wed 27/05/2020

Palermo, Palermo review - free to view Pina | reviews, news & interviews

Palermo, Palermo review - free to view Pina

Palermo, Palermo review - free to view Pina

The Pina Bausch Foundation releases the first in a projected series of digital recordings

All about Eve: performers of the Pina Bausch company in 'Palermo Palermo', from 1989photo: Akiko Miyake

It starts with an almighty boom. Without warning, a breeze-block wall that spans the width of the stage collapses into billowing clouds of dust. As the air clears, we see a stage strewn with rubble, and picking her way determinedly through it blonde Julie Shanahan, shod – as are all Pina Bausch's women – in high heels, absurdly impractical for walking, for dancing, or even for standing still.

It starts with an almighty boom. Without warning, a breeze-block wall that spans the width of the stage collapses into billowing clouds of dust. As the air clears, we see a stage strewn with rubble, and picking her way determinedly through it blonde Julie Shanahan, shod – as are all Pina Bausch's women – in high heels, absurdly impractical for walking, for dancing, or even for standing still. After dumping a bag of dirt over her head, she demands of the encircling men to be kissed and loved, but she also demands to have tomatoes thrown at her (“at my stomach!”).

While the full visceral impact of Palermo, Palermo is somewhat muted on screen, this film directed by Ismaël Dia still grips as the vagaries of the human condition are dragged into the halogen glare of Bausch’s stageworld – a far cry from the romantic sensibility of most dance. She rewrote the rules for how movement, spoken word and stagecraft could interact and left the interpretation to the audience. The phenomenon she called Tanztheater strings together short, seemingly unconnected vignettes into a Fellini-esque dream collage. Cruelty and humiliation are never far away as Bausch interrogates both sexes on the cruelty inflicted by one on the other. Yet these bruising encounters do not build into psychodramas with victorious endings. Rather, each skit hangs suspended in time – tearing apart the problem (often violently), but offering no resolution.

Bausch’s Palermo is not, as Goethe described, a place where “lemon trees flower”. This is a city of grey, cemented melancholy, designer Peter Pabst’s blanket of rubble claustrophobic even in 2D. It's a city where the everyday is riven with absurdity, with sacrifice, violence, a code of silence but also with hope – witness the flowering cherry trees lowered to the stage in the final scene.

The sensuality of Bausch’s women dominates the screen, and as they navigate the debris in their stilettos and silky dresses, the urban detritus becomes a visual metaphor for degradation. The film’s travelling lens forces our gaze to follow the emaciated widow being shuffled across the messy proscenium as she lies on a bed of men’s feet. It takes us up close to the tortured machismo of Andrey Berezin who, dressed in a red silk robe, cuts off a piece of his own flesh, fries it on an electric iron and eats it. All this to a background of tolling church bells and wailing cicadas pleading for rain. Thanks to this digital rendering the aural experience, too, is heightened.

Dance on screen must always strike a Faustian pact: between an honest and literal recording, and the creative but unfaithful use of the camera

The film reaches a natural dénouement when dance belatedly enters the frame. This brief but brilliant episode is made the focus by director Ismaël Dia at the expense of other activity – and it pays off. Each performer moves with a ferocious intensity, their movements telling of a people abused, haunted by memory, burdened with religion (fingers imitate horns, we see flashes of Hail Marys). Later, the entire cast slowly promenade with apples – the ancient motif of sin – balanced on their heads. Choreography reveals the city of Palermo to be crumbling under the weight of an ancient male tyranny, a pervasive but confused Catholicism, and iron-clad codes of gender. Amid the myriad disconnected images in the piece, it’s dance that finally nails it.

Does Palermo, Palermo work on screen? Inevitably, there is compromise. We miss the acute awareness of smoke, sand and water of the live performance – the totality of experience that was central to Bausch’s conception of Tanztheater. Yet this digital record has undeniably captured some of her genius, the close-ups and careful editing magnifying moments of intensity. So it is that dance on screen must always strike a Faustian pact: between an honest and literal recording, and the creative but unfaithful use of the camera.

Had she lived, Bausch might well have enjoyed the dilemma. “You can see it like this or like that,” she would say. “It depends on the way you watch.” As one pines for the curtains of lockdown to be lifted, it is some comfort to know that, thanks to the Foundation's efforts, we still have Pina.

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