Have you been to Sicily? Believe me, this show hits the nail on the head in terms of danger, conspiracy, street-fighting, shoes, church bells and stray dogs. The dancers are lost in a world of their own and a fight against the city. This is not a tourist’s post card.
It’s a gallimaufry of gypsy fandango, jazz, blues and rituals of humiliation, men and women on different sides of the same song sheet, throwing tomatoes and apples at each other, some of them sticking, some of them bouncing off metallic city walls.
My favourite moments in Pina Bausch are always the climactic ensemble diagonals, or rectangular lines, which combine private, regimented hand gestures and glides with accumulated power, the transcendent power of theatre itself; I miss this in her recent work.
Still, in Palermo Palermo(1989) there are several great moments: a male sextet cradle a horizontal waif on their insteps; another woman is borne similarly in reaction to a cartwheel against the proscenium; six pianists repetitively bang out the opening bars Tchaikovsky’s B-flat piano concerto until it becomes a hurdy-gurdy street tune; the women in floral smocks perform a surprise handstand protest against the burnished walls.
But for all the hypnotic solos, I really miss the ensemble beauty and insouciance of 1980, Kontakthof (my favourite of all the Bausch shows) and Nelken. There’s a sense that she started, at some point, to take herself too seriously as a dramatist rather than a choreographer, and the dance is what we’re here for.
In any other company, and with lesser performers, a lot of Palermo Palermo would be pretentious and even precious. But with Pina Bausch, the artists are rooted in their personal stories and idiosyncrasies to an extent that is beyond nit-picking. None of them are beautiful in an obvious way, but all have a sort of spiritual magnetism that has been transmitted by Pina herself.
The show starts with the collapse of a city wall (the year of the premiere was 1989, when something similar happened in Berlin). This creates chaos, rubble, an endless peal of clanging church bells, a sort of dirge-like chorale of personal stories gathered in a company display of despair and rejection, a dance machine.
Spaghetti (“These are all my spaghetti” declares a hilarious Joan Crawford-like diva), cicadas, stormy weather and a crouching procession ensue, the latter with coordinated arm gestures and hip swivels, in sharp contrast to the nervy, repetitive side-swipes of the girls who are asking men to kiss them, hug them, leave them alone.
This Pina Bausch season has been the most fantastic success, and I’ve enjoyed it (twice) not least for the enthusiasm and the make-up of the audiences. Her work remains a benchmark in modern dance drama, and it’s very moving to see the Tanztheater Wuppertal firing on all cylinders three years after her untimely death.