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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
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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