You are met at the door by a woman in a ballroom gown. A little bit tattered her gown, her makeup a little garish, but her gloves are long and her manner friendly.
Will you take me down to the ball she asks you, gesturing to a wide staircase through the spectators leading to an almost empty ballroom floor. Perhaps one other couple lingers there under rows of massive globular lights.
She takes your arm and as walk down the stairs you have entered the space of Warum tanzt ihr nicht. On the ballroom floor she tells you that at the back on the right there is a lounge which you absolutely must visit if you are to really understand the show.
The room is crowded. Chairs line all the dance floor and are filled with eager spectators. The stairway is lined with café tables, where groups can sit. There is little left of the traditional theatre which usually fills Hall G at Museumsquartier. Great use of the space.
I settle in at the bar beside the lounge where a pretty girl pours small drinks for a euro apiece. There are five or six of these young women in ballroom gowns – ruby, emerald, turquoise, gold – tattered peacocks still greeting the last of the incoming guests.
What kind of show is this, you wonder, sipping at your spritzer or beer? There’s no stage and scant sign of any dancers.
The room is a who’s who of modern dance in Vienna as the show tonight is to be followed by the Saisoneröffnungfest at Tanzquartier. Much animated discussion between spectators, many of whom know one another. Good thing, as the show is slow to start.
At last the turquoise adorned princess who greeted you comes to the podium and microphone that you notice now at the end of the room. She welcomes everyone to the dance hall, reminds everyone one more time about the lounge where you can hear the gossip. And she wants to open the ball with a dance.
And so they dance as three couples, a tall man in ballroom clothes and exaggerated makeup joining them, two men in t-shirts recruited from the spectators.
The woman in dress has no back to her dress. And no underwear on. Where is this going, what do these women in worn out prom dresses want?
Now a woman in a black tanktop and a woman in a white tanktop covered in tattoos head out on to the dance floor together. They groove as if they spend all their evenings dancing together and their nights together in bed. Is this part of the show or not? The costumes don’t match but who knows?
You ask the pretty barmaid if the tattoed couple is part of the show. She assures you no.
A few more speeches about loneliness and friends. Each speech is given by a different character, each character living his or her own emotional arch of the evening.
Between the speeches much hooting and running and dancing and recruiting of audience members to join the dance. The ballroom characters recruit both men and women to dance with them. Many of the spectators become somewhat shy, regretting their front row seats. Nothing to be done.
The invitations are insistent. More embarassing to refuse than simply accept and hope that it’s over soon.
Our lesbian couple is out dancing at every opportunity, adding to the general frenzy gradually building. The music oscillates wildly from latino to ballroom to pop.
In a lull, a quick visit to the nearby lounge. A dark room. An enormous screen. Twenty spectators sprawled out on cushions on the floor. On the screen an enormous close up of a fat girl in a tiera. She pours her heart out about her first dance and her first man and the events of the night. You listen to the improve for five minutes. After learning that she is from Stuttgart and how she feels about her cats, you feel you’ve heard her story and go for another drink and to rejoin the main action.
The dancers are distributing enormous dance cards now. Quality cards. Everyone must put the Quality Card on his or her back. There are pens and straps attached. On the card is a list of two opposing qualities.
Are you sovereign or weak? Are you discreet or garish? Dances well or poorly? Are you fragrant or do you stink? Are you rich or poor?
Everyone must dance with a partner and then fill in their partner’s sheet. With everyone else you go out on the dance floor.
The whole floor is crowded now with more than half the spectators on the dance floor. The song is rather long and very bouncy. The festive atmosphere is rising.
Your partner is very kind/diplomatic and gives you high marks across the board.
Flattery will get you everywhere. Now we must take off our dance cards and throw them on the floor and dance on them.
The ballroom clad girl in turquoise has now proposed the one-night-stand dance. Somebody you are allowed to dance with only once. For fun, a spectacular turn with one of the hot lesbians.
A song or two later you find yourself standing beside the ruby gowned blond. She has a jacket with her. You look at her surprised. Ich gehe zu hause, she says. I’m going home. Why, you ask her. I’m not having a good time she tells you. I came here to talk to somebody and couldn’t talk to him.
You shouldn’t go, you tell her. You feel that it’s the right thing to say. It would be sad if you left so soon.
Why dont we dance?, you ask her. She is happy at your invitation and you are happy to have made at least one woman happy this night. The ball may be fictitious, the characters invented, but the emotion is real enough.
The dance is a special one. One partner must be strong and one must be weak. And so she goes dead in your arms. She falls one way and then the next. You control her falls perfectly and she grows more precipitous in her drops.
Suddenly the music is twenties and you foxtrot around the room. Your ruby clad partner asks you to come with her and have champagne. She gives you a flute of champagne and asks you to stay there by the bar and wait for her.
She disappears into the crowd. A minute later the lights go down and a spotlight is on your ruby partner on the staircase. She has her jacket again but is taking it off. The microphone is in her hand.
I was thinking of leaving, she said, because I felt so alone and unhappy. But fortunately one person changed that for me tonight. He spoke with me and we danced together and I’ve fallen in love.
Oh no, you think.
There he is over at the bar, the tall one in the dark jacket. I am so happy now to be with you and want to sing a song about my love.
I’ve fallen in love,
you’re the one for me.
There is no other only you.
You are so beautiful and kind
and you’re the one that I love.
I only needed to see you once.
Well, that’s a bit sudden you think as she belts out the song.
At the end of her song, she comes to you and tells you that she wants to go somewhere where you can be alone and talk. Will you go with her?
You assent and she leads you to a dark corner behind some curtains. How experiential is this going to be? You see a single chair. There is a camera there. A-ha. This is how the lounge speeches work. They are in real time, not recorded performances. The emotional arc is continuous for the performers as for the spectators.
You sit together, Katarina is on your lap now. She tells you again that she has fallen in love with you.
This is crazy, you think. This woman can’t possibly be in love with you.
She’s just met you. And she tells you that she had been in love with somebody before but he had later ignored her. And that’s why she wanted to go home.
So you tell her that she can’t go on giving her heart away like this. She must get to know a person before deciding about her feelings. Appearance isn’t everything.
No, she insists, a woman knows from the first minute if this could be love.
Impossible, I disagree. Some of the most beloved women in my life, hated me at first glance. And after weeks or months of working together, changed their minds and we spent happy years together afterwards. A true story. Told with emotion.
Warm laughter from the lounge. We have touched one another and we have touched the spectators. This is no longer a show but a moment that Katarina and I are living together, talking in a dark corner about our secrets and our hearts.
Katarina wants to go and dance again. We leave together.
The golden clad girl with the bare backside is now giving a speech to a man who is supposed to be her father. And she dances with him in a spectacular parody of paternal relations.
And now there is a final dance in the dark. Beside you is one of the most beautiful and sinuous of the modern dancers in Vienna. You are given a lesson to remember about a woman with control of every muscle in her body, living a total harmony and sensuality of physical being. You know this feeling. You miss it.
But the ball is over now and so is this review. And we go back again to our lives, all of us touched and changed by this strange experiential dance hall.
If you get the chance to see this show and you are a German speaker, book at least two sets of tickets. One to watch and participate in the main show. The other to just watch the emotional soliloquies via videolink in the lounge.
Which to do first? Probably the lounge evening.
She She Pop is a Berlin and Hamburg based dance and theatre collective. Joahanna Freiburg, Fanni Halmburger, Lisa Lucasssen, Mieke Matzke, Katharina Oberlik, Ilia Papatheodorou, Berit Stumpf, Sebastian Bark. Lights/set design: Micha Lentner-Niyorugira, Oliver Petrowitsch. Sound: Lars-Egge Müggenburg. Publicity pictures (above): Florian Malzkorn.