It opens with a collapse. A wall of concrete breeze-blocks the width of the entire stage topples backwards to land in a pile of grey rubble, the backdrop for the rest of the evening. The cast will later add further rubbish to the scene, casting plastic bottles, squeezed lemons, cigarette packets and endless matches to the floor as they parade over the debris. Brick dust will shower the stage from the rafters; gunshots and explosions will add to the sense of a warzone. Palermo Palermo (1989) couldn’t be less of a pretty tourist promotion for that city, the second in Pina Bausch’s World Cities catalogue; in fact I left Sadler’s vowing never to visit Sicily.
The scenography may be alarming, but the work itself is full of an infectious vibrancy and humour. Compared with the clean stages and lithe solos of later works, Palermo Palermo is full of constant action. Overlapping vignettes, bursts of music, moments of choral unison, people running, a dog….at times the result seems indistinguishable from chaos, but it’s chaos of a wildly enjoyable kind.
In stark contrast to many of the Bausch works in this season, the women are dressed (as usual by costume designer Marion Cito) in a kind of impoverished anti-glamour. Black sheath dresses costume the female cast for much of the first half; coupled with the endless clanging of a distant church bell, they remind us of the centrality of the Catholic church to life in Sicily. Later, women change into flimsy summer dresses or nylon nighties; there’s only one ball gown onstage in the first half, and it looks gaudily out of place. Palermo is no host for Bausch’s usual sartorial territory.
For Bausch’s thematic territory of desire, repression and nature versus culture, however, Palermo offers fertile breeding ground. An inverted woman standing on her hands at the back of the stage yells at Dominique Mercy for “looking ridiculous”. She continues her red-faced tirade as he picks his way meekly over the concrete to try to emulate her, receiving nothing but abuse for his troubles. Another woman stands in a hole in the concrete, begging her two lovers to touch her, hold her, kiss her, but hide her so that no-one may see. Nothing the hapless pair do is right. Everybody in Palermo seems to desperately want something, but nobody seems to be able to articulate what it is.
If Palermo Palermo wouldn’t be the tourist board’s first choice of promotional pitch for the city, it succeeds as an inadvertent advertisement-by-contrast for the communist spirit. Nobody is this town of few resources seems willing to share. People rob each other in the streets for cigarettes. A woman kicks a man viciously until he has handed over every last pack of the bacon that he is carrying, concealed, in his pockets and underwear; what she wants with all the bacon, we will never know. An older woman marches to the front of the stage and informs us that the pasta she is carrying is “my pasta, all mine!” She will not share it, she will not lend it, it is all for her. Later, Dominique Mercy will reappear on stage with the same pasta, silently breaking it piece by piece against his chest. As recent world events have shown, the instinct to hoard is never beneficial to anyone.
In the middle of all this madness, and gun-shooting, and women tossed around until they fall out of their clothes and men slicing flesh from their own arms to fry on a steam iron (viewers of a nervous disposition may want to avert their eyes for that bit), there is some absolutely stunning dance. Given the inevitable restrictions of a stage covered in rubble and rubbish, it’s amazing that the cast manage to move at all, but move they do – not the great looping arcs of Bamboo Blues , more a suite of fast-paced articulations and rapid-fire gestures, sometimes performed in overlapping solos and sometimes in group ensembles. Moments of clapping and energetic stomping suggest flamenco; alongside the Catholic church bells, there’s something of the gypsy spirit nestling here.
Lawless, colourful, saturated in action and barely rooted in sanity; it’s easy to see why Bausch obviously found Palermo so inspiring. Fantastic piece, but I think I’ll skip the city itself and stick with my safe view from the stalls.
Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch World Cities 2012 continues until 9 July at Sadler’s Wells Returned tickets only for Palermo Palermo on 2 July & _Wiesenland on 8 & 9 July www.sadlerswells.com
Originally published at www.londondance.com