, I mean beyond the dance aspect?
Capanna: Because it’s the principle of yoga. I try to dance when I do yoga, and to do yoga when I dance. Personally, for me, it was the way I rediscovered the joy to dance, the honesty of this joy. And when you go to perform, not to think just like a shape that you are doing, but really, what you feel when you dance.

Is there anything you’d like to share about the type of yoga you do?
Capanna: In general, I think the type of yoga that’s best for you has to do with your personality. The diversity of yoga is beautiful. I studied at the Integral Yoga Institute in New York. What I like about Integral Yoga is that it’s a talented combination between physical movement and more mental work like meditation, breathing exercises. It’s an easy way to bring yoga into everyday life. I did the basic training, and then the Extra Gentle teacher training. That’s for teaching older people and others with physical limitations. Now I’m studying in Rome in an Institute that is affiliated to an ashram in India that follows the same tradition as Integral Yoga. The Integral Yoga institute comes from Swami Satchidananda. He was a disciple of Sri Sivananda. The school I’m attending now comes from the Sivananda tradition.

People often wonder when they are contemplating studying yoga, what is the best type of yoga to go with. I mean, should it be Hatha, Iyengar, Kundalini?
Capanna: I think there are differences between the types; like Asthanga maybe is for younger people, Kundalini for others…but the important thing is to try different teachers and see what type is the best. But always go to a teacher that did training. Sometimes people say, I’m a teacher, when they don’t know anything. I notice that, when I teach yoga, I can have a powerful effect on the mind. What you say or what you do can really influence their lives. To keep my practice alive is a big responsibility, when I’m there in front of a lot of people, to say, do this, do that, breathe here, breathe there. You can even hurt those people if you let them do a wrong asana [yoga position] in a wrong way, or if you let them do too much breathing when they’re not ready to do it. Instead of good, it can be bad. Each kind of yoga is beautiful, so if you like one kind more, that doesn’t mean you can’t do others. It’s like dance. For example, I know that I like one kind of dance, but sometimes I know that it’s good for me to take some other kind of dance class, to get maybe stronger, or just to challenge myself. I think it’s a little bit the same in yoga, because it’s so wide—the yoga tradition. The more you study, the more you know how ignorant you are. The best thing is to take class, know other teachers, and try to learn something every time. [laughs]

What are you doing now?
Where are you headed? Capanna: Right now, in Rome, I’m very happy about my yoga teaching. I’m teaching in the Istituto di Yoga Universale, the same institute where I’m studying towards another certification. I’m also teaching in a nice center every Monday, where they do tai chi, bioenergetics, holistic disciplines. There it’s very beautiful, because a percussionist plays Tibetan bells every time I teach class—it’s very relaxing. Every Tuesday, I teach two classes at a therapy institute for people with injuries.

How about dance?
Capanna: In Rome right now, it’s pretty frustrating. I’m not really working with anybody. The environment is very closed right now. Since I came back from New York, I just did a few works for other choreographers. In Italy, it was well recognized, but it didn’t have quality at all. So, now I’m more concentrated on my own work, my own solos, a couple of duets. To try to keep my dance alive. It’s important because I feel that there is still time—that I’m not ready to quit dance.

This trip to Buffalo [to work with Elaine Gardner] was part of that, right?
Capanna: Yeah, I’m very happy about that. [laughs]


By Curt Steinzor –  ON YOUR TOES, 2004