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The deep roots of revelatory performance

Jana Perkovic: Emma Dante, Alvis Hermanis

Le sorelle Macaluso, Théâtre National Le sorelle Macaluso, Théâtre National
photo Clarissa Capellani
One of the great pleasures of Brussels is being able to see visiting theatre companies from all over Europe. An average week will present a treasure trove of international productions, highly regarded in their homeland, brought in often very modestly, for two- to three-day guest seasons. Sponsored by an overlapping patchwork of European, national, regional and thematic programs, they are variously framed—sometimes as art, but sometimes merely as a showcase of a nation.

It takes a particular kind of exploratory spirit to seek them out: one not only accustomed to the dingy corridors of independent warehouse spaces, but one not intimidated by the scent of bureaucracy. Alvis Hermanis’ exquisite Sonja, for example, was presented “with the support and in the framework of the Latvian Presidency of the Council of the European Union” in the basement space of BOZAR, Brussels’ museum of contemporary art.

Similarly, I had not heard much about Emma Dante before seeing Le sorelle Macaluso at Cities on stage, but I am glad I decided to indulge my curiosity. The Villes en scène/Cities on stage project, initiated by the Brussels Théâtre National with backing from the European Commission, brings together seven European theatres and festivals: Théâtre National in Brussels, Folkteatern in Gothenburg, Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe in Paris, Teatrul National Radu Stanca in Sibiu, Teatro Stabile di Napoli, Teatro de La Abadía in Madrid and the Avignon Festival—on the theme of living together in the city.

I have seen much more formally adventurous performances in the same period, doing the rounds of the said warehouses, but these works of theatre—undeniably, theatre—have stayed with me for their emotional weight, which felt ancient and primal.

Emma Dante, Le sorelle Macaluso

Emma Dante, like many other Italian theatre artists, remains much more prominent in her homeland than internationally, due in no small measure to the egregiously poor level of theatre funding in Italy. Her company, Compagnia Sud Costa Occidentale, is entirely unsubsidised, but nonetheless operates as a research laboratory for movement and performance, in the vein of Grotowski and Kantor. The influence of these greats is undeniable, visible in Dante’s creation of a ritualistic narrative space beyond mortal life, but also in her interest in how social ritual creates patterns in the body and voice, and in sculpting a performative presence that has full control over social resonances of movement. Like Compagnia Pippo Delbono, MOTUS and Societas Raffaello Sanzio, Emma Dante’s theatre sits firmly in the sensuous, visually and corporeally luscious Italian avant-garde tradition of ‘teatro totale,’ with strong links to the philosophies of Artaud, Pirandello, Grotowski and an affinity to the emotional and formal depth of Fellini (of whom Dante says, “his poetics is the utopia I am searching for in theatre”).

Thematically, Le sorelle Macaluso, like other of Dante’s work, is concerned with family, religion, Mafia, poverty, hopelessness and death—the sociopolitics of Sicily. The stage opens as an abstract space without the back edge, just a dark fog from which first a dancing woman and then a funeral procession, emerge. The funeral becomes a danse macabre, and finally a chorus line of women in floral dresses: the sisters Macaluso have come to bury someone. In this liminal space beyond time, sisters bicker and burp and laugh; other family members appear and disappear; generations meet in dialogue, and joys and sorrows trigger one another as memories emerge. Amid a great deal of suffering, we are waiting to find out not who has died, but whether anyone is still living.

This production is a result of two years of laboratory work, visible in the controlled physical poetry of gesture and voice (the entire text is delivered in Sicilian dialect, its rhythms resonating through bodies). There is clowning, bodily fluids, profound emotional expression and structured choreography. It is rare to see this kind of movement depth on stage these days outside of dance, and it triggered an immense emotional response in the audience. Emma Dante is a revelation.

Sonja, Bozar Theatre Sonja, Bozar Theatre
photo courtesy Bozar Theatre
Alvis Hermanis, Sonja

Alvis Hermanis’ Sonja owes its success to the same principles, as much as it may appear radically different on the surface. Sonja, a simple two-hander based on a short story by Tolstoy’s granddaughter Tatiana Tolstaya, has been a big hit on the European theatre circuit since 2008.

Tolstaya’s story follows a dumb, good-hearted St Petersburg spinster tricked by friends into believing a secret admirer is sending her love letters. The charade persists for decades, and is only cut short by the siege during World War II, which kills most of the letter-writers.

Hermanis likes to play with different levels of reality: Sonja opens with two bulky-framed burglars breaking into an empty apartment, obviously belonging to a deceased woman. While Jevgenijs Isajevs sits down and, as if hypnotised, starts narrating the story of Sonja, Gundars ?bolinš transforms into Sonja herself, and for the next hour activates every room of the apartment—even baking a cake—only to then take off his costume, finish the looting and disappear.

Germany and Russia are two great opposing forces in Latvian culture. In theatre, the rigorous German intellectualisation of performance refracts through the Russian approach which valorises acting, emotion and is, in Hermanis’ words, “more trashy and messy than the German tradition.” Sonja, for all its intellectual games of representation and make-believe, is primarily fascinating for its contradictory emotional power. Melodrama, physical comedy, mime and Stanislavskian naturalism clash in the incredible performance by ?bolinš, who portrays Sonja simultaneously as a caricature and with utmost respect, expanding her into the representation of all the cosmic illusions of humanity. Building naturalistic physical expressions of an old woman from a very large masculine body, every socially marked gesture is de-naturalised and consciously re-inserted. It happens with precision, without ridicule. And yet, the offensive bawdiness of this casting decision is never forgotten—Sonja remains grounded in a village burlesque. Just as Tolstaya’s narrator lends dignity to Sonja while being entirely uncompromising about the extent of her daftness, Hermanis gives gravitas to a very coarse drag act.

Both Dante and Hermanis are considered uncompromisingly avant-garde, and yet both have developed a practice grounded unashamedly in folk art. Spending too much time in perfectly white warehouses it is sometimes easy to forget how closely related theatre is to storytelling and ritual. Sonja and Le sorelle Macaluso, although coming from two opposite ends of Europe and funded partly for political reasons, were a welcome reminder of this.

Le sorelle Macaluso, text, direction, costumes Emma Dante, lighting Cristian Zucaro, set design Gaetano Lo Monaco Celano, Théâtre National, 24-27 Feb; Sonja, text by Tatiana Tolstaya, director Alvis Hermanis, design Kristine Jurjane, sound engineer Andris Jarans, lighting Arturs Skujins-Meijins, BOZAR, Brussels, 13-14 Feb

RealTime issue #126 April-May 2015 pg. 35

© Jana Perkovic; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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