Vienna’s New Nutcracker

A new production of Rudolf Nureyev’s staging of Tchaikovsky’s classic at the Staatsoper with a fin-de-siècle set, a child army, and fake moustaches; plus: a guide to opera etiquette for kids.

The Nutcracker. Author: Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Staatsoper

Nussknacker Konovalova
At the Vienna State Opera, Liudmila Konavlova as Clara holds the
nutcracker, surrounded by the giant heads of the grown-ups

Photo: Wiener Staatsoper

Every child should see The Nutcracker at least once. But if you want her to remember and him to treasure the occasion, best to be very careful which Nutcracker you choose.

Thus the new Nutcracker at Vienna State Opera is not a bad choice. It’s a Russian version, from Rudolf Nureyev, one of his first grand evening ballets in the West. The costumes are very traditional and very Russian: fancy officers’ uniforms, the grand gowns of the 19th century. The soldiers are Napoleonic and numerous, there are Hussars on horses (well, convincing enough). The decorations are as rich as the costumes, with photorealistic drawing rooms and massive grandfather clocks.

Vienna’s New Nutcracker Continues »

Impulstanz 2012: Franz West Tribute

Franz West died July 25. West was a conceptual artist who collaborated often with the dance creators at ImPulsTanz. Karl Regensburger moved quickly to put together a tribute by many of the dance makers who had worked with West or were influenced by his work last night.

Franz West by Ludwig Koeln
Franz West by Ludwig Koeln

Moderator and hands on organiser Jennifer Lacey did her best to keep the program on track but at two hours without a formal break and some real trouble moving the performers on and off, momentum was uneven. Had Lacey known how many pauses there would be, she could have passed on the introduction and done that in forced breaks. She told one joke which made me laugh while waiting what seemed like half an hour for Philip Gehmacher to get out of the back and onto the stage. Gehmacher’s equipment in the end was moved out onto the stage by force by Intendant Regensburger himself.

“As dancers we learn young to come on time or ahead of time and to be ready. Visual artists don’t ever seem to get this message – they are almost always late and badly organised – so collaborating with them is always an adventure for us.”

To open there was a beat poetry reading in the upper foyer of Kasino. Then the doors opened and a blonde transvestite in the most amazing electric blue platform heels pranced out.

Impulstanz 2012: Franz West Tribute Continues »

ImPulsTanz 2012: Ivo Dimchev, The P Project

The word on the street is that this Ivo Dimchev guy is unpredictable, even dangerous. You just don’t know what will happen when you enter the auditiorium. Mystery and danger, powerful human aphrodisiacs. It starts calmly enough.

Ivo Dimchev The P Project
Ivo Dimchev The P Project:
Projection of the cancelled verbal game
Readable 3456 pixel version

A guy walks onto the stage half naked shaved head and gold chains. Sits down at an electric piano. Holds his hands solemnly in prayer. Looks good and safe so far. First sign of trouble: Dimchev pulls out a little vertical jar, holds up to his nose and takes a couple of big snorts. Poppers he says.

He plays the piano rather well and then starts pounding on the keys so hard and so randomly you wonder if he knows how to play the piano at all. But then his fingers find the keys again. Dimchev stops occasionally to laugh maniacally, shaven head and UR-slavic features like some James Bond villain prototype.

Time to talk. Inspiration for the show: playing games with the word “pussy”. Word game works like this: adjective (fervent, macrobiotic, powerful, interrupted) plus “pussy” plus preposition (in, to, of, from, without) plus noun (airport, future, foundation, university). For some reason this word game doesn’t satisfy Dimchev’s requirements for interaction with audience. Too abstract.

ImPulsTanz 2012: Ivo Dimchev, The P Project Continues »

Impulstanz 2012: CIE. I.D.A./Mark Tompkins – “Opening Night – A Vaudeville”

Sometimes one is just blown away by a theatre piece. This happened to me last night with CIE I.D.A. and Mark Tompkins last night. Their piece has a rather silly title “Opening Night – A Vaudeville”. Theortically it’s billed as light entertainment and performance art, two of my least favorite genres. Normally performance art is under rehearsed claptrap by imperfect and sloppy technicians of modest charisma who are convinced the world rotates around their navels.

In other words performance art is an unadulterated fiasco which has poisoned the dance world and taken it over, as the less capable outnumber and outvote the properly trained as conteporary dance slips down a long greasy rail into ramp amateurism.

At least that’s what I thought until I saw Tompkins and his French partner Mathieu Grenier perform last night.

Mathieu Grenier Mark Tompkins as mother in Opening Night
Mathieu Grenier Mark Tompkins as mother in Opening Night

Both gentleman are gifted singers and very capable actors. For much of “Opening Night” they sing a cappella together. In the Broadway or musical genre which provided the basic for their performance piece, both would likely be able to find and hold serious roles. These men take their craft seriously. Both are very funny but they do not camp it up with sniggers to the audience as so many of our new “funny” performers do. No Tompkins and Grenier pack their material thick with meaning and absurdity and power through it relentlessy, leaving audiences a bridge deck of questions to solve.

One of their songs includes throwaway lines which are not so throw away – “how life ebbs and flows”. A Vaudeville turned out to be a matter of life and death, the fragility of life.

Impulstanz 2012: CIE. I.D.A./Mark Tompkins – “Opening Night – A Vaudeville” Continues »

Legris’ Masterworks of the 20th Century at Vienna Staatsoper: Serge Lifar, Nils Christie, Roland Petit

Rarely has the stage of the Staatsoper appeared so impressive. The curtain opens to reveal on three levels, a full complement of dozens of dancers, the women in gleaming white tutus, the men in black leggings and handsome white shirts. First impressions are often misleading. So it is with Serge Lifar’s Suite en Blanc.

The audience collectively takes a breath, expecting the full stage to explode in dance. No dice. All but two dancers slowly slink off to the wings. Over the course of the next half hour deserted stage is gradually built back up to full, but never does Suite en Blanc manage to equal the thunder of its opening salvo.

Quickly Suite en Blanc turns into a battle of the ballerinas, the ballerinas parade out one by one to show their dressage qualities.

Highly rated Ludmila Konovalova has finally found some costume designers who understand her figure and for once her kit doesn’t make her powerful body look like a female hockey player. She acquits herself well with Alexis Forabosco and Shane A. Wuerthner providing steady support.

Legris' Masterworks of the 20th Century at Vienna Staatsoper: Serge Lifar, Nils Christie, Roland Petit Continues »

Vienna Staatsoper’s Homage to Jerome Robbins: Broadway meets High Art

In his latest dance confection for Vienna, Staatsoper ballet director has brought us three hiterto never danced in Vienna pieces from master showman Jerome Robbins (née Rabinowitz). Robbins has the most eclectic collection of awards of any of the great choreographers, from an Oscar for film direction (West Side Story) to Tonys for Broadway musicals (Fancy Free, The King & I, West Side Story, The Pajame Game) through a French Legion of Honour.

Robbins likely does not deserve the last one, as the most active namer of names in his testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1953, leading to the blacklisting of dozens of colleagues and acquaintances (effective professional death).

Fundamentally a showman, first as a performer and then as a creator, Robbins felt that there should not be a divide between commercial artists and high art, i.e. a successful Broadway choreographer should be allowed to set ballet. The three works chosen by Legris showcase Robbins' work as an avant-garde choreographer, a Romantic ballet master and a Broadway showman in turn.

Glass Pieces

Who has one time heard the trombone of Glass Pieces from Philip Glass will never hear the trombone the same again. Each puff resonates through twenty beautiful figures moving at speed, changing the world with a precise gesture.

Homage to Jerome Robbins Vienna Staatsoper Glass Pieces 2
Homage to Jerome Robbins at Vienna Staatsoper. Glass Pieces.

Glass Pieces drives the viewer into a profoundly meditative state. Colours, some light, sound, we are children again staring into a xylescope.

The piece opens casually enough with an army of colourfully dressed pedestrians crossing back and forth across the stage. Periodicaly the crowd are interrupted by pairs, pink, emerald, blue. Each pair tunes its affection in a different way.

Natalie Kush and Shane A. Wuerthner were particularly touching in pink. She so small and fragile and optimistic, Wuerthner taller and cool. The last times I've seen him dance he's been paired with dancers like Olga Esina who overwhelm him. His own talents shine brighter with a more petite dancer.

Kiyoka Hashimoto and Masayu Kimoto dance well together, in what has been a season of revelation for Kimoto.

Olga Esina makes her own appearance late in the lead role opposite Roman Lazik. Glass Pieces is written just for her kind of awesome ballerina. Esina's endless limbs, noble carriage and schooled movements bring grace to the piece and she glildes across its surface as if on wings. Glass Pieces demands of a dancer to be one with the music and this Esina masters. She is the perfect muse, here no emotional demands to distract her from herself.

In darkest shiniest bordeaux Roman Lazik partners Olga Esina. Once again, Lazik shows himself a perfect partner attentive to her every step but one wishes that one day he himself would dance his own steps for himself.

Homage to Jerome Robbins Vienna Staatsoper Glass Pieces 1
Glass Pieces: Olga Esina and Roman Lazik

In the corps-de-ballet, Andrey Teterin is easily the most impressive of the men when in the middle or the back of the pack. He is let down only by his uncertainty when front and center, a strange lingering stage inhibition. If he ever overcomes it, Teterin will be a force with which to reckoned, with his strong lines and forceful jump.

In The Night

In the Night is guided by a piano solo, a rather limpid Chopin Nocturne. This is art of the simpering kind. Across a starlit stage, Robbins reveals three couples, in purple, in brown and in pink. Each dances a tender pas, with the occasional ethereal lift. The piece never really took off, as none of the pairs grabbed any hearts.

Andrej Teterin returns to adequately partner Natalie Kush who is radiant at her second leading role of the evening. Teterin is again let down by the uncertainty of his steps at the most important moments.

Olga Esina and Roman Lazik take the stage second. Again, Lazik is attentive. Again he fails to participate in the piece himself, a cipher for his ballerina. Esina struggled with the trite emotions, ending up as in the first piece, like glass. The long flowing gown from In The Night hides her natural attributes and Esina is a dancer like another.

The final couple Irina Tsymbal and Vladimir Shishov match one another perfectly, Tsymbal's gentle curves fold into Shisov's powerful arms. Shishov lifts Tsymbal like a feather. Always a passionate performer, Tsymbal shines with a strong emotion to communicate.

It appears Vienna Staastoper still does not have the right partner for Esina, one who would push her to the next level. The closest physical match would appear to be ex-husband Shishov but both are dancing better since separated. Perhaps Eno Peci could do Esina justice.

The Concert, or the Perils of Everybody

In the final piece, The Concert or the Perils of Everybody we see a lot of Peci.

He delights the audience as the murderous and adulterous husband. Behind a false nose, Peci is unrecognisable. He wears the role of an unhappy husband like his own dressing gown.

Homage to Jerome Robbins Vienna Staatsoper The Concert 2
The Concert: Franziska Wallner-Hollinek and Eno Peci

He is well-paired with Irina Tsymbal as the ballerina, object of love. Franziska Wallner-Hollinek incarnates his grande dame wife perfectly, her native Vienna upbringing and aristocratic profile serving her well.

Denys Cherevychko plays against character for once as the shy young man. Ludmila Trayan inspires no end of laughter as the energetic young woman, whether sitting next to the pianist or pushing people off their chairs

Igor Milos, Gabor Oberegger, the lovely Maria Alati and Marta Drastiková round off an excellent comic ensemble performance.

Homage to Jerome Robbins Vienna Staatsoper The Concert 3
The Concert: Marta Drastiková, Dumitru Taran, Irina Tsymbal, Gabor Oberegger

The Concert is a very strange piece oscillating from straight parody to Prufrock-like dark reflections on existence. The funny moments seem rather silly at first until the unhappy husband kicks his would-be lover the ballerina, shortly after pantomiming the murder of his wife. The women are moved around like inanimate furniture.

There seems to be some curious underlying mysogeny in the piece bubbling just under the surface. Women are beautiful but annoying. Probably true. But then men are annoying too and don't even have beauty to redeem them.

Parody of dance fills The Concert: whether in the Hungarian dance of the men or the extended ballet episode where the energetic girl can't hold her place in the corps-de-ballet.

Dancers get so tired of Swan Lake, Giselle and Sylphides that there is nothing they love more than a good bout of dance parody, whether in Don Quixote or Robbins's The Concert. They were all delighted to perform here and in the end, Robbins does have a point.

It's damn hard to live and wherever you look, whether at a concert or a ballet or even in your own home, everything and everybody is annoying. Even your own mistress.

Hopefully we can see another side of life but in this dance version of the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock there is much to enjoy. Tart like the fizz on champagne but like champagne best consumed in moderation.


All Photos Copyright: Wiener Staatsballett/Dimo Dimov

Staatsoper will be performing Jerome Robbins's work throughout September 2011 and March 2012. For specific performances, see The Staastoper website

Bürgtheater – Trilogie des Wiedersehens: Slow and dated

This past Sunday was my first trip to Bürgtheater as a full-fledged German speaker. Dear Astrid had lured me there in a previous life as a non-German speaker. She was adamant that I must see their astonishing work.

Somehow with Astrid we ended up somewhere in the galleries. It was more a feeling of alienation and awe. Something Shakespearian with much murder. Theatre in a language one doesn't speak is rarely a winning hand so I was loathe to make any judgement. We also attended a number of charming small pieces in the Casino at Schwarzenbergplatz, far more successful.

But this time for Trilogie des Wiedersehens Radoslava and I were in the second row of the main stage.

Comfortable and close enough to make a clear judgement.

Trilogie des Wiedersehens is set in real time at an art exhibit organized by Moritz. It seems that the whole town is there, from the doctor, to the printer, to the local writer. All the woman are there too in minidresses and pantsuits.

Trilogie des Wiedersehens 2
Trilogie des Wiedersehens, 2009

The whole town is there.
Photo by Reinhard Werner, Burgtheater.

Wonderfully enough there is a cast of sixteen in the Trilogie des Wiedersehens. Almost invariably, a play with a large cast will win my heart or at least my respect. A large cast gives the director so much richer a canvas to work with.

The setting is the 1970's so many of the actors are wearing outrageous wigs, which sadly look like wigs. I don't remember seeing my parents or their friends parading around in wigs in the 70's so we are already started on a bad hair day.

I also don't remember people screaming all the time in the 70's or necessarily understand why they would be having sex in washrooms with people they don't like. The second part is more credible.

The whole piece is made up of little conversational vignettes. The stage turns back and forth between the main exhibition hall with the food and drink and a little frequented back corridor nominally watched by a guard.

In each little vignette, more information comes to the surface about the past relationships and internal angst of each character. At first we devoured these cryptic exchanges seeking to make sense of the whole. As the characters screamed more and more we lost interest.

Trilogie des Wiedersehens 4
Trilogie des Wiedersehens, 2009

The whole piece is made up of little conversational vignettes.
Photo by Reinhard Werner, Burgtheater.

The mortally slow pace between vignettes didn't help. I don't know if the director was trying to show us that the seventies were indeed a slower time, but certainly to the people living in the seventies they didn't perceive time as slow but it certainly appeared that way to us with twenty to thirty seconds between one vignette ending and another one starting.

Now both of us are busy people active in the economic sphere of life. Perhaps certain Austrians, students or bureaucrats would find the pace relaxingly realistic. But the slow pace distracted both of us from being able to enter into the piece.

It didn't help that the characters were all dull and rather pathetic. None of them could be described as aspirational. And it seemed each actor was hellbent on mocking his or her own subject. A single exception: Juergen Maurer as the doctor was serious and persuasive. His role was near inconsequential but you felt that if Maurer had more to say, the play might actually go somewhere.

Portently he tells his shrill wife "Your low self esteem doesn't allow anyone to say anything kind to you."

Instead we listened mainly to the incessant rants and shrieking of Susanne (Regina Fritsch) and Elfriede (Sabine Haupt). In the end, the characters were dull and hysterical, invoking little sympathy, whether via screaming or drunkeness or their inability to eat a sandwich without spilling cream all over themselves.

Trilogie des Wiedersehens 3
Trilogie des Wiedersehens, 2009

Instead we listened mainly to the incessant rants and shrieking.
Photo by Reinhard Werner, Burgtheater.

In short drunken idiots leading hideous lives.

The first act ends with all of the actors naked on stage standing in a posed group (carefully arranged to reduce pruriency to a minimum). The stage rotatates out again bringing them all to center and the lights drop.

The significance? That we are metaphorically naked before our friends and family. I don't think I've seen anything at Bürgtheater which didn't include nudity on stage. I love nudity on stage - it's a great way to force a reaction. But here, nothing.

Strangely, the Austrian reviews of Trilogie des Wiedersehens are quite good. Perhaps we missed the humour. But having spent over one and a half hours with the crowd on stage, neither Radoslava nor I had any wish to spend any more time with them.

We left at the half, relieved to be spared more of the shrieking and base accusations.

In terms of the stagecraft, the set and the lighting were of a high level. The costumes were acceptable but kitschy and exaggerated, a grotesque. The acting was the same.

The one particularly clever piece of stagecraft is during the scenes in the main exhibition hall with the full cast present, the director contrives to have all of the conversational groups nod at one another as if the other were speaking. The actors each took a particular tick (a nod or a roll of the eyes) to the limit. Very droll and reminded me exactly of the sometimes surreal effect of being at a party: everyone feigning to listen to everyone else.

The Viennese worship their Bürgtheater (the second or third best stage in the German speaking lands according to the Viennese). Based on what we saw Sunday, they are nowhere near the Royal Shakespeare Company. Frankly I'd expect more engagement and conviction from a RADA graduation class. In grotesque, the top Moscow theatres would leave these lost souls wandering in limbo. They outplayed most of what you'd see in Toronto, which would be similarly emotionally vacant but even less persuasive.

This is not my last trip to Bürgtheater this year. I'll give them another couple of chances to change my mind but Trilogie des Wiedersehens was not a good start. Surprising as with a huge ensemble cast and complicated relationships, it caters exactly to my taste.


Performance seen 15 September 2009.

Photos from Bürgtheater official publicity photos.