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Sleeping with the Enemy: Dr. Nicole Haitzinger

This fall I inscribed myself for the Tanzquartier Wien’s Augen für Tanz program.

There were two historical lectures, a theoretical section, a dance workshop and today began the journey into the true heart of darkness – two seminars on dance analysis.

I was able to arrive early and meet the previously unknown to me Dr. Nicole Haitzinger before the seminar. Upstairs on one of the enormous red couches of the TQW videothéque, Dr. Haitzinger was sorting through her notes a final time. Beside her one of the enormous TQW televisions rested on blue screen, while a half dozen video cassettes were scattered across the coffee table in front of her.

Judging by the amount of support materials on hand, we were preparing for a full day of discussion. Somehow these dance lecturers seem to think an hour and a half is a lot longer period of time than it really is.

An hour and a half is just enough time to develop and expand a single thought.

Dr. Haitzinger is a young woman of about thirty, with long dark hair. Her face is round with enormous dark eyes and a full and very red mouth. When not speaking she looks like a sad little girl, full of bewonderment. On this day, her slender legs were clad in black knee boots and she wore a long knit dress of beige and grey tones with a dipping neckline.

I had seen Dr. Haitzinger many times before in private life but hadn’t the slightest idea who she was. I was always thought she was one of the dancers in one of the TQW regular companies but I often wondered how I’d never managed to catch her on stage. It turns out that she is a sometime curator at TQW and one of the leaders of a new dance theory program at the University in Salzburg.

So with such a beguiling guide to dance analysis why do I say “heart of darkness”?

The program that Dr. Haitzinger curated at TQW was one of the those which took us far away from movement and into Vienna conceptualism.

For me Vienna conceptualism is the end of dance. Movement is made secondary to the idea. Indeed, for the most part movement is considered to distract from the idea. Normally in Vienna conceptualism one uses a minimum of props or staging. We face a black room and dancers dressed as casually as if they wandered in from the Vienna U-bahn.

The leading institutional proponent of this experimental theatre movement masquerading as dance is the Tanzquartier Wien, who have been programming more and more works of this kind, most notably those of Philipp Gehmacher but also including the old bird.

To get a quick idea of the theatric nihilism these folks are working towards, here is Dr. Haitzinger’s collaborator Claudia Jeschke’s laudatory evaluation of Jerome Bel’s work (from the homework).

He searches for the smallest possible significant in the complex semiotic filed of performance, as he cannot show what he would like to show: ‘nothing’.

As far as I’m concerned, if Bel or Gehmacher don’t want to show us anything, they’d do well to stay out of the theatre and don’t waste my time or that of the other audience members. ‘Nothing’ is available at home every day at the hour which suits us and at no cost.

I like to think of myself as somebody with an open mind. I try to see everything and appreciate everything for what it is. What better way to try to come to terms with Vienna conceptualism than by participating in seminars from one of its leading proponents…

The seminar itself was less tightly organised than the quantity of support materials would suggest. We saw excerpts from Merce Cunningham and Sasha Waltz.

The Sasha Wilde excerpt was everything that one might expect. Dancers standing around delivering text rather than moving. The Merce Cunningam piece Rain Forest was far more interesting, a combination of Warhol’s helium balloons and very tightly danced modern choreography.

For Dr. Haitzinger, Sasha Wilde’s piece was more interesting. It represents a development of Pina Bausch’s tanztheatre but without narrative or structured emotional arc. It is in Dr. Haitzinger’s words, “a pure collage” of different motifs. An evening length piece without narrative or emotional structure in my view would be better called a mess than a collage.

But Dr. Haitzinger’s approach to dance is very different than my own.

According to her, dance analysis rests on three supports. But before even beginning there is an overriding precept: to not respond to the work at an emotional or aesthetic level. One must only try to analyse it. A piece is as interesting as what it offers analysis.

The three parts of dance analysis:

  1. Movement analysis. What kind of movement. Choreographic strategies, body concept.
  2. Staging. Concept and dramatic strategies.
  3. Material. Did the you see this on stage? Did you read about it and see photos? Did you see it on video? Did you see a proper film of the production? Who wrote the texts you read about the piece?

The three reference points above sound quite useful as a critical checklist and I may start to use them more consciously in my own critical work. But by excluding aesthetic and emotional response from the process one cannot accomplish anything as a dance critic, apart from mislead people. Often the best ideas offer the worst pieces. Dance is about execution and movement, not about abstract conceptualism. To do dance justice, one must respond emotionally. Whether one does this through narrative, text or movement is all the same to me. But engaging the audience is task number one. Without engagement, one has failed at the underlying tenet of theatre – just as if in organising a dinner one failed to provide food or refreshment. It could be called a meeting but it could not be called a dinner.

For me this is why all movements like Vienna conceptualism are doomed to fail. I only hope they don’t take the dance audience out for good while they are at it.

Empty conceptualism all the more dangerous is when it comes in such attractive wrapping paper. Better that the effort were spent making the performances engaging, rather than the analytic lectures.

Part two of dance analysis comes later in December.

In the meantime we have our homework: a recent long article Body and Archive (Körper und Archive) by Dr. Haitzinger herself in collaboration with Claudia Jeschke, another recent essay from Claudia Jeschke, “Techniques of Contemporary Choreography in Germany”, Merce Cunningham’s essay “Space, Time and Dance” (1952) and George Balanchines’ “Note on Choreography” (1945).

My final thought was to wish that the Vienna conceptualists would take as much care with the stage presentation as Dr. Haitzinger does in her personal presentation.

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