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Emma Dante: Bodies and Silence with a Sicilian Accent

Interview with the creator of "The Sisters Macaluso" that runs through November 19 at the Alexander Kasser Theater in New Jersey

Emma Dante

"I often use Sicilian dialect, but mine is a reinvented language adapted to theater writing: not just a verbal tool, it is also faithful to the physical expressivity of the actors’ bodies," Emma Dante said. On "The Sisters Macaluso": "It’s a story about family tensions, life, death, sorrow and joy, and as such it’s a universal play that should speak strongly to the American audience and critics."

As part of an evening titled “Sicily as a Theater of the World,” multi-award winning Emma Dante shared experiences, thoughts, and stories with the audience at Montclair State University, where the U.S premiere of her acclaimed play Le Sorelle Macaluso/The Sisters Macaluso runs through Nov. 19 at the Alexander Kasser Theater as part of Peak Performances. The conversation with her was so rich, funny, and piercing that I asked her to turn it into an interview highlighting the most salient moments of what was truly a magical exchange.

Sicily is for you a personal place as well as a cultural, creative, and painful space. Originally from Palermo, you are still active in it. What does Sicily represent, and by extension the South?

“Sicily is the beginning, it’s where I heard my very first words, where I have listened and continue to listen to the streets and their stories around me. It is my identity, and effectively mine is a theater of identity; so, it’s only natural for me to link my work to Sicily. Sicily is what I am and what I have become”.

You are an extremely versatile artist active in a wide range of artistic realms and genres. Yet, the role that brings all your endeavors together is perhaps that of the writer: you develop the scripts of your plays and films, publish novels, write children’s books, etc. What is your relationship to the “word” and especially with language and dialect within an artistic vision that, instead, often transcends the word and relies on the actors’ bodies.

“I often use Sicilian dialect, but mine is a reinvented language adapted to theater writing: not just a verbal tool, it is also faithful to the physical expressivity of the actors’ bodies. I would not talk about the dialect of the word: in my theater the bodies speak dialect. My plays are always based on original stories, not on facts: I am not interested in documenting reality. During the development of the piece, we improvise; so, words are not imposed on the actors, they are born from them, everything happens in the moment. It’s a constant quest. It’s an evolution but also an involution; and as much as in the process something is found, something inevitably escapes. It’s part of the work, and it’s tormented work. And by this I mean, hard work for the body. Our plays are presented several times over the years: they age, the same way the actors’ bodies age. I think bodies are containers of time, biological clocks, and similarly plays have a life, which we nurture, while our bodies ache and become increasingly damaged and imperfect. Take the sisters Macaluso, for example, presented in 2014 after two years of gestation: they are old by now…”

Your theater production is marked by the re-visitation of classical plays. What does it mean to address this repertoire especially in a land like Sicily that is so pregnant with ancient drama? 

“It’s only inevitable that I would explore the world of ancient theater: the classical myths are at the root of the culture I belong to. Those myths still resound today, because it is there that the big questions were born. Even the new language that we create on stage, as part of scripting, is born from that ancient language. An original investigation of a classical myth can be found in the award-winning Verso Medea, in which Elena Borgogni played the lead role and the unique voices of the Mancuso brothers had an important role. Some of the works I am concentrating on now include Sophocles’ Theban Plays and Euripides’ Bacchae and Heracles, the latter of which will be presented this summer at the Greek Theater of Syracuse in Sicily.”

Recently, you have also stepped into the world of filmmaking, and I use this word because in your first film Via Castellana Bandiera, you have written the script (based on a published novel of yours), you have directed the film, and you have acted in it, thus going back to your first artistic life, that of acting. Tell us more about this intense film, which I consider profoundly theatrical. In it, there is a sentence that appears also in the play The Sisters Macaluso: “Everybody is right and everybody is wrong.” Can you comment on it as well?

“Cinema for me is a way to enrich my theater and vice versa. So far I have made only one film (I just finished the script for my second one, adapted from The Sisters Macaluso) and it’s been a great experience because I was watching the film from inside as one of the two protagonists. So, I cut out this particular role for myself in which I could also be a director: Rosa, the woman I interpret, makes choices, including that of stalling the situation, that ultimately directs the action in the film.

In the film two women take the same street as they drive their cars in opposite directions. Neither of the two wants to put the rear gear in and they remain still at their steering wheels waiting for the other to move. Set apart by age and much more, they stubbornly stick to a principle, and thus create an impasse, which reflects the impasse of two worlds clashing but it’s a futile war. Yet, they are both right and they are both wrong, because being right is a point of view. The truth is never just in one place. Yet, somebody is right in this film, or rather something is right: it’s the street, which is not as narrow as people in the film make it look. It’s actually large and the final scene clearly shows this, accompanied by the beautiful song by the Mancuso brothers, which won a special mention at the Venice Film Festival in 2013. Space is always large enough to embrace everybody: the problems are in people’s heads not in the space that hosts them.”

Le Sorelle Macaluso (Credits: Carmine Maringola)

Another field that you are active in is opera: you started in 2009 with Bizet’s Carmen at La Scala di Milano with Daniel Barenboim as orchestra director, a work that sparked a heated debate. More recently, your direction of Verdi’s Macbeth was recognized with an award at the prestigious Edinburgh Festival. What’s your relationship with opera? 

“Well, I entered the world of opera from the front door, like a princess: the best opera in the world, at the best opera theater in the world, and with the best director in the world…. You know, I am used to working with a small group of actors in the basement (sottoscala) where we hold rehearsals, and all of a sudden I was dealing with 250 people on stage. As a joke, we would say that I went “dal sottoscala alla Scala” (from the sottoscala to the Scala”)!  It all started with a call one day: it was noon and I was frying eggplants, a daily practice in Sicily. It was from the manager and artistic director of La Scala, Stéphane Lissner, who asked me to open the season on Dec. 7 with Carmen. I got confused over the dates and told him that I could not because I had rehearsals in the sottoscala… and when he insisted I said I had to hang up as the eggplant were getting burnt. I was being so naïve and reckless…  – Luckily he called back, and I realized what it was all about … and said “yes, yes!”

This project was a challenge, and an exhilarating one at that: I followed my instincts and had no fear, especially thanks to the support of Daniel Barenboim. It was a beautiful work that marked me profoundly, and that, yes, was also contested. The traditionalists booed it, and vehemently, and some even threatened me: they did not want for me to get close to La Scala, ever again. I mean, I received emails with death threats…and I have kept them. Despite this, since then, I have worked on opera regularly: it seems that if I do not do one every year, I experience withdrawal!”

Your works are imbued with music, and your palette is remarkably varied: classical, folk, pop, rock, etc. What is the role of music in your creative process?

“I place much value on music in my work, especially because for me it’s related to silence. Any play of mine is the result of one or two years of collective work with the company: at the beginning I play music, all kinds, and ask the actors to listen and react. Then the music disappears and they are left alone in the midst of silence. Yet, they are not alone, they are with silence, and with what is left of the music in the sonorous air. Indeed, I am interested in that impalpable moment when a note is over and the next one has not begun yet. My art unfolds along this furrow of silence.”

Emma Dante on stage

This Peak Performances season at the Alexander Kasser Theater is fully devoted to women innovators in the performing arts, a whole vision designed by artistic director Jed Wheeler who wanted to bring attention to the often less recognized yet fundamental work of women. Can you comment on your experience as a woman artist?  

“Frankly, I do what I like to do, and what is important to me without thinking whether I am doing it from the perspective of a woman or a man. Yet, I have learned over time that I am seen and treated as a woman, and, to be more specific, a Sicilian woman, and a woman with a darker skin shade, and … a shorty; yes, I am quite short. By this, I mean that what I do – regardless of how successful it is – does not produce the results it would for a man. A man my age, 50, with the type of significant experience I have gathered, would have everybody at his feet. If I were Emmo Danto, I would be a fascinating and charismatic figure; while as a woman, Emma Dante is intimidating. And what’s even more disconcerting is that, at least in Italy, a woman has to be excellent at what she does to achieve prominent roles that men can just be mediocre at; but the pressure and expectations on them are lower.”

Tell us about The Sisters Macaluso: its genesis, its fortune, its meaning in the U.S. where it opened on Nov. 16 for the first time. 

“We worked on it for two years, meeting every month for one or two weeks. The core theme was women, and only women were part of the lab initially, but from this sisterhood a much more complex world was born, and men were eventually embraced, both dead and alive. It’s a story about family tensions, life, death, sorrow and joy, and as such it’s a universal play that should speak strongly to the American audience and critics, the same way it has across Europe and in South America. It’s been a fortunate play – 300 shows so far – and I am really glad it was brought to the Kasser Theater in collaboration with the Inserra Chair and Italian Program (MLL Dept.) at Montclair State University to be seen in the metropolitan area of NY and NJ.”

See link here.

The play spoke very positively to the New York Times reviewer as seen on her Nov. 17 article: The Sisters Macaluso is Critic’s Pick!


Teresa Fiore, Inserra Chair in Italian and Italian American Studies, Montclair State University

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