PRINT April 1990


Pina Baush's Palermo, Palermo

PINA BAUSCH’S TANZTHEATER WUPPERTAL rejects the notion of an ideal body. Operating outside esthetic imperative, against ideologies of the “proper use” of the body, the mother of European dance-theater violently reveals the transgressive power of movement. Every element of gesture finds expressive space in her world: elastic, infinite borders are restored to the body, which, freed from the role of mediator of significances, may outrageously fabricate emotions onstage. If archetypal tales are told in traditional ballet, if music is visualized through the inscription of pure signs in space in abstract neoclassical dance, if subtextual associations between expression and its form are constructed in historical modern dance, Bausch leaps over these conventions with unprecedented impudence. In her performances, everything that moves about onstage has an implicit dramatic autonomy, which is inscribed in the quality of gesture, in that dynamic relationship between bodies that makes up the fabric of the fresco, in the obsessiveness of the leitmotivs and the dead zones, in the polymorphous perversion expressed by bodies that can never be homologous, but instead are strongly individuated. The body, in Bausch’s work, is personified; it does not assume a role as it might don a costume. Freeing itself from symbolic functionalism, discovering a lost unity in its own irrational components, the body becomes an agent of its own history.

The associative criterion that guides the montage of images, by which each of these bodily histories is communicated, is determinably elliptical. In Bausch’s theatrical collages, a freedom of connections is in force, recalling a flow of memories or of consciousness. Seeking out the matter that forms dreams, she pursues the mysterious law that leads to their development. Thus, for Bausch, “dreaming” about Palermo does not involve looking at its exterior elements—the facades, the artworks, the folklore. As revealed in Palermo, Palermo, her newest creation (the piece had its Italian premiere in late January at Palermo’s Teatro Biondo), the city is by no means the land “where lemon trees flower,” in Goethe’s Romantic phrase. Rather, Palermo, Palermo is a land of gray cement blocks (the upsettingly dynamic set design is by Peter Pabst), which end up carpeting the stage after the terrifying collapse of the wall that claustrophobically covers the proscenium when the curtain goes up. And if the image cannot help but recall the Berlin Wall, other influences, from Peter Stein to Peter Brook, reverberate in the blanket of ruins. There is omnipresent in Bausch’s work a willingness—a need—to plunge into the most unpleasant effluvia of a civilization and a culture: more than the dream of lemon trees we have the nightmare of incomplete constructions scattered like diseased excrescences along the Sicilian coast joining Palermo to Bagheria (in Bausch’s work, every vision is by its nature polysemous).

But Palermo, Palermo is also an infernal wove of tolling bells, or of cicadas driven mad with thirst, or of sorrowful marches. Or fireworks at some religious festival, which seems to move in rhythm more to the warpath than to the ways of the Lord. Or a group of men holding up an emaciated widow—shadows of an ancient male tyranny, one of the most potent and insistent themes in the piece. Or the advance of a multitude of people (self-absorbed as the Sicilians can be), who rhythmically throw to the wind bundles of garbage—threads of an everyday intimacy in an urban ritual of sowing, a fecund appeal to a suffering city. Or, yet again, it is a large, half-naked man-tuna, who swims on land, to the rhythmic accompaniment of a noisy soundtrack, perhaps attempting to save himself from the mattanza, the bloody tuna harvest of Sicilian custom.

Many other sacrificial acts are consummated in the concentrated metropolitan “Casbah” of Palermo, Palermo, between views of interiors grazed by the spectral gleams of televisions and pieces of flesh that fill the pockets: revolvers aimed in the dark and exploding bombs, large white puffs of smoke seen against a dome of stormy sky, and red earth that rains down like an erupting volcano.

Palermo, dreamed by Bausch, is a city that is both prostituted and holy, baroque and extremely violent, in harmony with history and infested with decay, seductive in its contradictions, which burn with the same intensity as the row of lighted candles, as in a church, which are supported by the arm of a man who plays a saxophone. And his heartrending lament tells of all the pleasure of death to be found in the heroine’s “holes.” At the finale, a procession of women, bent over, legs crossed, faces hidden in their laps, interlace in a long collective sob.

This interior diary of Palermo, as interpreted with the unspoiled eye of a foreigner, was the result of a sojourn of several weeks that Bausch made to the city. But this fact should by no means lead one to infer that Bausch’s work has taken a narrative turn. More precisely, here perhaps with a greater force than ever before, Bausch’s hallmark assemblage of images is revealed to the spectator with a dry, obsessive transparency and a disarming shamelessness that dispenses with her usual irony, or black humor. This time, the parade of visions displays, with absolute, despairing crudeness, the grand themes of auteur theater: the submergence in memory, the pursuit of innocence, the conflicting relationship between the sexes, the violence of the world, the anxious need for answers to existential questions, the inexhaustible need for love.

Leonetta Bentivoglio, a writer living in Rome, is the dance critic for La Repubblica.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.