Chiara Bersani: chasing magic, Seeking Unicorns

National Gallery, London (as part of Dance Umbrella)
October 22,2022

In a room at the back of the National Gallery, a dark-haired woman is face down on the floor. Dressed in a fitted white dress, her static posture beams with an energy so vibrant, it overpowers the classical, able-bodied mythologies depicted in the paintings that surround her. The solo performer is Chiara Bersani, 98cm tall, and here to “self-proclaim the flesh, muscles and bones of the unicorn.”

Guided by rhythms of body and breath, Bersani’s metamorphosis has a gentle beginning. Her chest moves. She defiantly coughs at the pre-recorded sounds that echo from speakers at the back of the gallery. Using deeply embodied, exactly timed movements, she slows down time a space as she carefully opens her presence to the crowd. The gentle tempo of her limbs moving, of her face reacting to the faces around her, fills the space with magic and joy.  

When a pre-recoded jazz song approaches, Bersani’s movement calmly glides around the music’s sensual tunes. Quiet utterances from her throat and eyes connect her body to the bodies that surround her; the sensory wonder of an alternate world bought to life through glances, opening gestures and the gentle sound of breath.

Chiara Bersani in Seeking Unicorns at the National Gallery, London
Photo Foteini Christofilopoulou

Pulled toward the mystical flow of Bersani’s beautifully orchestrated performance score, I find myself wanting to get inside the experience, to see what she is seeing, to move toward the physical impulses that enliven her face and movement. Just as I am compelled to get up from my seat and join her on the stage, she glides to her left, quietly rubbing her foot against the body of a welcoming stranger. Together their energy softens, smiling as they bathe in the warmth of this enchanting encounter.  

If, in some cultural mythologies, the unicorn symbolises freedom, life and joy, then the real magic in Bersani’s work is its reminder of the power of performance to enliven the conditions of our everyday existence, presenting situations that allow us to see and feel the world in new ways. There were so many moments during this experience where her movement activated new movements in the bodies of her audience: a look of wonder on her face lighting up a face on the other side of the room; a hand gesture holding somebody else’s attention and moving it across the space with admiration.

What makes Bersani’s search for unicorns so enchanting? In Seeking Unicorns, the artist isn’t using performance to imitate or draw analogies between the action on stage and the mythical character of some unworldly being. Instead, she uses the wonder of the unicorn to explode and reconfigure performance’s habitual (often ableist) routines. By reaching toward what is imperceptible, unknown and unseen, Bersani implicates herself in a new and magical form of becoming, one that invites her audience to receive and imagine the body of the performer, as well as their own bodies, and the bodies that surround them, in new and inconceivable ways.