The Chaos Of Life: Emma Dante Descends Into The Dark Heart Of Her Native Palermo

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

Vucciria is not quite bustling.
Colors of a collapsing city (c4r1n3b)
Max Lamia
Fabienne Darge

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.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - c4r1n3b / Carmine Maringola

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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