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Flash Review 1, 4-1: Drifting
From Breuss/Suppan and Gehmacher, Art for Artists' Sake

By Tara Zahra
Copyright 2003 Tara Zahra

VIENNA -- The Tanzquartier Wien offered two premieres from emerging Austrian choreographers this past month, united in their commitment to naked ingredients: shapes, space, lines, body parts. Rose Breuss/Wolfgang Suppan and Philipp Gehmacher both invite you to step inside a process rather than watch a performance. They almost militantly insist that you pay attention to the their process, by stripping their work of traditional production accessories: content, narratives, costumes, harmonious accompaniment, sets. Take away the distractions, and the audience will honor movement for movement's sake, or so the theory goes. Yet the choreography presented this month walks a fine line between "art for arts' sake" and "art for artists' sake."

Reflection on process and theory is necessary in any field, and deserves support. The lines between process, production, and performance are also arbitrary. This is a valuable insight which Suppan, Bruess, and Gehmacher convey effectively in their work. Efforts to educate audiences about process are also welcome. Yet this staunch refusal of performance also represents a retreat into a closed conversation with other artists, a reluctance to engage with those who don't speak a highly technical language. It is perhaps not coincidental that this turn inward seems so noticeable here in Vienna: the cultural historian Carl Schorske famously argued that the great innovations of cultural modernism in fin-de-siecle Vienna were produced through precisely such a turn inward, as Viennese liberals disillusioned with politics "retreated" into the cultural realm and the psyche. A century later, artists like Gehmacher and Breuss seem to be burrowing even deeper -- more than retreating into art, they have retreated into conversations about art.

Breuss/Suppan's "Drift" was inspired by the intention to bring musicians and dancers together to create and think "simultaneously but independently from one another." Thus twelve musicians and twelve dancers, clad in black, shared the stage. The dancers did indeed "drift" in and out of geometric patterns, very, very, independently of a 5-part experimental electric and orchestral composition by Wolfgang Suppan. The musical composition, with its lack of harmonies, seemed far more radical than the choreography by Rose Breuss, which was built around a fairly traditional movement vocabulary. Yet there were some successful moments: Breuss made full use of her space, calling the audience's attention to many different levels and dimensions of what the Germans call "Raum." The effect was that of a geometric painting, in which splashes of color slowly moved from one place to another. The dancers often appeared to be working completely independently of one another, such that the moments of synchronization were pleasant surprises, reminders of a higher order. In an interesting partnering sequence, one couple performed in a lit box behind the musicians, as if in a third dimension, while another couple downstage mirrored them and then slowly "drifted" into independent choreography. The musicians also ultimately "drifted" into the dance and then out again, in a sequence of well rehearsed walking and crouching. I was disappointed that we didn't have the same chance to see dancers "drift" into music-making.

Philip Gehmacher's "Mountains are Mountains" stripped dance even further to its barest elements: no costumes, no set, very little music. The choreography was a form of "charades" without answers, signs without meaning -- tiny movements, one body part at a time, one body part leading the next. "Music" and dance indeed worked in harmony in this piece, but the music was mostly sounds and text. Through the juxtaposition of isolated, minute movements, everyday speech and noises took on the cadence and rhythm of a song, each syllable a note. The dancers seemed free to retreat into their own psyche, united only by a consistent style -- five people trapped in a world in which body parts move in isolation. At times the accompaniment sounded vaguely like a broken radio, and the dancers too gave the impression of broken machines, up to the last moment: a mechanical, dispassionate, wind-up kiss between two of the dancers -- repeated three times.

"Drift" and "Mountains" were both clearly works of structured improvisation. Yet there seemed to be very little play in the process on display. Both were conversations between artists, and among artists-- and very serious conversations at that. It is admirable of the Tanzquartier to support such dialogues. But perhaps, like a child at a grownups' dinner party, I am impatient -- I want to know where the conversation is going, and when I can invite my friends. I am not sure I want to watch it simply drift (and ramble) on into the night.

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