AquaVenice is an annual gathering held on the island of St Erasmo, near Venice, Italy.
Organised by Franco Mescola the event is well attended by predominantly Italian students, with an increasing number from other countries becoming aware of the benefits of learning in this peaceful, relaxed island.
This year the teachers: Faye Yip (UK), Marianne Plouvier (France), Sue Woodd (UK) Gianni Gropelli (Switzerland), Sam Masich (Canada), Ronnie Robinson (UK) and Italian teachers, Franco Mescola, Arcadio Rizzardi, Giancarlo Rochi.
The illustration on the cover of the AquaVenice brochure depicts the city of Venice, looking something like a futuristic space station, floating in a bubble, with roots dangling below. Upon arriving at Piazzale Roma I was met by event organizer (and creator of the above mentioned drawing) Franco Mescola who promptly brought me onto his boat for a small canal tour of the city and to take me to the Isle of St. Erasmo where proceedings were already underway.
Franco could be described as a ʻclassical manʼ. A proud native of Venice, he speaks fondly of the histories and mysteries of the churches, palazzos and bridges that stand astride the intricate waterways. For him there is a kind of ancient connection between venerable Venezia and the ideas and principles of Chinese martial arts and health practices. He points to a bridge and relates how young men from one side of the canal would challenge their rivals to fierce fighting matches on the overpasses until one was finally thrown or thumped into the channel.
The leg stability required by gondoliers and other boat-men also speaks to the relationship between Venetian daily life and the Chinese art Franco, at 74 years of age, works tirelessly to promote. As we cross to the island Franco and I discuss the theories of ʻbio-spiralingʼ detailed in his newly released book. Iʼm already starting to see water differently, as we wind our way through the city, and the verities of taiji philosophy.
St. Erasmo: Work
When we arrive at the event location, Il Lato Azzurro, I am pleased to see a friend from Tai Chi Caledonia, Master Faye Yip, putting a large group of students through their paces with a straight-sword. Faye, from Wolverhampton, England by-way-of Beijing, is one of eleven AquaVenice instructors hailing from seven countries. Faye is part of the ʻYin-Yangʼ part of the seminar which is broken into three parts: ʻYinʼ, ʻYin-Yangʼ and ʻYangʼ. Each segment is three days long—the first (ʻYinʼ) concentrating on qigong meditation and energetic practices; the second (ʻYin-Yangʼ) more on active forms— fan, sword and long stick were taught; and the third (ʻYangʼ), focusing on elements of push- hands and martial applications.
Ronnie Robinson arrived a few hours later and immediately claimed the best room in the hotel. It was nice to see another friend from Caledonia but it dawned on me quickly: I wouldnʼt be getting any sleep in Italy. Ronnie was also part of the ʻYangʼ team and gave excellent workshops on dalü—an often over- looked aspect of taiji training—and on ways to approach martial application in a lighter way. The three days also gave me an opportunity to see Gianni Groppelli whose Yang-style based work focused on tui shou and specific taiji energies such as lü and an.
Francoʼs work focused on applications derived from a compiled art called Xuan Chuan (translated something like ʻdark, profound boxingʼ) and from his metodo biospirali which employs an understanding of physiology and the workings of the nervous system. My own work focused on the relationship between zhan-nian jin (sticking-adhering energy) and taijiquan as a martial art, the idea being that solutions come out of connection rather than from any preplanned routine of responses. I found the students to be attentive, respectful, appreciative and hard-working. While there was much translating going on at all times, I found there to be a good flow and rhythm to the classes. Since only one instructor presents in any given time-slot there are no distractions nor diversions from the class and all the students attending the event are present.
During an economic time where many taiji events are seeing lower turnouts this event was packed with participants from all over Europe. In the evenings there was plenty of well-spirited push-hands free-play and I found myself enjoying the touch of a good many players. I could feel a lot of sincerity in these sessions and a desire for self-improvement amongst the participants.
St. Erasmo: Play
There arenʼt so many dining options on St. Erasmo but we went to some really great places. The beachside café near the event featured plenty of sea-fare and one restaurant on an adjacent island was worth the entire trip! Italians seem to know something about food that is hard to describe and which must be experienced. Everything was good. I think the meal gatherings helped set the tone for the final nightʼs beach party which was held around a giant bonfire, music pounding, people dancing, taijiʼing and qigongʼing. Francoʼs dedicated students generously prepared all day for the sandy event, some missing classes to do so. There was an incredible fish-fry with the inevitable Campari-Aperol spritzers making the rounds.
The following morning there was an on-ocean push-hands competition where the combatants teetered on two thick (but slightly bendy) planks which were lain astride a pair of boats. The judges stood in the Adriatic up to their chests as the matches raged. After the matches were all decided, I had to get up and give it a try. This is a good set of conditions for challenging your balance and footing. The planks create one set of moving variables and the boats another. Then of course there are the attempts of your partner to make you lose balance. The movement below can become part of the strategy. Of course the worst that can happen is that one can get knocked into the water. Not that Iʼd know.
For me the event was a chance to take a breath and admire the beauty of human achievement and spirit—architecture, internal art, cuisine and play. Itʼs an ancient place, Venice, really a world of its own. I couldnʼt imagine a better introduction to the city or to Italy than to visit Francoʼs crowd at AquaVenice. Special thanks to: Franco, Marzia, Verena, Tony and Massimo.