Teatro delle Balate – a small experimental theatre in an ancient city street …

14 March, 2012

Most visitors to Palermo come to see the rich remains of the city’s past – and they’re right to do so.  Palermo was once one of the grandest cities in Europe – the centre of what John Julius Norwich refers to as “that flashing, endlessly-faceted jewel that was the culture of Norman Sicily” – and many of its treasures, including some of its finest, are still here to be seen.  Now, they perhaps gain even greater lustre being seen in the context of a modern city to which time has been far from kind.  But for all its problems – or maybe partly because of them – modern Palermo too has its riches.  They are less apparent to the casual visitor, and certainly not likely to attract large numbers of tourists, but nevertheless they are well worth discovering.  There’s a rich vein of creativity running through the old city, finding expression in various small theatres and musical venues.  It’s one of the things that makes the city such an intriguing and rewarding place to spend time in.                             

One of these theatres is Teatro delle Balate, a small experimental theatre,  established in 2007 in a slightly edgy part of the old city, directly opposite the decorative façade of a 17th century church, S. Annunziata delle Balate.  Finding the theatre proved to be something of an adventure; attending a  performance there, a real discovery.    

To locals, the Albergheria area probably doesn’t seem at all edgy:   familiarity alters one’s perception.  At night, though, the streets and laneways surrounding the theatre are quiet and poorly lit, and for me, on my first attempt to visit the theatre, they proved daunting:   so much so that, long before reaching the theatre, I had turned and gone home.        

That night, having discovered that the theatre was located in a tangle of streets just past one of Palermo’s best food markets, Ballaro’,  I had set out to attend an evening performance, memorising the streets beyond the market so that I wouldn’t have to stop to consult a map.   Performances here don’t start till 9.15 so it was well and truly dark by the time I reached the intersection of paved streets at the end of the market.  The area there was crowded, brightly lit and very noisy.  The foods stalls surrounding the intersection were lit by the harsh glare of naked light bulbs or fluorescent tubes, customers spilling out onto the streets, and as I passed a tiny bar on my right the heavy beat of loud African music seemed to be thumping inside me and pulsating in the paving stones beneath my feet.  There were groups of people everywhere, mostly men.  Beyond, the streets seemed even quieter and darker than they had before, and I began to walk a little faster.  I was looking for the fourth street on my left, but none of the streets was marked; and anyway, it wasn’t at all clear which of the laneways might actually count as streets.  There was only so long I could keep walking up and down looking as though I knew what I was doing so, reluctantly, after about 15 or 20 minutes I gave up and went home.       

Before venturing out again for an evening performance, I went back in daylight and found the theatre –though even then, not without some difficulty.  When I returned in the evening, my perseverance was rewarded by the discovery of an attractively restored space,  and an intriguing performance of a work called Him, produced by one of Italy’s best known experimental theatre companies, Fanny & Alexander,  founded in Ravenna in 1992.

The entrance to the theatre is a quite small room, dominated by a pale stone archway.  It is simple, but surprisingly stylish, virtually empty save for a large and richly carved dark wooden table in front of the stark red end wall.  The side walls are black beneath a raftered ceiling; the floor tiles plain and slate-coloured.   The theatre, with a similar stone archway, occupies a similarly proportioned room next door.  

It all began in 1999 with a street and a piazza, when, every Sunday,  Dario Ferrari and Nina Lombardino, the theatre’s two young founders, began to perform their works in Piazza Politeama, one of the city’s main squares.   Slowly, they attracted the attention of the public, then the press, and finally the world of the theatre.  Now, at Teatro delle Balate, they are producing and performing an interesting programme of high quality contemporary work.   

I had no idea what to expect of Him.   Certainly not what I found:  a kneeling Hitler dubbing the entire 1939 Victor Fleming/Judy Garland film of The Wizard of Oz, which was being projected onto a screen behind him. 

Cattelen's sculptureAs we entered the theatre, the actor, Mario Cavalcoli, looking disconcertingly like Hitler, with dark straight hair and small moustache, was kneeling in centre stage looking out into the auditorium.  The image, and indeed the title of the play, derived from a well-known and controversial work of modern Italian sculptor, Maurizio Cattalen, which, at the time, I wasn’t familiar with, but now realise that an awareness of it would have been assumed, and would have heightened one’s experience.   

Cattelen’s sculpture, a figure the size of a young boy of about seven or eight, is apparently  frequently displayed at the end of an empty gallery, with its back to viewers entering the room.  It is only when they walk to the front to see the work more closely that they realise that the kneeling figure is not an innocent child: it is Hitler.  An art historian from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art says he found the juxtaposition of a vulnerable innocent body with the adult face of Hitler  ‘terrifying’.   Interestingly, the sculpture has recently been bought in America for $10 million by a Holocaust survivor from Vienna.

In the theatre, once everyone is seated, the film of The Wizard of Oz, begins, but in silence.  The kneeling figure raises his baton and begins to conduct an imaginary orchestra, and not only to conduct it, but to actually produce its music, by means of a humming sound.  As the film progresses, still without sound, but with Italian sub-titles, he continues to direct the action, reproducing all the dialogue in English, changing tone for each character.  He also reproduces all the noises and mimes the actions of the film.  It was an extraordinary, bravura performance, slightly manic and uncannily precise.

It didn’t take long to see that this was Hitler, actor par excellence, master of the universe, Wizard of Oz.  And I waited for something to change, something  to emerge, something to develop.  But he continued, on and on,  through the entire film, through the final credits, right to the end.  And perhaps that was the point – without any regard for the audience, totally lost in himself, his own world, his own power, the actor continues to the end.    

I am probably not an ideal audience for experimental theatre – and certainly this wasn’t theatre as I know it.  But I was intrigued by it; plagued by it, in fact, for days afterwards.  It’s something I’m not likely to forget.  And now I’m looking forward to see what Teatro delle Balate comes up with next.

8 Responses to “Teatro delle Balate – a small experimental theatre in an ancient city street …”

  1. Sally Field Says:

    It sounds like the sort of experience that comes back to haunt …

  2. Colin Says:

    A fascinating and delightful piece! Oh dear, how troubling to think of Hitler as the Wizard of Oz!! Kate Ludlow is to be commended wholeheartedly on her determination in seeking out this “Over the rainbow” place, the Teatro delle Balate. Palermo seems to have unlimited secrets yet to be uncovered by this most intrepid explorer of its hidden treasures.

    • kateludlow Says:

      I agree the thought of Hitler as a kind of Wizard of Oz is rather troubling – and your description of Teatro delle Balate as an ‘over the rainbow’ sort of place was perfect. Many thanks for the comment.

  3. Cate Says:

    A mesmerising post Kate! I want to say exactly what Colin said! The performance does indeed sound haunting. I am very glad you persevered and found the theatre giving us the pleasure of reading about your experience. Looking forward to hearing about your next adventure!

  4. TTFN Says:

    I’m not sure that the dramatic aspects of this excursion into darker Palermo are helping my resolve, or perhaps strengthening it. The intensity of the performance must have been quite exhausting.

    • kateludlow Says:

      It occurred to me that the intense mental focus required must have been exhausting for Marco Cavalcoli, the actor – remaining in a kneeling position for the whole of the performance would have been physically demanding too. As for your resolve, we can stick to the Norman treasures! Many thanks for the comment.


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