Discovering Emma Dante …

25 April, 2011

I discovered Emma Dante, quite by chance, while browsing in a bookshop  recently opened in Palazzo Cattolica, one of Palermo’s grand old palaces. I’m not sure what it was that attracted me to the small  book called Interview with Emma Dante.  Maybe because it was an interview I thought the Italian would be relatively easy to follow;  or maybe I just found the size and appearance of the book appealing – it’s an attractively produced little book, just  12 x 16cm, printed on lovely smooth white paper.   Whatever it was, I had soon read enough to realise that Emma Dante was both a formidable talent and an interesting commentator on Palermo: definitely someone I wanted to know more about.   

What interested me most, initially, was her relationship with Palermo.  She is one of the most important figures in contemporary European theatre, her works regularly performed to acclaim – yet here in Palermo, her home city, she is virtually unknown and her works are almost never performed.  Not surprisingly, she is highly critical of the city, but her relationship with it is complex: on the one hand she despairs of Palermo; on the other, she is deeply attached to it.  It is the force behind her work.

Emma Dante was born in Palermo in 1967.  After leaving school, she went to Rome to study at the National Academy of Dramatic Art –  and there, the world opened up before her.  She spent some years working as an actress, but ultimately found that acting didn’t satisfy her; what she really wanted to do was to think and write, and to  express her ideas through other actors.  She returned to Palermo, and in 1999 founded a theatrical company,  La Compagnia Sud Costa Occidentale.  In 2008, the company acquired a space, known as La Vuciria, in the old city, and there they work, entirely self managed and self funding.  It is an unconventional company, with untrained actors working from morning till night to make something worthwhile of their dissatisfaction with the city. The characters they create, says Emma, can be found on the streets of old Palermo – the markets of Ballaro’ and Capo, and the streets of the Cala. 

But her work is not limited to La Vicaria.  She directed the opera  Carmen, working with Daniel Barenboim, for the 2009-2010 season at La Scala in Milan.  The Carmen she created – dramatic, different and unexpected – was received with both rapturous enthusiasm and undisguised hostility.  Daniel Barenboim was among the enthusiasts: in the course of discussing the production later on an Italian television show, he referred to ‘the genius’ of Emma Dante, taking the trouble to explain that he was not using the word lightly.           

Emma’s latest work, Trilogy of Glasses (i.e. spectacles), tells the stories of three categories of people marginalised by our society: the poor, the ill and the aged.  In the first story, which  takes the name of one of Palermo’s seaside suburbs, Acquasanta, a man talks of his former life as a sailor and his love of the sea;  in the second, which takes the name of the Zisa, an Arabo-Norman palace in Palermo, a mentally disturbed, catatonic, young boy dreams of a different life, and in the third, which takes its name from the Ballaro’ market, two old people relive a New Year’s Eve celebration from years past.  The glasses in the title are a metaphor for our ability to see – or not to see.

The book was launched this week at  Feltrinelli, Palermo’s largest bookshop.  By then I had become curious about EmmaDante – both the work and the person.  The name ‘Emma Dante’ had, for some reason, initially suggested to me someone young, slender and fair – not at all what Emma Dante turned out to be.  She is dark, with an attractive, ageless face that is both strong and serene, ”… one of those ancient and severe faces that seem to have seen everything and so have no fear of the depths of melancholy”.   Her dark hair, pinned up casually at the back, has distinctive broad silver streaks at the front.  She wears wear large and striking jewellery, but without being in any way flamboyant – the jewellery, like her silver streaked hair, is an indication of personality and individuality, nothing more.  She is completely devoid of affectation, intelligent, passionate and provocative – but perhaps the most striking thing about her is her ability to say things as she sees them. 

What she had to say about Palermo was particularly interesting to me.  She is acutely aware of the city’s problems and feels a duty to confront them.   It is too easy, she says, to go away and speak badly of the city.  “I remain and resist”.  Because she is here, she says, and part of the city, she has a right to criticise – and if things are to change, criticism is necessary.   But one voice alone is not enough, there must be support, solidarity – something this city has never had.  One of the greatest problems here, she says, is that people do not say things as they are – if you criticise, you are said to be exaggerating, if you don’t follow the crowd, you are thought to be crazy.   But perhaps the greatest problem of all is the silence:  no-one speaks out; no-one sees anything; no-one hears anything. 

To illustrate this, she referred to something that happened here last year.  To understand it, you have to be aware of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, two anti-mafia judges, remarkable men, who were killed by the mafia in 1992.   In  Palermo, they have become almost legendary figures, heroes – at least to most people.  Last year, bronze life-like statues of the two men were placed in a prominent place in one of the city streets.  Almost immediately, they were vandalised, smashed off their pedestals and left in pieces on the pavement.  It is a busy street, in the centre of town, but no-one saw or heard anything.  *   

Speaking the day after it happened, Emma Dante said “Unfortunately, today I can’t speak well of this city. … not because there are criminals and bad actions, but because there isn’t the ability to hear.  The silence is bad.  These statues fall from their pedestals, they make a noise and no-one hears.  I don’t believe it.  And this hurts me.  Because in the end, to see these bodies on the footpath, is like seeing Falcone and Borsellino dead for the second time.  Killed twice.  How can one speak well of this city”?   

                                                                           *    *    *

I had been in Palermo for only a few weeks when I first became aware of the extent to which the city itself is a topic of conversation, a major preoccupation.  Whereas other cities provide a background for people’s lives, Palermo is a leading lady, demanding attention and eliciting strong and conflicting emotions.   I have never heard people talk about their city so much and with such feeling.  They are deeply attached to it, proud of it, appreciative of its beauty, but angry and despairing of its failings; above all, its apparent inability to change.  But because it is capable of producing people like Falcone and Borsellino  – and people like Emma Dante – I continue to believe it is capable of change.   But I also believe that change in Palermo won’t depend on the people of Palermo alone: Italy is a very tangled web.   

 *  Interestingly, the statues have now been repaired and placed in the entrance to the Law Courts, where  an inauguration ceremony took place on Good Friday.    

6 Responses to “Discovering Emma Dante …”

  1. jan Says:

    Glad to see that you are inspired to continue. What a story. What a woman! But your description of the silence regarding the statues was powerful. Let’s hope the Law Courts offer more protection – Kindest to you and keep it up

  2. Sally F Says:

    What you say of Emma Dante and why she stays in Palermo sounds so similar to what one hears from so many of the educated people in countries where regimes are tough when they describe why they stay and do not join their families and friends who escape from tyranny and seek freedom elsewhere – “how can we leave the terrible place we love …”

  3. kateludlow Says:

    Exactly! It’s something you would be more familiar with than I am, but I’m pleased there are people like Emma Dante here – the city needs them!

  4. Cate Says:

    What an incredible woman. I was very interested to read about Emma Dante (wonderful name!). Her comment that seeing the statues in pieces on the footpath was like seeing Falcone and Borsellino dead for the second time was chilling – and very moving. Your post reminds me that there is so much published in other languages and how much of the world is lost to me because of this. Thank you for helping bridge the gap!

    • kateludlow Says:

      Thank you for the comment. What you say about material published in other languages is interesting. In that sense, we’re lucky to be reading in English because so much does get translated into English. Still, you’re right, there’s a lot that doesn’t!


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