No other choreographer, to my knowledge, has produced work that can simultaneously shock and enchant, move and tickle like Pina Bausch and Palermo Palermo is exemplary of this double-edged style - an elegant yet rugged snatch of Sicilian life that bursts into play with the live demolition of a giant breeze-block wall.
A scene from Palermo Palermo at Sadler's Wells, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
As the dancers scramble over the fallout rubble to a score of tolling bells, we respond like children. Laughter jumps out uninhibited, inquisitive babbling meanders through the auditorium; we giggle nervously at things we don’t quite understand but delight us regardless.
Bausch’s portrayal of Sicilian women is particularly fascinating. Presented frequently as victims of male manipulation (hauled about like frozen dolls and flipped over as though inconsequential), they are also seen as tragic, lonely goddesses - worshipped and obeyed but never satisfied. In one increasingly desperate sketch, Julie Shanahan cries out for men to hug her, take her hands, hold her head etc, yet even as they oblige she screams repeatedly at them to do it again ‘properly’ as though nothing they provide is quite enough.
Another striking vignette sees a woman shunted forward by a group of men (restraining or supporting her, it is difficult to gauge) and held sacrificially before one man as a water bottle is placed between her legs. When the water dribbles out the image appears to be one of female degradation. The brazen, almost masculine manner in which she shakes out the last few drops, however, tells a different story.
The dancers give everything of themselves to even the smallest gesture and however fanciful the moment it is rooted in human warmth. Palermo Palermo is breathtakingly absurd with a profoundly observant heart beating beneath the madness.