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Flash Review Journal, 12-3: Never Alone
Playing the Body Solitaire with Cesc Galabert and the Vienna State Opera Ballet

By Tara Zahra
Copyright 2002 Tara Zahra

VIENNA -- Two radically different performances in Vienna this week promoted a common mantra: you're not alone as long as you have your body. In the intimate space of the Museumsquartier, Cesc Gelabert reconstructed a minimalist and modernist solo by Gerhard Bohner, while the State Opera Ballet depicted loneliness in the midst of crowd and spectacle in an evening featuring the choreography of Renato Zanella and Balanchine.

Gelabert performed the last solo work of the German choreographer Gerhard Bohner, who died in 1992 of AIDS-related complications. In "Im Goldenen Schnitt," Bohner/Gelabert attempted to realize the aesthetic ideals of the early 20th century German Bauhaus moment, which promoted modernist simplicity, rationality, and utility in art and design. The repetitive and balanced harmonies of Bach, as well as a minimalist set by Vera Rohm consisting solely of splintered wood columns, successfully left us alone with Gelabert (and his body), who genuinely appeared to be from another time: in a sweeping black trench coat, he was a man on a dark and empty street in interwar Berlin.

While both Bohner and Zanella deliberately depict human confrontations with nature, Gelabert ultimately emerges the master of his environment. Half mime and half rational scientist, he painstakingly explores the most minute potential of mundane body parts. He isolates elbows and cheeks and ribs like chemical compounds and then rebuilds them anew in order to show us what they can offer and how they work. What is the essence of an elbow? It takes a long and lonely experiment to answer the question fully, and this is what Bohner/Gelabert have to offer. In spite of a deliberate thrust toward science, the work is not completely absent of emotion. This is however the emotion that comes out of quiet restraint rather than manipulation or spectacle, from being lulled into a daydream and then suddenly awoken by small and unpredictable moments of pain, delight, or surprise.

The Italian choreographer Renato Zanella begins with a lonely setting rather than a lonely body: a vast and unoccupied desert. In "Empty Places," we see an entirely different kind of confrontation between the body and nature, one in which the empty space of the desert becomes an invitation to expansive movement, but in which the individual is ultimately absorbed by the environment.The dancers portray a setting itself rather than human beings, and it is the desert, rather than the human body, which lives and moves in Zanella's first movement. The second movement of "Empty Places," a solo performed expertly and for the first time by Giovana Magnani, again puts the human being at the mercy of nature. Through an inspiring use of her upper body, Magnani reinvents sun-bathing, stretching and preening under a warm orange light. It's the most humanist moment of the work, but unfortunately also resorts to tired and colonialist tropes of the "primitive" to show us what is essential about human beings. (In the desert we reveal what we can't in civilized society, we move fast and touch each other, we are raw, sexual, and 'uncivilized.'...). The theme of loneliness also pervades Zanella's third movement, a partnering sequence in which the dancers don't so much relate to each other as fall together in creative ways, encountering one another by chance in the vast space of the desert. We hear Laurie Anderson speak about "walking and falling at the same time," and the dancers do so, adeptly, smoothly, and with intentionally restrained emotional commitment to one another.

The dancers of the State Opera, and especially members of the corps, proved themselves eager and capable to master the challenges of contemporary technique in Zanella's work. They demonstrated their energy, their speed, their precision, and their ability to immerse themselves in a style or mood. So it was disappointing when this energy and respect for the sensibility of the choreography was lost when it came to performing Balanchine. Many of the dancers were performing their roles for the first time, and tentatively. However, a more central problem was that in choosing some of the sweeter and frillier works from the Balanchine repertoire -- "Serenade," "Tchaikovsky pas de deux," and "Theme and Variations," works which most reveal Balanchine's debt to 19th century romantic ballet -- the company failed to fully show us why and how Balanchine belongs to the 20th century. It performed "Serenade" like "Giselle," and thus those moments in the choreography which should have expressed Balanchine's modernity -- a flip of the wrist, an angular arm, a particular kind of hard energy -- seemed like horrible mistakes rather than intentional choices. The ballet's more ironic moments became melodramatic. Balanchine also has something to teach us about loneliness. His dancers do not research nature or battle with the elemental forces, but are often simply absorbed into the music and setting itself. It's something altogether different from the 19th-century bravado and confection that ruled the stage Saturday night.The program closes Wednesday.

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