In just under two hours Pippo Delbono takes his audience on a rollercoaster ride from Dante to Pasolini, from a solo violin to a Verdi chorus, from contemporary dance to pointe shoes, from the elegance of an opera crowd to the squalor of an asylum. And here we touch on the heart of this piece – the central character on stage is Delbono’s hero, Bobò.
Bobò is a clown-like figure who for more than forty years was closed in a mental hospital. He is deaf and dumb, and has microcephaly. He was ‘rescued’ from an asylum by Delbono. The artist, who was at a low point at the time, was brought up sharp by the harsh reality of Bobò’s situation, and thus the two saved each other. Bobò is now a fixture in Delbono’s company.
The action takes place in a large metallised room, with bright lights and hidden doors. Sometimes the action spills over into the seating area with the cast dancing with members of the audience, sitting with them, talking to them, teasing them – but never embarrassing them. The embarrassing element is the state of the mental hospitals, which were closed down in 1996. Patients were often kept in appalling conditions, as Delbono shows in film clips projected on the furthest wall.
The stylized space is not only the ‘prison’ in which Bobò was kept for most of his life, but also a space where phases of an existence can be acted out or recalled. Alda Merini, one of Italy’s most loved poets, was in and out of mental institutions from the age of 16 until she was over fifty. In Dopo la battaglia her words are heard as two drunk young women screech with laughter, and stumble about on their heals – the line between sanity and madness is a fine one.
The tendency with this style of theatre and this sort of subject matter is to make it so dark that nothing can really be seen. With Shakespearean timing, Delbono manages to make his audience laugh just before tugging the rug out from under its feet. The contrast in content, mood, lighting and sound is extreme… and effective.
But there is a second centre to Delbono’s eclectic piece. He collaborated with the great German dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch, who died two years ago, and here there is a tribute to his ‘teacher’: red roses laid out downstage centre, and the presence of Marie-Agnès Gillot, étoile of the Paris Opera Ballet, who worked with Bausch the year before her death on Orfeo ed Euridice. Gillot brings her exceptional qualities as a classical dancer onto the stage, but also gamely struts about with a cartoon mask and flippers. Her pastiche of The Dying Swan is demanding, and ultimately touching as this tallest of dancers is juxtaposed with little Bobò, and it is Gillot who takes his hand as they exit and return for the well-deserved standing ovation.
Photos by Lorenzo Porrazzini: from top, Gianluca Ballarè and Grazia Spinella; Bobò and Marie-Agnès Gillot