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Flash Review, 7-5: Dance in Exile
"Remembering the Body" and Past Dances

By Tara Zahra
Copyright 2000 Tara Zahra

VIENNA -- When I am not writing dance reviews, I spend my time here sitting in the National Library reading tattered newspapers and magazines from the turn of the last century. I am a graduate student in Central European history. Usually I simply accept that this work will have little relevance or connection to the time I spend as a dance writer, but Saturday night at the Akademietheater was a rare and welcome exception. Tanz im Exil, the opening performance of Vienna's Tanzwochen 2000 Festival this summer, touched me as both a dance fan and a historian. The festival, with the theme "Remembering the Body," will bring 15 companies from around the world to Vienna, along with dancers, choreographers, and teachers for a series of classes and coaching workshops.

The first performance, true to the theme of remembrance, looked backwards to the early years of modern dance in Vienna. The program reconstructed seven works, most of which premiered in Vienna between 1924 and 1946. Choreographed by leftist artists and activists (including Jews, Communists, and homosexuals) who were faced with the rice of fascism, and who would soon become fascism's targets, these dances were explicitly political and unabashedly sincere. Given the recent rise of Jorg Haider's extreme right Freedom party here, such works also serve as a potent reminder of the need for explicitly political art in contemporary Austria.

My favorite pieces included the reconstruction of "Damon Maschine," choreographed by Gertrud Bodenweiser in 1924. The piece featured dancers clad in futuristic silver, automated human beings who seemed out to destroy each other in a Sci-Fi dance which expressed leftist intellectuals' fears of the developing mass society and culture. Bodenweiser's choreography (four of the seven works on the program were hers), along with that of Hanna Berger ("Capri: Mimose" and "Die Unbekannte aus der Seine") also served as a reminder of a modern dance technique created for a softer and less trained female body -- that "remembering the body" involves not simply remembering the steps, but remembering different kinds of physicality that are even harder to recapture. Both choreographers, seemingly influenced by the Back to Nature spirit that was all the rage in interwar Europe (among right wing nationalists and Liberals alike), endowed their female dancers with a flowing hair Earth Mother femininity that seemed like a prequel to the flower child of the 1960s.

These works were skillfully rendered by an assortment of dancers from leading companies in Vienna (including from the Volksoper) and abroad (members of the Silesian Dance Theater from Poland performed the final work), some of whom had only two weeks to learn the works. To a contemporary audience, accustomed to a consistent diet of irony and play in modern dance, some of these pieces may have seemed cliched or naive. But Saturday night provided an excellent opportunity to try and "remember" how radical and new these dances must have seemed to their interwar audiences, and how appropriate their sincerity turned out to be.

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