By: Trevor Steele Taylor
In the mid-nineteen seventies, I attended one of the most impressive theatrical productions I have ever experienced. At the Roundhouse in London’s Chalk Farm Road, a visiting Italian company staged the Marquis de Sade’s infamous 120 DAYS OF SODOM. Part performance, part dance, part orgiastic visualisation of de Sade’s dystopian vision of humanity, the production has remained with me ever since.
In 2022, an important milestone in Western society’s journey to collapse, in honour of the 100 years of writer/poet/filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini’s history, choreographer Mario Gaglione of Joburg Ballet, supported by the Italian Embassy, Consulate-General and Instituto Italiano di Cultura presented his ballet PASOLINI 100.
Pasolini and de Sade are, of course immaculately linked by not only Pasolini’s final film SALO, based on de Sade’s 120 DAYS, which transported the narrative and the meaning from 18th Century Revolutionary France to the Fascist Italy of 1945, but also by their disgust at the hypocrisy of State, Church, Judiciary and Industry, for de Sade amongst power elites, for Pasolini pointedly the European Fascism given reign by the 2nd World War and the politics of Capitalism.
De Sade composed his masterwork (incomplete as he did not reach the 120 days he envisaged) in the Bastille, while the Revolution raged in the streets. Pasolini composed his billet doux to the Italy of his time (1975) which still. thirty years after the war had ostensibly ended, still reeked of the power structures which Fascism had enabled.
De Sade died, overweight and disillusioned in the Asylum of Charenton. Pasolini died on the Beach of Ostia, assassinated (I use the word advisedly instead of ‘murdered) by a young rent boy with whom he had been performing oral sex. De Sade would probably have lived longer and been renewed and prolific had his caretakers not taken care to make his health unstable. Pasolini, had he not met his end on Ostia, was full of potential projects – the most immediate being a film about St Paul.
Often SALO is spoken of as a final film as if Pasolini had somehow desired death. Nothing could be further from the truth. SALO was preceded by three films based on classics – THE DECAMERON, THE CANTERBURY TALES, THE ARABIAN NIGHTS – THE TRILOGY OF LIFE – as he referred to them. SALO was definitely a mirror into the death of the spirit – but not his own death. Pasolini still had a lot of fight in him.
And thus to the ballet and Mario Gaglione’s imaginative and visually innovative mise en scene. Himself a solo dancer who joined the ballet company in 2020, Gaglione has several startling productions to his name including a 2021 version of DANTE’S INFERNO.
In PASOLINI 100, dancer Revil Yon plays the central role of Pasolini, observing the world through his customary dark glasses and maintaining an attitude of combative distance. Incorporating visual clips of sixties dance clubs, brief interviews with Pasolini himself, author Alberto Moravia and centrally, Maria Callas discussing her role as MEDEA in Pasolini’s film of the Greek character of myth and ancient karma.
Three central dance pieces form the backbone of the production. In the first of these dancers Monike Cristina and Ivan Domiciano conceptualise the fiery relationship and friendship with Callas in a pas de deux of resounding passion, observed through the dark glasses and aloneness of the creator, Pasolini as a creature apart and omnipotent.
The second major dance has Pasolini, the creator of the obscene, the blasphemous and the arcane, subjected to the attacks of the critics, the press, the politicians, the church and the courts. In the dance he is lambasted with printed media and the calumny of insult.
The third dance and certainly the most fervid is delivered by dancer Chloe Blair, as the victim and subject of abuse in the inner courts of SALO. Behaving like one possessed of demons, she, sometimes serpentine, sometimes spiderlike, accepts the scatological ministrations of her tormentor/lover/torturer. It is a performance that leaves the watcher exhausted and properly in place as voyeur and objective observer of a cruel world from which God has absented himself.
It is to the credit of Mario Gaglione and the support of Instituto Italiano di Cultura that this production came into being, a tribute, certainly to one of Italy’s great artists and one who was subversive, anarchic and in the world of increasing compliance, definitely non-compliant.
If one were to put Pasolini into a nutshell, he does it perfectly himself in his own words: The very few people who made history are the ones who said NO. An act of refusal must be total, not partial.
His colleague, film director Bernardo Bertolucci, who was no stranger to the subversive with his films Last Tango in Paris and The Conformist, referred to him as SAINT PASOLINI a worthy obeisance from one artist to another.
Central to all of Pasolini’s work – his poetry, his regard for Marxist poet Gramsci, his positioning himself – although he can be accused of being a bourgeois intellectual – with the poor, the dispossessed, the salt of the earth. Unapologetic in his almost classic homosexuality, he chose lovers from the lowest strata of society, choosing to cruise the streets for young working close boys to share their social zeitgeist with him in sexuality both primitive and ignorant of social niceties.
Forever faithful in his relationship to his mother, with whom he lived in Rome and seething with disgust for his fascist father, he was also deeply affected by the killing of his brother by Communist partisans at the end of the war who mistook him for a fascist.
Pasolini was constantly under attack during his life time and his gut loathing for fascism received its greatest apotheosis in SALO, probably the most extreme films of all time.
The political and social world he knew and revolted against is now, with the creeping Neo-Fascism spreading like escaped oil across the European landscape, becoming a world which would certainly revolt him and, with Italy now in the grip of a Populist Right government, the Brothers of Italy, would certainly not surprise him.
Finally, by way of closing, I have had a close relationship with Pasolini’s work over the years, from watching his major work in London Art Houses, his Trilogy of Life with excisions ordered by the British Board of Film Classification and, the extraordinary release of SALO in the UK in a small flea pit in Soho which constantly was raided by the police who would seize the film print. I organised a focus on Pasolini at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in 2015, supported by the Instituto Italiano di Cultura which also included an exhibition of 120 small artworks by Cape Town artist Manfred Zylla, dedicated to both Pasolini and De Sade which the pictures which directly referenced the film SALO itself, included startling and unsettling images of the fascism endemic in Western society and within South Africa, both the old and the new.
The ballet PASOLINI 100 will be performed again in 2023 on October 17th at the Joburg Theatre
TREVOR STEELE TAYLOR is a South African film festival director, writer, film lecturer and iconoclast. He has programmed for some of the more anarchic South African Film Festivals – Cape Town, Durban, Weekly Mail & Guardian and the Grahamstown National Arts Festival. He has travelled extensively with film programmes to Europe, the USA and South America and has spent many years in Britain pursuing pursuits in mysticism, film, literature, music and fine art. He took a special interest in fringe communities having lived in squats in London and a mobile home park on Salisbury Plain. He is deeply concerned about homelessness, censorship, conformity, compliance and all forms of official bullshit.