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Flash Review, 6-22: An Ark for the People
Weiss's Menagerie Makes Kids Want to Dance

By Tara Zahra
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

VIENNA -- "Volksoper" translates literally into "people's opera," and it was a good deal of fun to discover Tuesday night at the Volksoper Wien that the Viennese Volksoper is supporting dance for the people as well. "Sintflut," which premiered Friday here, was an evening-length modern dance production based on the story of Noah's Ark. The piece has the potential to reach out to even the most resistant audience, and to make children beg for dance lessons. Of course, I have been told that in Europe "outreach" is not a part of the vocabulary for dance companies, for whom an audience is a given. But Vienna is a city known for its music and not its dance, so it was a pleasure to see a new work from a Viennese choreographer which brought in a respectable crowd on a Tuesday night. (The practice of selling tickets at half price to students, military, and the unemployed an hour before curtain time must help.)

Overall, the production and Verna Weiss's choreography were most successful in the lighter, cartoonish moments. "Sintflut" opens in a bright, minimalist field of primary colors, like a page from a pre-school book of fables. A hoard of dancers in Puritan white and large farmers' hats evoke Amish purity, but you know there is big trouble brewing as they scrub their hands and the floor in unison. Throughout, simple production values were the rule. Costumes by Weiss and Tanja Hoge and scenery by Paul Lerchbaumer were effective and surprisingly inventive, especially when it came to creating a menagerie, but also minimalist throughout. They allowed a relatively small group of 15 dancers to appear and reappear as different animals and characters without an intermission or lengthy pauses. And having just seen a few blockbuster fairy tale ballets in New York and Boston, it was actually refreshing to see a production that was a crowd pleaser without competing with "Cats" to be the most lavish production ever staged.

The flood scene was a little less effective, as were most of the darker moments in the production. Weiss's relatively understated choreography somehow didn't mesh with the melodramatic effect of the huge cloud descending on the stage, the voice of God lashing out, and the cacophonous musical accompaniment. I should say up front that the music by American Uri Caine and Italians Claudia Bombardella and Luca Di Vola was, however, outstanding throughout. In particular, the jazz compositions by Caine (performed by musicians on stage), could have made for a terrific evening in and of themselves. But here the elements didn't seem to be working together. This scene seemed even more out place given that Weiss once again returned to a circus-like atmosphere to depict the building of the ark. There was no panic surrounding the impending end of the Universe. Rather, the builders danced like characters in a screwball comedy, or clowns piling out of a car.

Far and away the best part of the night was the dancing animals. Each species which appeared on stage was a new and exciting surprise for the audience. Although I couldn't identify all of the animals, the hippos, elephants, giraffes, flamingos, beavers (I think), lions, monkeys, and moose were brilliantly costumed and superbly danced. A fighting moose sequence drew the biggest laughs from the audience, but I was a fan of the flamingos in pink tutus, and elephants with arms for trunks and Dumbo ears. Both the scene depicting the selection of the animals and the ensuing madness aboard the ship were imaginatively choreographed and expertly danced.

Unfortunately, I can't say who danced what, because the program only listed the 15 dancers as a group, not recognizing any particular company member for their role. In general, Weiss choreographs for groups, and there were not many opportunities for particular dancers to shine, artistically or technically. The 1.5 hour production could also have benefited from an intermission -- the 85 degree heat and unairconditioned theater were a little too much for some members of the audience, who were forced to take their own intermission in the middle of the production.

Editor's Note

Tara Zahra is The Dance Insider's managing editor and chief correspondent.

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