Beyond the waltz

Beyond the Waltz: Austrodance Festival 2006
Harold and Sylvia Greenberg Theatre
Washington, DC.
October 31-Nov. 8, 2006

by Rita Felciano
copyright 2006 by Rita Felciano

For dance observers not tuned in to the European festival circuits, contemporary dance in Austria is not exactly a hot item on the radar screen. Until a few years ago, their perceptions probably would have been right. But stage performances, archival and contemporary film footage during “Beyond the Waltz: Austrodance Festival 2006” convincingly showed that there is more to Vienna than ballet, secessionists and Strauss.

For one thing, dance didn’t quite die when the Nazis came to power in the 30s. The work of that lost generation is painstakingly being researched from films, paper trails and in surviving dancers’ memories. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and Austria’s entry into the European Union, Vienna has also moved away from its place at the edge of Western Europe and seems to be newly self-confidant of its history as well as its future.

As a good host, the Festival’s primary sponsor, the Austrian Cultural Forum of the Embassy of Austria, also wanted to invite American artists. Critic/historian George Jackson, who has studied dance in Austria for many years, suggested the Berlin-born of Turkish descent soloist Nejla Yatkin and South West native, of Korean Caucasian parentage Dana Tai Soon Burgess. Both choreographers live and work in DC.

The Festival opened with the much anticipated “Hanna Berger: Retouchings” for which five Austrian choreographers put their own marks onto the work of Hanna Berger (1910-1962), a prominent pre-war dancer/ choreographer who had performed with Mary Wigman. A committed socialist, she survived Nazi concentration camps and after the war returned to teach in Vienna. Only fragments of three solos, “The Unknown From the Seine,” “Mimosa” and the “Rider” still exist. Historian Andrea Amort has worked with one of Berger’s pupils, Ottilie Mitterhuber, to save them.

Since the contemporary artists based their choreographies on filmed reconstructions of these solos, it would have been informative for the audience to see that source material. As it is, one walked away from “Retouchings” with a sense of having looked through a peephole into a past of someone else’s fractured vision. Whether any specific steps or gestures by Berger made it into these studies, is impossible to ascertain. Still it would have been good to see what the choreographers had picked up. Common to these very different miniatures was a sense of sparseness, introspection and evanescence. One has to assume that at least some of this came from Berger. Several of the dances also implicitly acknowledged Berger’s “presence.”

In his enigmatic video “Drowned,” Bernd R. Bienert juxtaposed a pregnant woman’s dancing in a yellow interior with film images of a nude male whose mirror images kept melding into surreal abstractions. The two types of reality created an eerie sense of aimlessness being sucked into a mystery.

Manfred Aichinger’s lovely solo “Fragile—Variations on a choreographic Theme by Hanna Berger” placed Martina Haager inside and around the edge of one of two pools of light. Carried along by Haager’s breath, small, at first hesitant and abrupt movements seemed to accumulate inside the dancer until they spiraled into space through arms wafting overhead. Rose Breuss’ “Attempts to Escape Confinement,” performed by super agile Anna Nowak, had the dancer alternate between hysterical flailings and giving into languishing inertia. In Niklaus Adler’s trio “Elisa Day,” a mysterious figure (Esther Koller), dressed in midnight blue, her back to the audience, was the third partner in a couple’s (Karin Steinbrugger and Kun-Chen Shih) give and take relationship. When the man left, Koller stepped center stage to writhe on the floor like a pool of churning water. Bellini’s “Casta Diva” and Debussy’s “Images” were not exactly subtle musical choices.

But the best evocation of what Berger might have been like came in Willi Dorner’s “N.N.” He juxtaposed the live Mitterhuber with a video of headshots of her demonstrating and self-correcting a Berger phrase. An elderly, rather heavy set dancer, Mitterhuber carefully placed her feet in front of her. Then she started a series arm movements—opening them wide, crossing them, spiraling them around the torso. Done gently, the gestures, nonetheless, conveyed strength and authority. All of a sudden you saw what Wigman meant when she said that the dancer didn’t move in space but created space. Mitterhuber did it right in front of our eyes.  

Two days later, the documentary “Dance on the Spot”—followed by a roundtable in which I participated—highlighted today’s Viennese filmmakers. Well paced, the film included interviews with dancers and presenters as well as excerpts of pieces in rehearsal and performance. Clearly an attempt was made to include very different voices even though the day after the showing a couple of the dancers told me that they didn’t think the selection was balanced enough, both in terms of styles and age groups.

Among the most intriguing was Dorner’s whose company will close the festival. We saw excerpts of ”Hanging Gardens,” an installation in an empty luxury apartment. Philipp Gehmacher, a minimalist, asks questions about the body’s absence in dance. Elio Gervasi demonstrated his febrile and intuitive process of movement generation. Deconstructionist Saskja Hoelbling’s process oriented creations appeared to come from an aggressively assertive perspective.

More personally involving than “Dance on the Spot” were video glimpses into early twentieth century Viennese dance: a reconstruction of Grete Wiesenthal dancing a Viennese waltz; her arching back and uplifted arms uncannily recalling Isadora. Rosalia Chladek, tall, angular, stark, danced on a terrace to Corelli. When she lowered her arms and inclined her head to the side at the end, she could have stepped out of a Klimt painting. Gertrude Bodenwieser’s Bauhaus-inspired mechanical pyramid made an excellent point for teamwork and precision dancing.

On Friday night, Bienert returned with an evening of his own work. In the early nineties, Bienert was artistic director of the (then) Zurich Ballet where he presented some extraordinary collaborations with architects Mario Botta (“Nutcracker), Jean Nouvel (“The Moldau) and Renzo Piano (a Luciano Berio score). As an independent artist he has continued to work with architectural ideas. The program included three dance films and a world premiere, “Frames: Counter Memory/Hippolytos”, performed by Koller and Shih.

The mesmerizing “Storm” took place inside Zahada Hadid’s monumental “Ice Storm” at the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna. The size of an airplane hangar, the eerie installation looked like a moonscape, its edges, crevices and holes smoothed out by Brancusi. Working with two cameras, Bienert contrasted these organic but cold forms with Shih’s sensual and dreamy slithering, slides and dives in and out of orifices. He gave us fire and ice in one.

“Sculpture” took Philip Johnson’s gigantic “Vienna Trio.” With excellent camera and editing by Bienert, dancer Harmen Tromp’s interaction with the colossus succeeded in suggesting life inside those huge sharp-edged blocks of granite. The ending—bringing in part of the cityscape—however, looked tacked on.

The best part of the short “Tides,” with dancer Karl Schreiner inside a pool, was the opportunity to watch close up the effect of air and water on movement. Working with two synchronized cameras, above and below the surface, the sluggishness of the leg movements, for instance, strikingly contrasted with the freedom of the above water phrases for the upper torso. At times Schreiner almost seemed to pull apart.

For “Frames’” three solos and the duet, Bienert probably set the basic parameters. Koller’s walking patterns defined and refined the space—cutting it into rectangles, lanes, diamonds, spirals squares, and triangles. Bienert may also have suggested formal procedures such repetition, retrograde, variation, inversion, mirroring. Black outs acted as punctuation marks. Within those limits the movement was improvised. The duet between Shih and Koller could have referenced the myth of Hippolytus except that Shih seemed to do the wooing. After the duet Koller danced topless, more vulnerable but also fiercer.

Koller is an exceptionally strong and subtle performer and a first rate improviser. Pursuing the geometric trajectories, she seemed like a sleepwalker until something woke her up. A glance, a twitch of her fingers, a raised arm could produce an explosion of motion like a volcano that erupted only to retreat again. Bienert described the piece in terms of “being alone with oneself”. In the post performance discussion, Koller was asked whether she felt isolated while dancing. She smiled and replied that yes, she felt alone. “It’s my space, you are invited to watch but you can’t come in.”

Photos, from top:
From Bernd Bienert's "Frames : Counter Memories." Dancer: Esther Koller.
"Hanna Berger: Retouchings". Dancer: Martina Haager. Photo by: Helmut Lackinger.
From Willi Dorner's "nocredits".

Volume 4, No. 39
November 6, 2006

copyright ©2006 Rita Felciano



©2006 DanceView