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Flash Review 1, 10-3: Ripples
Balanchine: Revivals and Responses

(Editor's Note: With this Flash Review, the Dance Insider continues its international centennial coverage of the global legacy of George Balanchine.)

By Tara Zahra
Copyright 2003 Tara Zahra

VIENNA -- In a season of noisy tributes to Balanchine, it is not surprising that the Vienna State Opera's celebration is quieter than most. But even without a press release to advertise the fact, the choreography of Renato Zanella, the Opera Ballet's current artistic director, is itself more often than not a Balanchine tribute. Zanella's best choreography worships clean lines and demands an understated technical virtuosity, while adding a layer of humanist emotional and psychological drama. In works like "Sensi" and "Konzertantes Duo," the choreography is the dancer's tool (and not vice-versa).

In contrast, Balanchine's own works, "Theme and Variations" and "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux," left the Opera dancers a little too vulnerable and alone with their (not always flawless) technique Tuesday night at the Vienna State Opera House, and with the choreography itself. And the final work of the evening, Zanella's "Sacre," departed the most from the Balanchine mode and was also the least successful, as the dancers were lost not in technique but in the anger of the mob, emotion without restraint, without careful development or pacing. The Opera's frequent Balanchine-Zanella evenings nonetheless offer audience members a welcome opportunity to see for themselves how much of Balanchine lingers on in contemporary choreography.

"Theme and Variations" featured first soloists Eva Petters and Gregor Hatala, two Viennese natives who were trained by the Opera Ballet School, in the lead roles. Petters is both petite and sensual, a quick jumper and exciting performer who meets Balanchine's most demanding technical challenges effortlessly. It was only the adagio sequences which at times disappointed, with extensions building to climaxes that never came. "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux" was performed by first solist Simona Noja and demi-soloist Tomislav Petranovic. The two have the potential to make a brilliant pair. They are both extraordinarily long-limbed, and have a shared talent for combining long, soft, luscious movement with breath-taking speed and an angular quality well suited to Balanchine. But their timing was off, and Noja sometimes seemed slightly dazed, as though she had accidentally ended up running on a fast treadmill. By the time the coda came around she was unable to keep her weight forward on her standing leg and gave up on her turns early.

Zanella's witty and elegant "Sensi" followed the intermission, as we shifted gears from Balanchine's more sugary neo-classical works to an edgy post-modern wit. With music by Gija Kantscheli, "Sensi" was a playful rip on Orientalism, and generously cited Martha Graham as well as Balanchine. Militaristically precise corps work, generously outstretched limbs and perfect lines were on ample display, thanks in part to a minimalist set and barely-there leopard print unitards, designed by the choreographer. Zanella, like Balanchine, also skillfully exploited the value of stillness as movement, with compelling series of poses and positions that begged to be photographed. If at first the work seemed to short, on further reflection this was only because it ended abruptly, a choice which was actually in harmony with its slightly flippant wit. "Sensi" ultimately also provided a telling contrast to the final and least successful offering of the evening, Zanella's "Sacre." Set to Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps," the dance was a 30-minute romp through a dark alley filled with angry teenagers in blue jeans. Zanella gave too much too fast: the stage exploded with dancers in full combat and in full emotional hysteria in the first few minutes. There was no place to go from there; violence quickly becomes boring, as does emotion without restraint. While "Sensi" left me wanting more, I was wondering when "Sacre" would end. Watching the outcasts, danced by Ilona Dierl and Jurgen Wagner, as they were subjected to a kind of hazing ritual and slowly shed their clothing did not provide much dramatic tension or new insight into the violence of the gang, and I had the feeling that I had seen it all before in "West Side Story."

Zanella's "Konzertantes Duo," performed by the recently promoted soloist Shoko Nakamura and demi-soloist Eno Peci, was the most obvious tribute to Balanchine. Music by Stravinsky ("Duo Concertant"), a nearly bare stage and scanty costumes accentuated the feeling of deja vu, but it was once again Balanchine with a post-modern twist. While "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux" seems to be set outside of any real place or time, the simple blue tunics and orange lighting Zanella chose for 'Duo,' alongside the classical pianist and violinist on the stage, evoked Gap pajamas and Ikea design, the apartment of upwardly mobile European twentysomethings. "Konzertantes Duo" is a complete and complex relationship tale, with a beginning, middle, and end. It unfortunately also confirms all our traditional gender stereotypes. First, they dance alone: sweeping, grounded arabesques and longing. Then they find each other, and life is good for a while. She dances alone, and he enjoys it, the voyeur. But then he starts to feel smothered. He needs space, she runs toward him for the lift and he casts her aside, dancing alone. He revels and turns (literally rolling his head) in selfish freedom while she glares on from the side, wounded. He is happy alone, but she isn't complete until he returns to her, and they travel hand in hand into the future.

The surprise hit of the night was Gregor Hatala's frisky solo performance of Ben van Cauvenaugh's character portrait "Les Bourgeois." The solo was clearly chosen for comic relief rather than any coherent relationship to the rest of the program. But Hatala provided comedy and more, bursting with personality and energy that I did not expect after his solid but unremarkable performance in "Theme and Variations." The solo could not have lasted more than five minutes, and yet you had the feeling that you knew his character intimately, had spoken to him in a bar or cafe at mid-century. The audience was treated to a wry observation of bourgeois masculinity, the kind of portrait that you usually expect only from a novel. Hatala's performance ultimately provided further proof that the Vienna Opera dancers do best with a chance to showcase their personalities, and are as easily lost in Balanchine's movement for its own sake as in the overplayed anger of the mob.

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