It’s the wall. It’s the long-limbed elegant women in high heels and colourful printed summer dresses picking their way over the rubble and dust with handsome men in white shirts and black trousers attendant on their every whim (and there are many) carrying café tables and chairs like a corps of waiters. It’s the church bells and the power of black in the languid streets. It’s the figure of a boxer turned drag queen with a bloody eye who comperes the event from his dressing room just this side of a passageway between stage and wings. It’s the ripe tomatoes, and the sensuous hint of skin beneath the dresses. It’s the promise of spring when the cherry blossoms descend but may not last forever and the cycle of a feather blown across the stage and caught precisely in its fall. It’s the proud, dazzling machismo dancing in the streets. It’s the light of day flooding the scene, the glimpses in the sunlight of a life lived fully in the streets, passions flaunted and hung out to dry, and the shadows of taunts and twisted arms, drugs and jealousy (even the violence is funny and beautiful). It’s a (not so mangy) dog sniffing among the rubble to find his own picnic: movement of a very different kind. It’s the music: no formally-dressed classical choice, but songs of the street, love songs, songs of the people, of the heart, but it’s also Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto played by six pianists on six upright pianos side by side. It’s the irrational, the irascible, the overflowing of passionate argument like wine spilled from a glass and as unresolved as a revolver pointed at any number of human targets and never fired. It’s the rubbish pitched in the street with such beguiling charm by a cohort of dancers. It’s the beauty of every gesture, the refinement of every passion, the joie de vivre of every smile. It’s the arms, especially of the women, loose and long and supple, winding like tendrils around head and hair and body. What is it like to drown? What is the feeling of being buried? What is it like to be shaken from your passion by an earthquake?
Earthquake or psychological release, the breezeblock wall that fills the entire proscenium collapses in what must be one of the most dramatic openings of any dance theatre work. The beautiful Julie Shanahan stumbles over the rubble gesturing wildly while the sultry voice of Billy Holiday sings Why don’t you do right? Two men run in and lie Shanahan down. ”Pick me up.” “Damiano! Take my hand! No not like that! Hug me!” She pushes him away. Another man brings her a bag of earth that she tips over herself: burial, self-effacement, the promise of spring. “Bring me a chair!” (He does). “Take my hand!” “Fernando!” “Go!” (He does). Both men return with a bag of overripe tomatoes from the market. “Throw them at my face!” (They miss) “In my face, I said, in my face!” she screams. “Hug me. Take my hand”, but she pulls her hand away. “Take me off!” (They do). The tomatoes slide to the floor from her stained and clinging dress. She is smiling. Church bells ring and men are scrambling over the ruins as they begin to clean up.
While bodies are laid out and other victims reenact their escape, an elegant Jorge Puerta Armenta in a cross between a priestly red garment and butler’s tails brings in a table with wine and glasses. He rings a glass like an angelus bell and the victims rise again and walk off over the rubble: faith, resurrection, communion. The church bells ring for a full ten minutes; we are soaked in the cultural dominance of the Catholic faith.
If the mayor of Palermo asks you to create a work about his city and you insist on including the pervasive mafia and the drug trade, how do you do it? Dominique Mercy walks past a girl and stops, without turning round to face her. The girl kicks him up the backside twice, and he drops two packets of white powder on the floor. Not enough. She kicks him again, and Mercy reaches for another packet from his inside pocket and drops it. Not enough. Another kick, another packet, this time from inside his shirt. Two more kicks and two more packets from his right sock, then two more from his left sock. We all laugh, but the point is made.
Supported by her four sons, a widow dressed in black makes her way over the rubble towards a man. Stopping in front of him, she takes a bottle of water from one of her sons, opens it between her thighs and holding it there pisses the water on to the floor, waggling the end up and down with a bob and a hitch to finish. Keeping her eyes on the man, she gives the bottle to her son and the four men escort their mother back over the rubble.
Journalist, raconteur, cinematographer, choreographer; Pina Bausch is all these things, and her dancers are as much her material as they are the source of her information and imagery. During the initial, preparatory visit to Palermo Bausch and her dancers scraped away the superficial to discover the deeper urban strata, to develop an archaeology of the culture and mores, to collect impressions and sketches from daily life and to relate chance encounters. Bausch would then assimilate and sort these impressions by asking questions. Dominique Mercy, a dancer with the company for over 35 years and co-artistic director since Bausch’s death three years ago, explains the process to Sarah Crompton in the program: “What was important for Pina was to have our reactions and our impressions as soon as possible. It was sometimes a bit difficult for us because sometimes we thought we needed time to get more sensation and flavor from the place. But for her it was important to be confronted with things straightway.’ She would ask ‘complicated questions, or simple ones. And then we tried to respond with a little scene or with words. When she wanted movements out of the questions she would say so very clearly.’ It is this idiosyncratic questioning that is the catalyst for Bausch’s choreographic process and it is the answers that form its raw material. The answers are then filtered and distilled through the bodies and voices of her dancers on to the living stage, so by the time the work is complete, the initial reality of a scene may be four or five times removed. Palermo Palermo lasts two hours and twenty minutes, so there has been an enormous amount of distillation and filtering that gives the work not only a cubist – rather than surreal – quality, but its rapid transitions from one scene to the next, the torrent of impressions and images, the juxtaposed viewing angles and multi-faceted approach give it a distinctly cinematic flow. Bausch has this unerring ability to focus our attention on the smallest details as much as on the movement of the entire stage.
An elegant Japanese woman brings a chair on to the stage and sits at a café table. Palermo is a café society, so she is one of many taking an espresso in the morning overlooking the street, but we do not see the others for this is a close-up shot of a ritual divorce to the plucked strings of the koto. The woman removes her wedding ring and ceremoniously swallows it with a sip of coffee, then repeats with the engagement ring. A single espresso is all it takes.
The sonorous voice and powerful persona of Christiana Morganti with her wonderful monologue on the spaghetti that is hers and hers alone, effectively eliminates any other stage detail.
At other times the lens pulls back, revealing the entire scope of Peter Pabst’s inspired design. The collapsing wall at the beginning is an obvious and dramatic example, but later a line of girls do handstands against the back wall in their tee shirts and underwear, a colorful line of symmetry and grace, except for the one who can’t manage upside down at all. It is a delightful moment of pure farce. At another point the cast bombard the same wall with apples, extrapolating the dynamics of the body to that of projectiles.
If there is one overriding theme in Palermo Palermo, it is love: self-love, the need for love, the expression of love, the love of food and power. There is also an erotic charge in many of the scenes, heightened by the beauty of the dancers and the costumes. The statement in the program that costume designer Marion Cito ‘persistently explores the delicate balance between elegance and the everyday, and ensures that the company’s appearance remains colourful and sensuously rich’ is an understatement. The costumes clothe the body in a way that undresses it as much as dresses it. At the beginning of the second act, Regina Advento has a blue ball that she launches into the air from the lap of her red dress in which she catches it again as she runs, like a childrens’ game. The contrasted colours against her dark skin are already beautiful, but how free and erotic is the image as her dress rises into the air as she launches the ball. Advento then ups the erotic ante by changing into a tight-fitting black dress under her red one, hopping through this convoluted procedure with grace and knowing expertise.
Another woman takes out a pair of underpants from a plastic carrier bag and puts them on under her skirt then shakes a bottle of carbonated water and looks coyly at the audience as she twists the top. We can hear the fizz in the silence.
Waving a coloured boa, Andrey Berezin paces affectedly in his corner dressed in a fox stole, black trunks and high heels, while in the cleared space the dancers compete with one another in couples with total abandon, one idiosyncratic movement phrase at a time, replacing their competitor with the touch of a hand. The dresses move beautifully around the dancers, heightening the intensity and the men are on fire, especially Rainer Behr.
There are also elements of pure violence as when Berezin enters from his dressing room in a red silk boxing gown, sitting down to cut a piece of flesh from his forearm and cook it on the upturned iron. He eats it, and does it again. The audience is stirring uneasily. “C’est déguelasse,” I hear behind me. Shanahan in a stocking mask with a gun in her hand sits on the floor and points at whomever she wishes.
One can sense the end. The images and stories of Palermo give way to two processions, as if a travelling troupe is packing up after the show and rolling out. Cherry trees in blossom descend from the sky, slowly, beautifully. The stagehands take them down and undo the ropes that attach them. Two lines of dancers with an apple on their head gently sway towards us, arm in arm, to the sound of a village band playing Verdi. They exit and reappear crossing the stage from left to right in pairs, in a measured, repeated hopping phrase to a rousing finale of bagpipes. Red sand is cascading in streams against the sky. Once the procession has passed, a man tells the story of the fox and the geese. The fox has been fooled into allowing the geese to pray before he eats them. There is nothing he can do but wait until the geese are finished praying. Ga, ga, ga, ga, ga. It is a story without end.
As we absorb the intricate layers of images and sounds, colours and senses, ideas and absurdities, we discover not so much Palermo but Bausch herself in all her mysterious, brilliant complexity.
(with apologies to those dancers whom I could not name with any accuracy. I will happily update the text with the right names if you wish to identify yourselves.)