Morning Training at the Spanish Riding School, Vienna

Ballet of the Vienna Staatsoper & Volksoper
“Manon”; Staatsoper; April 24 & 26, 2007
“Anna Karenina”; Volksoper; May 6, 2007

Ballet of the Salzburg Landestheater
“Die Czardasfuerstin”; Landestheater; April 28, 2007
“Angels”; Rehearsal Stage in the Rainberg; April 29, 2007

Stravinsky Symposium, University of Salzburg; April 27, May 1, 2007

“in skin o”; dietheater, Kuenstlerhaus,Vienna; May 3, 2007

“Imbue“; Studio, Tanzquartier Vienna; May 5, 2005

“Prater Mitzi” with Hedy Pfundmayr; Film Archiv Austria, Vienna

by George Jackson
copyright © 2007 by George Jackson

To see the most elegant dancing in Austria, the prerequisite is patience. It takes time to for the Lipizzaner stallions to warm up and although this period may be considerable, it can be savored. There’s a style and pulse even to the ambulatory trot as the horses and their uniformed riders enter the Spanish Riding School’s baroque amphitheater. Crystal chandeliers are suspended from the ceiling, the walls of the hall are as white as the hair of the fully mature stallions (younger animals are darker shades) and turf the color of coffee with cream covers the arena floor. Four thin legs must sustain proportionally more weight than a human dancer’s pair, so doing something as bravura as courbettes or caprioles right away is unwise.

At these public rehearsals which take place almost daily (10 AM to noon) when the Lipizzaner are in town, the riders rein in their mounts at first focusing on the timing, continuity and direction of little steps, and leaving balancing and jumping until later — if at all. Of course there is more display at full performances, but even in these the dancing is presented in judicious increments. I can watch the horses being trained and the riders’ subtle partnering for hours. Interestingly, when the Lipizzaner are not in training and performing mode, their bearing is far from pulled up and they actually slouch.

“The Ballet” is how the recently joined dance ensembles of Vienna’s Staatsoper and Volksoper are now referred to. The Staatsoper is by far the handsomer house except for the current painting on the proscenium’s vast fire curtain (a new design is commissioned annually). The Volksoper, though, has a homey air. Orchestral music is of luxurious quality in both places, as are The Ballet’s printed programs (assembled with flair and scholarly care by ballet dramaturg and press officer Alfred Oberzaucher). Kenneth MacMillan’s “Manon” in the Viennese rendition looked like old fashioned, somewhat boring melodrama. Only the Des Grieux of Robert Tewsley infused real fire for a while into the April 26 performance, but as the ballet went on Tewsley seemed to tire. Vladimir Shishov, Des Grieux on April 24, wasn’t as much at home as Tewsley in male adagio of MacMillan’s British sort. Shishov’s fine long legs and Kirov articulation actually made his carry-through seem awkward in the weight shifts during long passages of balance. Nor is he enough of an actor for the role. As the Manon, Olga Esina (24th) showed a lovely bouree and Maria Yakovleva (26th) a fine pliancy of the torso. Neither, though, made the role live as I’d seen just once in a Natalia Makarova performance. Kirill Kourlaev’s Lescaut (24th) was more nuanced than Mihail Sosnnovschi’s thoroughly villainous one (26th). Elisabeth Golibina was Lescaut’s woman on both occasions. Of top interest on the 24th were two short, young dancers in minor parts: Daniil Simkin, a spitfire as the lead Beggar and Elena Tumanova, charming as the little courtesan dressed as boy gardener but on pointe.

All dancers mentioned so far are of short standing with the Staatsoper and/or Volksoper. It has been the policy of Gyula Harangozo II, ballet director for a couple of years now, to eliminate permanent principals and rely on guests. Most of Harangozo’s guests show “Soviet” training (Tewsley is an exception) as do the newly hired so-called regulars. Even such Americans as Shane A. Wuerthner and Ian Whalen Lindeman come from Soviet-style schooling (the Kirov Academy in DC). Turnover in The Ballet’s ranks is high – Tumanova, for one, after just a brief stay, will be going elsewhere next season. It also seems a Harangozo predilection to program conventional story ballets and avoid challenging fare.

A few of the familiar Vienna dancers were cast in mime roles for “Manon”: Thomas Mayerhofer as Monsieur, Wolfgang Grascher as Supervisor of the deported courtesans and Michela Centin as the Madame. Grascher and Centin evinced some flair but despite them, Tewsley, Kourlaev, Simkin, Tumanova and Vello Paehn’s conducting, “Manon” remained listless. Overall, “Anna Karenina” had more passion although Boris Eifman’s choreography is crudely crafted, especially the robotic passages for the ensemble. My cast had Esina, who acted more as Anna than she had as Manon, yet paced herself too mechanically in Eifman’s tricky lifts and slides. Shishov, more comfortable with Eifman than MacMillan, was the Wronski and Kourlaev the Karenin. David Levi conducted. I didn’t see the other cast with Irina Tsymbal, Sosnovschi and Gregor Hatala (one of the few former Vienna principals rehired as occasional guest).

It was more fun watching people dance in Salzburg than in Vienna! Peter Breuer and his company of 12 at the Landestheater know how to put on a smashing show. I saw the dancers first in Emmerich Kalman’s operetta “The Czardas Princess”, staged in a wonderfully old fashioned way and co-produced with Budapest’s Operetta & Musicals Theater. Peppery czardas and wafting waltzes were sprinkled over the proceedings; the choreography was by a Budapester.

The Salzburg Landestheater’s Ballet premiered “Angels” in a modern theater, the so-called Rehearsal Stage, carved (like the city’s famous and venerable Rock Riding School) into a mountainside. Arriving early, my party went to the refreshment bar and discovered a contemporary recreation of the Paris Opera’s Foyer de la Danse. While sipping and nibbling at one end of the large room, one could watch the dancers who occupied most of the space as they warmed up on the floor or at one of the portable barres or tried out step combinations. They also stripped down to change from practice duds to stage wear. The watching wasn’t just one way; company members looked to see which of them was being watched. This “foyer” practice, repeated during intermission, added immensely to the program’s entertainment value.

“Angels” is a series of 15 scenes about varied forms of the species - from the Bible’s Archangels through some suggested by Raphael’s and Arnold Boecklin’s paintings to Heinrich Mann’s Blue Angel. The non-angel characters include the Virgin Mary, Mohammed and figures from Bertolt Brecht’s writings. Music is drawn from all over geography and history — J.S. Bach to John Zorn, Kodo drumming to Metallica and name it. What one sees is a mélange of religiosity and eroticism that, I’m told, appeals to fashionable Salzburg. Visitors needn’t take the scenario by Michael Alexander Sauter seriously. By comparison, Leo Stein and Bela Jenbach’s libretto for “The Czardas Princess” has substance. One should sit back (or lean forward) and be amused by Breuer’s liberal display of anatomy. (A la Bejart, women’s bodies are less exposed than those of the males.) The dancers, mostly quite good looking, dealt efficiently with choreography* that was heavy on athletic adagio. Occasional bursts of bravura ballet steps led me to speculate that one of the men, Marian Meszaros, was a good classicist. Zoltan Sandor, older than his colleagues, acted with nuance and had shown true waltz style the night before in the operetta. The one thing really missing from “Angels” was a post-performance party in the foyer to which the audience was invited.

Salzburg had declared itself a city of dance the last week of April. With glorious weather - sunshine that warmed the city’s dramatic cliffs and stone edifices; starlight that brightened the brisk night air - dance could be seen on the streets and in studios thrown open to the public from early to late. I spent most of my time at the Stravinsky Symposium, held in the Rupertinum – a museum for modern art. There were three and a half days of talks by musicologists and dance scholars** plus exhibits***. The symposium had been organized by Gunhild Oberzaucher-Schueller for the University of Salzburg’s Derra de Moroda Dance Archives. Participants were lodged at the Priesterhaus, a lovely old cloister (with plumbing suitably modernized) that serves as a dormitory for Roman Catholic seminarians. There aren’t many of them these days, so there is plenty of extra space for guests. Nuns made our beds (but never on Sunday). When I confessed to having snuck off to see “Angels”, some of Salzburg’s permanent scholars proudly declared that they had yet to see a Peter Breuer production.

What about modern dance in Austria? Sorry, that’s a term not much used now. However, the country has plenty of what is called contemporary dance. For quite a lot of it, deploying the word “dance” constitutes false advertising. I caught two sessions in Vienna. Concept rather than choreography dominated, and neither piece really needed dancers. The notions toyed with could have been conveyed by non-dancers. In fact, not all of the performers had dance skills and those who did pretty much abstained from displaying them. The “in skin o” premiere at dietheater in the Artists House was next door to the Musikverein (Music Alliance), site of the internationally televised New Year’s Day Concerts. The evening of May 3, Haydn’s “Creation” oratorio was being given at the Musikverein, and the difference between the audience it drew and that entering the dietheater was dramatic. Haydn’s public included many different age groups and was more formally dressed, fancily really (except for the nuns) yet in a quiet, comfy Viennese way. The casually clad young people (99%) who went to experience “dance” could have been in any modern city.

Milli Bitterli and Robert Steijn made and performed the “skin” duo. They pretended to be primitive — coming together, making love and separating several times. Their material consisted largely of lunge motions and moans. Vampire traits and violence were mixed into the love making. The only refined thing to be seen was the dominant piece of décor, an elaborate chandelier made of skulls and bones. Still, Bitterli betrayed herself. No matter how crudely she tried to stagger to or away from Steijn, she moved with a singular drive. I’d really like to see her dance.

“Imbue” was intended to make the audience imagine. Paul Wenninger, its conceiver and one of three principal movers, assembled a series of actions with props about which he wanted each audience member to spin a plot. Not having read Wenninger’s program note, I wondered briefly whether a story was supposed to emerge and concluded no. The temptation to impose meaning on the action seemed a trap that would only distract from what was happening. What was happening? Three people, two men and a woman, walked in and out of the performing space, entering and departing on the audience’s right side. Each entrée was brief and seemed timed. Particularly one man’s walk (Wenninger wearing heavy shoes) had a metronome effect. The props carried in, set up and carried off again or not were varied or did not vary from scene to scene. It was the same for the way the performers were dressed. Some of the movement was stagy but none of it required dancers although the woman (Rotraud Kern) and Wenninger are listed as such in the program. The other man, Daniel Zimmermann, is described as a mixed-media artist. The performance rather resembled some of the Happenings concocted by painters and sculptors in New York during the 1960s. The one virtuoso effect in ”Imbue” was an arrangement of props that then collapsed like a row of upended dominos.

Dance in Austria has disparate outlets — old theaters, new theaters, middle aged ones, free-standing ones plus a few carved into mountainous rocks, studios, the streets and riding arenas. There’s also dance on screen. At the Film Archiv (located in a park, the Augarten), I was able to see a bit of dance history thanks to one of the curators, Herr Ballhausen. It was footage recently found in Paris from “Prater Mitzi”, an early 1920s silent film with a Freudian plot. Featured in it was dancing by Hedy Pfundmayr, a prominent principal at the Vienna Opera before World War 2 and also a choreographer and teacher. In this movie, Pfundmayr appears as a grotesque revue dancer who does high steps and backbends. The film’s Austrian director used her much like Hollywood later used her erstwhile colleague Tilly Losch. After the Pfundmayr screening it seemed right to stop in at another building in the Augarten, the famous porcelain manufactory that bears the park’s name. On display was a lovely statuette of still another dancer from the Vienna Opera era between the world wars — the late Rikki Raab, who just missed living in 3 centuries. Pfundmayr, Losch, Raab and also their quite classical colleagues Gusti Pichler and Adele Krauseneker as well as their frequent male foil Toni Birkmeyer danced on stages in Vienna and Salzburg still used today: some of the outlets for ballet were the same, but the aura differed.

*Choreography for 14 of the scenes in “Angels” was by Peter Breuer. One scene was set by Alexander Korobko, a member of the cast.
** Among the dance and music scholars speaking at the symposium were Roland John Wiley, Elizabeth Souritz, Tim Scholl, Gunhild Oberzaucher-Schueller, Richard Merz, Stephanie Jordan, Claudia Jeschke, George Dorris, Jack Anderson, Eleanora Louis, Ulrich Moss, Thomas Steiert, Stephen Walsh, Joerg Rothkamm, Juerg Stenzl, Markus Hinterhaeuser, Monika Woitas, Vladimir Zvara, Mathias Spohr, Svetlana Savenko, Valerie Dufour, Andreas Wehrmeyer, Stephane Roussel, Sylvia Waelli, Hanna Wasdorf, Wolfgang Dreier, Andreas Kremayr, George Jackson.
*** There were two exhibits: one on Stravinsky overall and one on Stravinsky/Balanchine ballets photographed by Costas.

Publicity photo for the Lipizzaner Stallions.
"Manon". Olga Esina (Manon), Vladimir Shishov (Des Grieux). Copyright: Das Ballett der Wiener Staatsoper und Volksoper/Axel Zeininger
Eifman's "Anna Karenina." Vladimir Shishov (Wronski), Olga Esina (Anna). Copyright: Das Ballett der Wiener Staatsoper und Volksoper/Dimo Dimov
“in skin o” premiere, courtesy dietheater in the Artists House

Volume 5, No. 19
May 7, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Tom Phillips

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