writers on dancing


Letter from Vienna

By George Jackson
copyright © 2004 by George Jackson

Late summer weather, languorous to the senses and poignant in anticipation of raw fall rains, contrasts with the riling arts news of the day—that Elfriede Jelinek will not travel to Stockholm for her prize. Austrians are calling her "their" first Nobel laureate in literature since Elias Canetti. He, however, was legally a Brit at the time of his prize in 1981. Furthermore, Ms. Jelinek does not consider herself as theirs, the Austrians', although she was born in the country, grew up in its capital city of Vienna, studied ballet and music here, and pretty much worked within the nation's borders on the oeuvre—poems, novels, film scripts, plays—that earned her the high honor. To the chagrin of the political right, Ms. Jelinek can in no way be construed as a homeland author or patriot. At one time she even forbad production of her plays in the republic whose citizen she is.

Of more local significance is the still incomplete succession story concerning the top ballet job in Vienna, and in all of Austria. It was announced during the past season (2003/4) that a change in the leadership of the Vienna State Opera Ballet would occur for next season (2005/6). Renato Zanella is currently in his final year as the Vienna State Opera's directorial ballet master and head of the national ballet school. His future plans are said to be diverse. They include management of a major annual festival, and working with Austria's best classical dancers—the Lipizzaner stallions of Vienna's Spanish Riding School—not in order to change their traditional step enchainments but to adapt and vary the spatial patterns of their dressage performances. Likely, too, he will remain involved with Vienna's handicapped movers, whose sponsor he has been. With Mr. Zanella definitely departing from the VSOB, the job opening was advertised.

News that the slot had been filled—and more—came in September. Gyula Harangozo II, from Budapest, will not only replace Mr. Zanella but fill an expanded position because of an anticipated reorganization in the state supported dance scene. The ballet troupes of the Vienna State Opera and of the Vienna Volksoper, separate for much of the 20th Century, will be merged.

The announcement has a familiar, dismal ring for European dance: consolidation. The motive is to economize, but the involved bureaucrats expect bonus results: improved quality and even quantity. More for less. Is there anyone who believes that?

So, it seems that Mr. Harangozo will replace not only Mr. Zanella but also the Volksoper's Giorgio Madia, who has held his ballet mastership for just a little over one year. What is being lost, what is being gained in terms of persons and potential? Mr. Zanella came out of John Cranko's Stuttgart stable and was a promising choreographer in his younger days. During his regime, the VSOB continued to adapt its technique and style to the so-called international standard, a long evolving process spurred by his predecessors Elena Tchernichova and Anne Woolliams in the early 1990s. Prior to them, and as late as Gerhard Brunner's directorship with Gerlinde Dill as principal ballet mistress in the 1980s, one could still detect remnants of the old Vienna manner in the way the ballet at the State Opera danced.

The Volksoper's ballet has had less continuity in recent years than even the State Opera's. At one time it was a stronghold for the ballet-based Vienna waltz style derived from Grete Wiesenthal's experiments. Since then, it has gone through show biz and modern dance phases. Mr. Madia, from Maurice Bejart's coral, is said to be a good classical teacher, choosing his dancers from all over but with a keen eye. He's done a little choreography which the Viennese haven't found bad. Now, though, he'll not have the chance to make or break his reputation.

Mr. Harangozo, in his performing days, had a decent reputation as a principal dancer and appeared both in his hometown and in Vienna. He was a product of the Budapest school at the end of the Soviet era when Hungarian ballet was considered to be almost as good as the Russian. However, under his directorship for about a decade, the Budapest ballet has gradually lost its prominence. Gone are the days when Vienna fans regularly visited nearby Budapest for good ballet. A recent performance in Austria by the Budapesters earned poor reviews. The future seems gloomy to Vienna's balletomanes. Of course, Mr. Harangozo sounds optimistic.

It remains to be seen exactly how the merging of the VSOB and the Volksoper's ballet into what is being called the Vienna Opera Ballet will be managed. A plan for this is in preparation by Heinz-Dieter Sense, who will hold the new post of business director and is to help Mr. Harangozo with administering the dancing at both houses. Undoubtedly, Mr. Harangozo and his boss Ioan Holender (overall director of the Vienna State Opera) will have their inputs. Will the director of the Volksoper, Rudolf Berger, also have a say? Supposedly, Mr. Harangozo is to have more independence from Mr. Holender than his predecessors had.

The existence of two ballet companies had benefits. They provided alternate possibilities, and at times the secondary troupe, the Volksoper's, was more dansant than the principal one, the State Opera's. That can no longer happen. Everything will be uniform, whether good, bad or mediocre. Artistic prospects Mr. Harangozo has mentioned so far include acquiring ballets by Roland Petit, Maurice Bejart and Alexei Ratmansky. He also plans to nurture the classics. Will he retain Vienna's only old ballet, the 1888 "Die Puppenfee", which used to be a staple in Budapest too? Unlikely that he'll follow in Mr. Brunner's steps and revive other Viennese choreography. His own patrimony includes the Bartok ballets of the first Gyula Harangozo (1908-1974). Stay tuned.

My two recent Vienna nights offered dance that had nothing to do with the official ballet companies. September 29, I saw "Serapion, mon amour" at the Odeon Theater and October 7, "Incbuator" in the Museum Quarters's Hall G. The venues were distinctly different, and so were the concepts of the two works. Their choreographic substance, however, was similar in that it seemed distinctly subsidiary to concept.

"Serapion" takes place in what used to be Vienna's Grain Exchange, an imposing 19th Century structure that was vacant for years until it became the Odeon. The entrance, grand staircase and vestibules have been somewhat restored but the actual exchange room, a vast chamber where the performances take place, remains in a state of haunting dilapidation. The work is a movement play, a fantasy about the elements of theater—space, scenery, lighting, sound, costuming, characterizations. The production achieved maximum effects with minimal means. Sets, apart from the grandiose architecture of the place, consisted of a series of tall painted curtains that moved around the room's periphery on rails. Sometimes they created the illusion that it was not they that revolved, but the wooden grandstand on which the audience sat.

There were eight characters who acted up and responded with dance, movement, gesture or expression to the changing moods of the sets and lights, and to different snatches of music and sound. One of the characters, to all appearances an older man who looked like an impoverished poet, may have been the person in whose imagination the other people and their worlds were supposed to exist. He was present throughout the course of the performance but wasn't always active, even dozing a while, whereas the the others, four women and three men, came and went, and appeared and disappeared into the shadows. The dream action lasted about an hour and was varied enough not to become boring. The pacing had a lyrically quirky flow. The piece as a whole seemed an elaboration and refinement of just the sort of thing that might be going on in ones head while wandering through an abandoned building alone.

At the curtain calls it turned out that the old man was a middle aged woman, Ulrike Kaufmann, who directs the Odeon with Erwin Piplits. Together they conceived and shaped "Serapion", presumably from material improvised by the cast—mimes, clowns, dancers. The Odeon troupe's style often alludes to Vienna's painting and music traditions. Of course, the late Franz Josefian construction of the place is a constant presence.

"Incubator" was staged in a big black box of a theater located underground. Despite its size, Hall G is claustrophobigenic because of its sterility and submerged location. Visible in the performance were 4 persons, sound equipment (generators on side tables, speakers out on the floor), and the lighting. On the soundtrack were sounds and pop songs. Three of the four performers wore casual clothing of a rather colorless sort and had grim expressions. They gestured, stood, sat, and lay down awkwardly. It was sometimes like watching children playing at being Frankenstein's monster, the creature assembled from spare body parts that don't fit together seamlessly. At other times, the arm rotations, joint flexings and other isolations seemed like part of an anatomy demonstration. Everything, even the monochromatic lighting, sometimes dim and sometimes harsh, was in perfect minimalist taste except the fourth performer, a woman. She tried to do what her colleagues did but wasn't as deliberately awkward. Her expression didn't read as mean enough. Her black outfit, though not ostentatious, was too ensembled. Her body wasn't dancer lean.

I'm not sure how intended the fourth person's difference was. At the end of 70 minutes of listless, barely varied game playing and demonstration, the odd woman out went to a microphone and crooned or lipsynked a song. The curtain calls showed that the performers could look human and even smile. Credited for concept, space arrangement and pages of philosophizing in the printed program was Philipp Gehmacher; choreography was by the dancers—Clara Cornil, Mr. Gehmacher, Sabina Holzer (the more normal looking odd person out, I think) and David Subal. Victor Duran lighted; Peter Stamer was the dramaturg, whatever that function may be. Nothing about this performance was Viennese. It was, though, fairly standard fare on the current international post-modern dance and performance scene.

Photo:  Renato Zanella.
Volume 2, No. 38
October 12, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by George Jackson


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