BY RANDY GENER
Compagnia Finzi Pasca: LA VERITA
Credits Written and directed by Daniele Finzi Pasca
Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House
30 Lafayette St., Brooklyn
718-636-4100 | bam.org | Runtime 2 hrs. and 5 min.
1 Let’s Escape the Prison of Cirque du Soleil
To this day, I still wish that he had picked me, but he invited someone else to join him onstage. One night in 2005, the circus-trained maestro Daniele Finzi Pasca selected a shy French girl from the Limoges audience in west-central France to play his new roommate/friend occupying the other hospital bed. Set in a room in a Swiss mental asylum, Icaro unveiled a captivating one-man tale about a bulbous-nosed clown whose struggles against destiny, sickness and pain ultimately transform him into an ordinary man who dramatizes the tenderness of the human condition.
The ideal audience for this fanciful play — a phenomenally popular one-man production that has effortlessly toured around the world and which Finzi Pasca, the Swiss-Italian writer/director/circus artist wrote while briefly imprisoned for refusing the Swiss draft — was not the crowd of people in the dark. It was the lone spectator beside him, the lovely girl improvising responses to his questions and remarks — and who, at the performance’s end, walked toward the bright light in a silly headdress and feathered jacket.
Finzi Pasca himself portrayed the 90-minute play’s central character. First created behind prison walls, Icaro was touching, even magical, as it remade the desire to fly as a longing for human freedom. A founder in 1983 of the Swiss troupe Teatro Sunil, arrives at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) from May 4 to 7, 2016 with a surrealistic new show, La Verità (The Truth), and a new Switzerland-based organizational structure to back him up: Compagnia Finzi Pasca, which he co-founded in 2011 with his wife, Julie Hameiln Finzi, and three colleagues.
Because he is a natural and charming clown, because of his acrobatty aesthetic and because his visual and verbal gags leave us with laughter, tears and a sense of wonder, it’s become too easy and lazy for the mainstream media and performing-arts world to brand Finzi Pasca’s circus-driven creations as “New Circus.” The specter of Cirque du Soleil continues to imprison Finzi Pasca’s reputation as a dramatic circus-trained artist.
“It is sometimes difficult to talk about my work in relationship to ‘New Circus,'” Finzi Pasca tells me before he was about the board a plane in a Swiss airport. “In my point of view, what I do is more related to commedia dell’arte and Asian forms that comes from China and Japan. When we talk about ‘New Circus’ today, it’s always strange and complicated: Circus without animals. Circus but not in a tent. Circus but…but…but…. I prefer to say that what we do is much more an ‘acrobatic theater’ — featuring actors who arrive with circus preparation and with a strong capacity to control the project and the body. Our theater is linked to the ideas of promise and possibilities, sometimes with a tragical vision.”
2 Painting a New Surrealistic Reality
Think of it as a true Dalí staged. In La Verità, a gigantic Salvador Dalí painting that has not been seen in public since 1944, takes center stage at BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House. The company’s 13 performers pole dance and move and hula hoop in front of Dalí’s visually arresting canvas, which descends from on high. It functions as a large backdrop for Finzi Pasca’s circus-propelled show. This stage curtain is visually arresting.
Once lost to the Metropolitan Opera House‘s prop stage, Dalí’s grotesque painting was originally used for Léonide Massine’s 1944 ballet Mad Tristan, a version of the medieval Tristan and Isolde legend. It lay hidden in storage for decades, only being rediscovered in the Met’s prop room in 2009. One year later, a private European collector brought it to Finzi Pasca’s attention.
“We acquired the backdrop five years ago,” he said. “It has been restored to its former glory, and the new owners decided to present it in theater and not in a museum. They found my company, chose me, and proposed that we use the backdrop to inspire us — to create a show around the drop.”
Normally, a replica of the 1938 artwork (whose original sketches were stolen by the Nazis) is used in La Verità‘s traveling performances around the world. But not this time. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the real and actual Dalí drape, which is more than 1,400 square feet, descends upon the stage floor. A Surrealist painting of the heads and torsos of two wounded figures in a barren wasteland, it fills the back wall of the stage, and it looms as a key part of La Verità. Mad Tristan was itself inspired by Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Art experts have explained that Dalí focused on that opera’s closing moments, when Tristan dies and is found by Isolde.
“It’s very exciting,” said director Daniele Finzi Pasca. “When we saw for the first time the emotional power of the image, we were so impressed. In the presence of this magnificent backdrop, we decided to dance, to move in dialogue and to find a form to tell the story of Tristan und Isolde.”
In a recent interview, Hugo Gargiulo, set designer and cofounder of Compagnia Finzi Pasca, calls La Verità “an acrobatic and theatrical tribute” which looks at Dalí’s universe with the eyes of a child and with the eyes of clowns. It is an emotional travel inside Dalí’s world, with our particular vision and sensibility.”
3 A Collision of Ideas and Images
La Verità channels a kaleidoscope of Dali’s vision. Ideas, images and human bodies collide. Thirteen acrobats play instruments, sing, juggle, contort, clown and can-can among unfurling flowers, distorting shadows, ladders suspended in empty space, impossible balances, dismantled corpses, blindfolds, feathers and sequins.
To appreciate it correctly, let’s pause for a moment to view a picture gallery of La Verità‘s sense of circus playfulness and stylistic grotesqueries.
4 Three Fragments of a Childlike Vision
In our rambling conversation, Finzi Pasca stated that the only condition he faced when creating La Verità was to keep the identity of the buyer remains anonymous. Otherwise, he was given a free hand to do whatever he wanted.
- “I asked many connoisseurs of Dalí’s. Are Dalí’s’s landscapes set in the night time or daytime? The answer we got as neither. Dalí’s images belong to another dimension, that of the dreams and nightmares. The language of acrobatics, of physical theatre, may easily conquer that territory. We accepted the challenge and the invitation to stage because it was exactly an element that can help us tell the story that we had in mind.”
- “The seabed is enormous, breathtakingly beautiful. And it is around this unique piece that we developed the idea of the show, a surreal story of hands with long fingers, shadows that distort the proportions; blood-red, white and blue of Mary’s cloak; stairs suspended in space, impossible balances, and bodies that become displaced. It is as if the story comes alive in a decadent vaudeville in which a director seeks ideas to revive the fortunes of the cabin.”
- Daniele, you once called your vision a “Theatre of the Caress.” What did you mean by using the word “caress?” Is it about seeing the child in every adult?
“Sometimes monsters come at night. Good stories can help them get over that feeling of fear. With adults, you have to speak about monsters in a rather special way. But a child who is afraid of the dark needs a story to calm him. There are people who can tell stories in such a way that they calm children and calm the fragile part in all of us.”
5 A Circus of Contradiction
La Verità means truth in Italian. Although there are a few references to Salvador Dalí’s life and times, Finzi Pasca’s production does not really have much of a story. That approach was intentional, he said. Combining opera and classical music brings another dimension to the show; it seemed to be written to portray Dali’s outlandish spirit.
“Many ask if we were trying to tell a story,” Finzi Pasca recalls. ” ‘Tell’ is not the right word. We superimpose images and ideas. Sometimes there is contradiction. The body language of the performers suggest an impression or a reflection that is not linear or concrete. The art we play onstage is not Dali. To be true onstage means to represent life through theater. That’s the contradiction.”
6 In the Theater of the Nomad
Yes, it’s true. Sometimes, Finzi Pasca’s boundary crossings can lead us astray. Because he has created several new-circus shows for Cirque Éloize (such as 2003’s Rain – Comme une pluie dans tes yeux (2003) and for Cirque du Soleil (Corteo), Daniele Finzi Pasca‘s own body of spectacular creations sometimes blur his own complicated feelings (or misgiving?) about others labeling his work as “New Circus.”
As surreal as La Verita might be, the truth is that he is a nomad. In 2006, Pasca directed the closing ceremony of the Turin XX Winter Olympic Games, for which he received the 2006 Swiss Award in the Show Business category. In 2008, he was awarded with the Swiss Theatre Prize and was nominated for the XIII Europe Theatre Prize.
And yes, Cirque du Soleil has tapped him to create an altogether new show. In Europe, however, has become known for directing operas. He was chosen to create and direct the next edition of the Wingrowers’ Festival of Vevey, Switzerland, in 2019, a four-times-a-century event that attracts hundreds of thousands people. he is now working on his first movie. Plus, he is still performing his solo show Icaro.
Finzi Pasca is emblematic of the new breed of European theatermakers who are intent of offering us a spate of new theatrical realities. He takes winged flight in the belief that “in the theatre,” as Pasca avers, “in a moment of communion, we play with reality.”
Just as the euro promotes an ideal of openness and harmony between the member nations of the European Union, so does his vision proposes itself as a currency of cooperation, creativity, intensive exploration, intensive exploration and hybrid innovation distinct from that of other continents.
Walls erected in the political realm are chipped, lowered or torn down. Crossing boundaries, even geographic borders, is key. Improvising — and not holding on to tradition — becomes the active structural mode.
“For me, a Theater of Caress means empathy,” Finzi Pasca tells me. “Salvador Dali trains us to express the necessity to bring out nightmares. In the theatre tradition clowns are in some ways always their own directors and writers.
“A clown-actor dances with the public, at least that’s how I think of being on stage. I dance, seek out the public, I take them into my arms, I lead them and I let them lead me. This form of expression needs you to be able to think about gesture in all its complexity.”