Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in 'Palermo Palermo'.  Photo © Laurent Philippe

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in ‘Palermo Palermo’.
Photo © Laurent Philippe

National Theater, Taipei, Taiwan; March 5, 2015

David Mead

It starts with an almighty crash. A sold-looking wall of breeze blocks that runs the width of the stage falls dramatically backwards. A cloud of dust billows. As it clears, we see rubble strews the stage.

The creation of “Palermo Palermo” came about following a request by the mayor of the Sicilian capital for Pina Bausch to make a piece inspired by the city. What he got was a work that is superficially dark and grim. For all the moments of humour, the general mood is funereal and sombre, a feeling magnified by the blackness that envelopes the stage, the sound of a single church bell tolling, and the frequent silence. Even when music is played (the usual eclectic mix that includes Grieg, Paganini, blues and traditional music from Africa, Japan and Scotland as well as the island) it’s usually very quietly, as if in the distance.

Across that rubble strides Julie Shanahan, in the obligatory Bausch high-heels strides. She draws a cross on the floor with chalk, then on her face. She demands to be kissed, hugged and loved, but she also demands to have tomatoes thrown at her by two men.

As is usual with Bausch, there follows a series of dramatic often seemingly unconnected vignettes as she mirrors life through dark pantomime and danced images helped along by music and spoken word.

Women totter but more often stride, and usually very purposefully, over the rubble in their dresses and stilettos – unusually for Bausch, they often seem to be in charge. There is little violence against women, and a great deal of the men doing what they are told.

As Bausch reveals her view of the city and its people, Nazareth Panadero gets very possessive about her uncooked spaghetti – “I don’t lend them and I don’t give them away,” she says. “They are mine,” she adds with emphasis. A man has a shave with the microphone; another takes off his black sock which has a hole in it, paints his heel black, and puts the sock back on; and a third tips a bag of coins on the floor before steam ironing a woman’s dress, while she still has it on – later using the same iron to cook eggs. And all the time, knowing glances and smirks at the audience are everywhere – even coming from a dog that wanders on at one point.

Andrey Berezin in 'Palermo Palermo'.  Photo © Laurent Philippe

Andrey Berezin in ‘Palermo Palermo’.
Photo © Laurent Philippe

'Palermo Palermo'.  Photo © Laurent Philippe

‘Palermo Palermo’.
Photo © Laurent Philippe

Of course, these acute interpretations of life, as always, are of life seen through a Bauschian lens that enlarges and transforms the everyday into the absurd. I’ve never been to Sicily, but anyone who is a fan of Inspector Montalbano will surely recognise some of the eccentricities on show. In fact, there are moments when you almost expect him to walk on.

There are no overt references to the mafia, but there is Andrey Berezin. With his own corner of the stage home it was never clear what he was going to do next. Sit and watch two TVs at the same time, paint his nails, go for a swim (water courtesy of a water bottle), mug someone for a cigarette, or pull a gun and blast three unsuspecting tomatoes. And Bausch’s society is one that is walled-in, one where people mind their own business and where silence is the code that all follow. Time and again one dancer sits and ignores or walks straight past and ignores the strange happenings elsewhere on stage.

What is surely accurate is Fernando Jacon’s lighting. The glare as the light bounces off the rubble just like sunlight must likely do off the city’s golden and white stone buildings.

“Palermo Palermo” is one of Bausch’s more theatrical works with a lot of emphasis on text. For well over an hour there is almost no sign of what most would regard as ‘dance’. But when it does finally come, it is worth waiting for. An extended sequence immediately before the interval that features ever shifting solos and duets as dancers exchange places is outstanding. The range of speed of some of the movement is mesmerising. It leaves you breathless but demanding more. Berezin dressed as a drag queen walks across the front holding a board announcing the twenty minute pause, but you don’t want it to stop. Some of the footwork and spins, especially from the men, has to be seen to be believed.

'Palermo Palermo'.  Photo © Laurent Philippe

‘Palermo Palermo’.
Photo © Laurent Philippe

Act II is brighter, and there is more ‘dance’, notably an effervescent ensemble one for all eleven women that is packed with precise arm gestures, and a slow, powerful promenade towards to audience by the whole cast in two lines, each performer with an apple atop their head.

The second half also features perhaps the most memorable sight, that of six pianists, backs to the audience, bashing away at Tchaikovsky on six upright pianos while a woman sits, her face covered by a black veil. It’s dark, surreal, and they demand you don’t take your eyes off them.

Eventually, out of the chaos, darkness and despair comes light, as trees in blossom descend from above. It ends quietly. Another ensemble dance sees the cast parade across the stage repeating a short phrase that involves jumping forwards while bent over, and arms held in supplication. Eventually, a man walks on and tells a gentle story about a fox and some geese, and how the fowl tricked him into not eating them. It’s a sort of metaphor for life going on, and for hope.

Of course some of the cast are starting to look their age, and it’s impossible not to wonder how long the company can go on as it is, but everyone performed with remarkable energy and intensity. They believed absolutely in who they were and what they were doing, and that made you believe too. They made for an evening that was quite superb and totally engrossing from beginning to end.

* Editor’s note: “Inspector Montalbano” is a long-running Italian television drama series based on the books of Andrea Camilleri, set in the imaginary town of Vigàta, Sicily, and featuring detective, Salvo Montalbano.