writers on dancing


In Winter Weather, a Vienna Letter

Vienna, Austria
Monday, November 29, 2004

by George Jackson
copyright © 2004 by George Jackson

For someone arriving rumpled from the airport, "John Cage. A project by Jerome Bel" felt like a clean shave and hot shower followed by a glass of sparkling cider. My plane on Nov. 21 had been late; I'd not before seen anything by Mr. Bel, France's latest avant garde favorite, but did expect dancing and choreography in addition to music. This was, after all, a presentation by Tanzquartier Wien, Vienna's house for modern dance. I'm still waiting for the dance, yet the experience was decidedly refreshing. First there was music simple, a group of Mr. Cage's compositional jokes performed by pianist Florian Müller on a Bösendorfer, a toy piano or a radio. Mr. Müller played meticulously and remained blankfaced in an impish way. The recital took place in Hall E of the extensive Museumquartier, in which Tanzquartier is a component. It was an apt space for a Cage concert. Architecturally, the Museumquartier is a mix of old and new that might have come about by chance, or at least casually. The place used to belong to the Hapsburg cavalry, and was a baroque structure containing officers' quarters, stables and exercise courtyards. Now it is a complex of exhibition galleries, theaters, cafes and offices. Parts of it are still historical, other sections are distinctly yet diversely modern. Hall E had a gemu"tlich mix of baroque (walls, ceiling) and contemporary (stage, seating area) and so had the hall beneath to which we were ushered for "intermission" and what followed. The intermission was partly planned, with many small tables scattered throughout a large room. A stack of recordings had been placed on each table and some sort of music machine, from old phonographs to dvd players. Ushers turned the machines on and let members of the audience insert what fit— platters, rolls, discs, tapes. Soon there was audial Babel, and so one went looking for friends with whom to chat or just strolled through the space examining the variety of devices. A few people decided, spontaneously, to dance. Into this chaos came children. They infiltrated all at once, carrying instruments or scores and began to play or sing. The machines were turned off and the audience quieted down to listen. As it became apparent that each child was doing its own musical thing with no coordination among them, conversations resumed. Nevertheless, this Babel was more harmonious than that of the music machines. And the kids, very serious in their endeavors, were delightful. They left after a quarter of an hour, and that was it.

Wintry weather has predominated during these 8 days. Outdoors it's been cold rain, some snow or insinuating fog, and on clear days an Alpine wind that slices through clothing. Excellent public transport and the stalls for hot sausage or mulled wine help in maneuvering around town. Indoors there's the solace of the cafes with their famous cakes and, even better, the coffees. On my list to see during the daytime are galleries old and new, building facades restored or radical, expanding sections of the city northeast beyond the Danube and west to the edge of the wooded hills. Foremost among the new museums I found the Liechtenstein. This nationally independent family has redone its Vienna palais and moved in much of the art collection from its home seat at Vaduz. The objects, the space, the light seem just right in their authority and fancy.

The theater season is in full swing with plays by Grillparzer through Schnitzler to a new Albee, and not just in German. I'm not getting to any. More than the Staatsoper, the Volksoper tempts me with its off-standard repertory by Robert Schumann, Alexander Zemlinsky, Franz Schreker, Walter Braunfels and, on the light side, Franz von Suppe and Emmerich Kalman. The two evenings I've attended (Nov. 23, Nov. 27) were, though, dance disappointments. Mr. Braunfels's ingenious 1920 "The Birds" (dramatically after Aristophanes, stylistically in the Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal line) with choreography by Chiang Ching and Mr. Von Suppe's "Boccaccio" (the first Viennese operetta) with choreography by Giorgio Madia had dancing not by the Volksoper's professionals but by the singers and extras. It showed.

Vienna has become something of a dance town. I could have gone to dance every night and not seen it all. Finest was a one-time presentation, "An Evening for Hanna Berger" that Andrea Amort authored on Nov. 26 at the Alte Schmiede (Old Smithy). Ms. Amort, a historian and critic, has been pursuing for quite some time the dance Vienna lost during the Nazi period. Traces of the Vienna-born (1910) Ms. Berger are among her most prized finds. A modernist of great independence artistically and politically, Ms. Berger was imprisoned as a Communist by the Nazis. She survived the concentration camp, and resumed teaching and choreographing until her death in 1962 in East Berlin. Two solos were on this program, "Mimosa" and "Unknown Female from the Seine". They had been taught by Ms. Berger to one of her post World War 2 students, Ottilie Mitterhurber, who has now passed them on to four current dancers: Esther Koller, Martina Haager, Doris M. Reisinger and Eva-Maria Kraft. Both these solos are torso studies, practically without steps. Simplicity is at the heart of "Mimosa". It expresses the essence of being organic, and is beautiful in an understated way. "Unknown", with the dancer down on the floor, is more complex, more exclamatory yet subtle in its pathos. Concern with keeping the dances fresh led Ms. Berger to specify the choreography strictly only in some passages. To other portions she gave degrees of freedom so that alternate approaches could be used. We saw each solo performed by two different dancers in somewhat different versions. Each seemed vivid and valid. Ms. Amort recounted aspects of Hanna Berger's life and indicated the questions that remain. Ms. Mitterhuber and two other Berger students, Eva Stanzl and Rita Egen-Wein, conversed about her as a teacher and person. Volker Nemmer was the piano accompanist for the dances. Plans are to pursue this legacy further and, with the help of other former associates, reconstruct more of the dances.

Concept, not choreography, dominates much contemporary Viennese dance. Rose Breuss's "Salome—A Flit About for 15 Dancers", presented by Tanzquartier in the Museumquartier's Hall G (Nov. 25), seemed patterned and deadly serious, not at all flittery. Nine of the dancers were males, and their hard twitches and uniform tread gave them a self-absorption that was almost robotic. With them at first was just a single female who was self conscious in a sensual way. After each set of moves she kept looking over her shoulder at the audience. As for what she did, it had more anatomically analytic interest than the dance material of the males. Also, her yellow tunic made a colorful contrast with the men's white shirts and dark pants. There wasn't much significant interaction between the woman and the men or among the men, just the working out of design variations. For me, that's a poor substitute for development. Eventually, more women appeared but never as many as the men. Three handsome wooden organs stood at one side of the hall and issued Georg Nussbaumer's machine and windpipe tones. "Salome" lasted an intermissionless hour and a half and its theme supposedly addressed the male gaze. A few people walked out early. Two more performances were scheduled. Ms. Breuss is said to be one of Vienna's best notators and in that capacity she's helping to document the Hanna Berger legacy.

In the city's Second District, at the Odeon, a theater built out of the grand but slightly dilapidated old Grain Exchange, Sebastian Prantl's troupe, Tanz Atelier Wien, was having a 7 day run of "Land Body Scape" (I've not translated the title, it was in English). Concept and direction were by Mr. Prantl and movement by the 5 female and 5 male dancers, including Mr. Prantl. Poetry, live music and lighting design were involved too. What emerged was an impressive catalogue of dance movement. One could pick out motion from the most diverse schools: ballet, all sorts of modern dance, Far Eastern ritual combat, social forms and so on. Mr. Prantl did not develop choreography from this treasure trove of material. He must have thought that it sufficed to arrange it in sets that had a little variety: solo, interactive, slow, fast and furious, with props, with more or less clothing. Two dancers, one male and one female, were eye catching: Turkey's intense Ziya Azazi and Italy's dignified Sara Simeoni. The lighting by Erich Heyduck couldn't resist playing with the great Exchange Room's columns and space scape. I attended on the run's second night, Nov.22, and the house was rather full.

Concern with the events of the Nazi era is apparent in Austria today. There are the Austrian Society for Exile Research, the Vienna Exile Academy and the Theodor Kramer Society's publication, "Zwischenwelt (World in Between)" that focus on issues of displacement, particularly those of the late 1930s and early '40s while Austria ceased to exist as an independent nation and became a region of Germany. One activity of these groups has been a series of symposia on consequences for diverse professions of the suppression and emigration instigated by Hitler's regime. The dance profession's turn came on Nov. 24 at the Arnold Schönberg Institute. On the program was an overview by Ms. Amort of conditions in Austria before and after its 1938 annexation by Germany. Magda Brunner-Hoyos spoke very personally, as a witness, about what it had been like at the time to be a young dancer in a modern company directed by a socially critical choreographer such as Gertrud Bodenwieser, who was also Jewish. Because of Ms. Brunner-Hoyos's family connections in South America, the Bodenwieser company was able to obtain an engagement in Colombia and escape just in time before annexed Austria's borders were sealed. She remained with her family in Columbia during World War 2, performing and teaching although Ms.Bodenwieser and most of the other dancers went on to tour New Zealand and settle in Australia. I spoke about the careers of Austrian dance exiles in the USA. Films were shown of Bodenwieser choreography, the comic dances of Cilli Wang (of the same ilk as Lotte Goslar's and Trudi Schoop's; Ms.Wang, at age 100, has just entered a retirement home in Vienna) and there were dance excerpts from two Hollywood movies featuring the exotic, ballet trained, ex-Viennese Tilly Losch.

Speaking of movies, the Film Archive Austria had located a silent production from 1926, "Franz Schubert's Last Love", in which Vienna's prima ballerina of the period, Gusti Pichler, acts and also dances three short numbers. In 1969, the late critic Hope Sheridan and I had met, interviewed and been impressed by Ms. Pichler. Ever since, I'd wondered what her dancing had been like. This movie was a partial answer. She was flowing and gracious in the upper body, with very precise footwork particularly in one of the Schubert "German Dances" which she performed in heeled ballroom slippers. She also performed a Duncanesque Greek number with a veil and a very spontaneous folkish bit. As an actress, in a lesser role, Ms. Pichler possessed delectable charm and was much more natural than the stage actors in the cast. I'd missed the recent public showing of this movie which had live piano accompaniment. However two colleagues, Alfred Oberzaucher (dramaturg and pressman of the Vienna Staatsoper's Ballet) and Ms. Amort, and I were was able to view it at the Film Archive's principal quarters in the Augarten. There is or was also a film short in which Ms. Pichler dances on pointe a waltz set by Josef Hassreiter, Vienna's principal choreographer from 1888 to the end of World War 1. Mr. Oberzaucher remembers seeing it and finding her "imposing" as a classical dancer. That short, though, seems to have been lost.

Renato Zenella's last season as head of the Staatsoper's ballet is proving to be a busy one. Peter Wright has just visited from Britain to refresh his staging of Marius Petipa's "The Sleeping Beauty". I saw Simona Noja and Giuseppe Picone in the starring roles on Nov. 28. She became a very respectable Aurora by Act 3, but had started out impatiently with abrupt phrasing. He was overly princely as Florimund, too much dignity and moodiness with too little youthfulness, and his dancing was a tad sluggish. The base company, more than the soloists, looked good. About to begin are the Staatsoper's three different productions of the inevitable Christmas ballet: the complete Soviet version of "The Nutcracker" by Yuri Grigorovich; Mr. Zenella's one acter, "Duke's Nuts" to the Duke Ellington arrangement of Tchaikovsky's music (on the same bill as the Zanella "Graduation Ball " and Josef Hassreiter's 1888 "Die Puppenfee [The Fairy Doll]"); and a modernized version named just "Nutcracker". The first two are being danced at the Staatsoper whereas the third, by Norway's Jo Stromgren, will be at the Volksoper where that house's own ballet ensemble is dancing Mr. Madia's "Alice in Wonderland". Three "Nuts" by the same troupe must be some sort of crazy record!

The "concept" for merging the Staatsoper's and the Volksoper's ballet companies* is still being worked on by Heinz-Dieter Sense, but it now seems unlikely that he will become the fused Vienna Opera Ballet's business director. Because of differing contracts that have to run out, skeptics are saying it will take three years to complete the merger. Gyula Harangozo II, the new artistic director beginning next season, will not likely announce his repertory until spring. So, plans are still very much in process. The new subsidy formulas for independent companies have been announced and, of course, there will be less money and more protests. Tanzquartier seems set, though, and a delightful presence in town is its new German director, Sigrid Gareis. She goes to see everything, is eager to talk about it and willing to listen. So, although one of her favorites, minimalist Philipp Gehmacher, isn't among mine* and she couldn't see anything of value in Ms. Wang's clowning whereas I appreciated the timing, exchanging impressions and ideas with Ms. Gareis was a pleasure. I look forward to further discussions with her on my next visit to Vienna.

* For details on the proposed fusion of the opera ballets and a review of Mr. Gehmacher, see the "Letter from Vienna" at this site in the October 12, 2004 issue.

Volume 2, No. 46
December 6, 2004
Copyright ©2004 by George Jackson


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