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Flash Review Journal, 1-28: Vienna Dances
Colas Falls But Opera, Tanzquartier Rise

By Tara Zahra
Copyright 2003 Tara Zahra

VIENNA -- This has long been a town where, even if I knew what to say about the dance, the audiences left me bewildered. I suspected I'd landed in a strange universe which operated according to the principles of conservative welfare economics. People like dance a lot in Vienna, they support it loudly and generously, and yet this affinity did not seem to actually produce innovative programming or memorable performances. Appearances of local companies at the annual summer dance festival had the feel of children's recitals, with friends and family pushing curtain calls dangerously close to the 30-minute mark. The State Opera Ballet performances, in contrast, benefited from the opposite problem. The opulent Opera House is inevitably packed with tourists passing through Vienna, lured by the worldwide reputation of the Opera itself to pay immense prices for their tickets. The performances had the feel of an extravagant wedding for a couple already on the rocks.

All that is starting to change, if slowly. It was still very much in evidence at a Nureyev Gala on January 16. The program was three-and-a-half hours long with two half-hour intermissions, played to a packed house, and consisted mostly of the most cliched variations -- the "Nutcracker" and Black Swan pas de deux, for example. A variation from "Cinderella," meant to be a funny character interlude (and the audience laughed) drew on historical anti-semitic tropes that may not be recognizable to the general public (a tailor with a giant nose and eyeglasses strapped on, rubbing his greedy belly), but I thought that the Opera direction (in Vienna especially) should know better. At the very least the variation should be performed in its context rather than as an excerpt. Meanwhile, the gap between the technical abilities of the male and female dancers was so noticeable as to be distracting.

"La Fille Mal Gardee," seen here last Tuesday, was a far quieter production, one whose themes can test the patience of modern audiences, but it did far more justice to the talents and professionalism of the Opera dancers. Frederick Ashton's choreography mesmerizingly juxtaposes soft curves of the arms and legs (he uses the attitude position quite a lot) with sharp geometric patterns, angles, and sometimes stunning speed. In a ballet which does not offer many opportunities for women's solos, the corps de ballet shined.

The ballet is in many ways a study of peasant entertainment. It offers us a highly romanticized and idealized vision of peasant life, of course, but the choreography and dancers offer a challenge: can we, an audience accustomed to modern entertainments, be entertained by peasant games? The sheer range of variations on this theme in the ballet is stunning. Within the framework of a simple and trite plot, dances are made out of an astounding number of prop: butter churns, spinning wheels, bales of hay, scythes, sticks, chairs, ribbons, and of course, the stunning Maypole dance. The necessity of finding entertainment in the endless rhythm of everyday work on a farm is the real theme of the ballet, and it was beautifully conveyed by the opera corps (including the four dancers who portrayed very believable chickens).

Margaret Illman was a formidable Lise, far more than a girlish flirt or hopeless romantic. Above all her light but powerful jump conveyed the strength of a girl with the will and spirit to make her own choices. Illman, and the entire company, also proved themselves to be extraordinary professionals when Juergen Wagner, playing her secret love, got injured on stage three-quarters of the way through the first act. The moment of the injury itself was barely noticeable. Wagner finished his variation and limped off the stage so quickly that it wasn't obvious he was seriously hurt. Five minutes later the performance was interrupted and a 20 minute pause announced. The ballet resumed with Tomislav Petranovic in the role of Colas. Petranovic, Illman, and the rest of the company finished the ballet with such flawless energy, that it was easy for the audience to forget what surely must have been an upsetting event for the dancers on stage. This time the company deserved a very long curtain call.

Vienna is still not quite a dance town, but it is getting there. Liz King's full length "Je Veux Je Veux," premiered at the Volkstheater January 18, demonstrated the technical and theatrical talents of local modern dancers. The Tanzquartier's commitment to experimental programming, affordable tickets, and professional development is steadily building new and younger audiences. The Opera Ballet has shown that it can live up to its glorious home. It is no longer necessary to wait for the summer dance festival, with its influx of foreign companies, to see good dance in Vienna. The enthusiasm of Viennese audiences may finally be demystified, and justly rewarded.

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