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