Theater director Emma Dante is a singular voice in contemporary theater. The Sicilian director's theater company is based in her native Palermo, which serves as a troubled muse, and yet offers little tangible support. That she finds in the top th
PALERMO -- Steering her black motorcycle, Emma Dante slaloms through narrow, decrepit streets before stopping between two run-down apartment blocks. It is 6 p.m. in Zisa, one of Palermo's poorest neighborhoods. A sense of deprivation and despair emanates from the walls, creating a ghostly aura.
"La" Dante, as she is known, works here. Four years ago she found a basement space, formerly a small shoemaking factory, where she set up a theater workshop she calls La Vicaria, after Palermo's notorious old prison.
Everything in here – dolls, wigstands, wedding dresses, candy-colored costumes – "comes from the streets," Dante explains. There are many glass paintings, typically Sicilian, depicting naïve, even kitschy scenes. The streets didn't just provide the physical contents of Dante's workshop. They also inspire her many theater production. Palermo is like a generous but devouring mother that gave birth to Dante's art.
Drawing back the curtains
It is in this "always bustling and yet continually dying" city that the teatrante (a specifically Italian term that Dante prefers over playwright or stage director) created all her productions. One after the other, the pieces tore open the opaque veil covering the taboos of Sicilian society. They dealt with the Mafia of course (Cani di bancata), incest, sexual and family violence (Carnezzeria, Mischelle di Sant'Oliva), prostitution and transsexuality (Le Pulle), death, religion and the family (Palermu, Vita mia) and other sensitive subjects.
"Palermo is a city of closed curtains that lives in a real culture of secrecy," says Dante, who founded her theater company, Sud Costa Occidentale, in 1999. "When you try to lift that veil, you uncover terrible hostility. I have a very pessimistic, very black view of my city. There are moments when I think I just can't go on. But my theater is indissolubly linked to Palermo and its energy, its poetry, its beauty. Being a child of Palermo is a little bit like being a child of the theater. And as an artist I think it's my role to lift the curtain..."
So when she returned to Sicily after a 10-year career up north, where she worked with actors such as Vittorio Gassman and Marcello Mastroianni, Dante let the street dictate the language of her theatrical productions.
"Palermo is a city of characters, where a real alphabet of the body plays out," she says. "That alphabet makes it possible to explore a more basic language that I have started to work on with my actors. In the street, everything is an exhibition, but that's a double-edged sword for the theater. You have to be a step above this street exhibition, deliver an interpretation of it, find what is uncomfortable and dangerous in it, otherwise you reduce it to folklore."
With Dante, everything is based on the work she does with her actors who come for " trainings " every afternoon on the little square stage at La Vicaria. She writes in the dialects of Naples and Palermo. These are much more primitive than Italian, the language of a unification that was never fully achieved. "The dialects are those of bad manners, the chaos of life; they are wild and eruptive," Dante says.
Struggling to stay afloat
While it may nurture in some ways, in others Palermo is a mother that doesn't feed her children well. Since founding Sud Costa Occidentale, Dante has succeeded in keeping the company and workshop going without a cent of subsidy money. She survives instead on the money she makes from European co-productions and international tours.
When Dante returned to Palermo in 1999, Leoluca Orlando, who came from the left wing of the Christian Democratic party, was still city mayor. "He had done a lot for the contemporary arts by opening the industrial wasteland in Zisa to artists like Pina Bausch and Robert Wilson," she explains.
In 2001, however, Orlando was replaced by Diego Cammarata of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party. "Everything closed up culturally in Palermo," says Dante. "The city went into hibernation. It's very difficult for me to work in theater here and to build an audience."
In a cruel paradox, Dante's shows, which draw directly from Palermo's energy, are not staged in local theaters. The only Palermitanos to have seen them are those who buy the 5-euro tickets for performances that Dante's company organizes in La Vicaria's small 100-seat theater.
Dante admits to being able to "breathe" when she works at La Scala opera house in Milan -- where she put on a much-discussed Carmen -- or the Opéra Comique in Paris, where this April she is directing La Muettede Portici by Daniel-François-Esprit Auber, a surprising work that takes place during the 1647 popular uprising Naples.
But forget Palermo? Impossible. For Dante, the city is "a symbolic representation of the soul of the world," which by definition means it's not just a regional backwater. "When I tell all these stories of marginal people, disgraced people – they are not people in my life. They symbolize a malaise I have within myself," she says.
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