When a musical troupe attempts to be a ballet company, the results are usually dire. Last night in Vienna, we saw the inverse. The Staatsoper and Volksoper Ballet tried their hand at a musical.
Tanzhommage an Queen is a dancing tribute to the rock group Queen and in particular Queen’s controversial lead singer Freddie Mercury who died of AIDS in 1991 in mid-career at the age of 45. While I grew up in the period of Queen’s greatest fame (the eighties with anthems like We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions), I wasn’t fully aware of the resurgent fascination with Queen. Their Greatest Hits album was voted in June 2006 as the top British rock album ever, leaving behind them both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. The song Bohemian Rhapsody was voted most popular song in the Netherlands on one of the top pop stations in 2006.
So Queen and Freddie Mercury have acquired a mythic quality even while three of the foursome continue to stride this earth. Generally, mythic and larger than life qualities are extremely salutary for dance which is intrinsically made for emotions writ large (what moves a person to dance? – strong feeling).
Patrik Hullman – first of many Freddie Mercury doppelgängers
Tanzhommage an Queen is a strange hybrid as it doesn’t deal with the mythos through dance so much as it is a multimedia presentation of Queen’s work. Most of the dance numbers are supported by video clips in the background, about half of which include either elements from the original music video or performance from Freddie Mercury himself. In the end, the treatment of the legend is quite superficial.
What is behind the Queen and Freddie Mercury story?
Freddie Mercury was born on the island of Zanzibar of all places and was one of the world’s rarest birds, a Zoriastrian (.006% of the Indian population). Zoriastrians are originally Persians who left Persia (modern day Iran) to India for religious freedom after the spread of Islam in the 13th century, much like Pilgrims left England for America. For many years, Mercury lived a romantic life with a beautiful British woman by the name of Mary Austin. Later in life after the success of Queen, Mercury dedicated himself to physical communion with other men. Like Oscar Wilde, Mercury was a late-blooming homosexual. Nevertheless, Mary Austin remained Mercury’s closest friend and inherited his physical estate. During his lifetime, Freddie Mercury had a healthy distrust for the press, both tabloid and otherwise. Britney Spears and Paris Hilton would have done well to heed Mercury’s reclusive example.
Freddie Mercury must have known for four years that he was doomed before he finally dropped. Apart from Mary Austin, Mercury left fortunes to both his late life companion Jim Hutton, his personal assistant, his driver. He set up another trust to support AIDS research. Throughout Mercury’s life he was known for his generosity and consideration, both in work and in private life. There are very few people with a bad word to say about Freddie Mercury. Mercury worked together with Monserrat Cabale, David Bowie, Michael Jackson and Elton John just to name a few.
How Mercury reconciled this artistic and personal generosity with wanton promiscuity is a strange mystery. Curiously, Freddie Mercury more or less rejected his Zoriastrian roots until the end. His last rites were Zoriastrian.
There seems to be a lot more to Freddie Mercury’s life and personality than a few music videos and album covers which is mainly what we got at Volksoper. There is a deeper psychological story to be told.
Irina Tsymbal and Mihail Sosnovschi – Love of My Life
The next issue which any hommage to Queen faces is the difficult casting for the role of Freddie Mercury. One would need a great star, with charisma and energy to portray Mercury. For the moment there doesn’t seem to be a suitable candidate within the Staatsoper and Volksoper troupe (the one male dancer whom I’ve seen in Vienna who might have been able to carry the show was let go last year Harald Baluch). The way choreographer Ben van Cauwenbergh attempted to resolve the casting issue was to have about five different dancers play Mercury.
In the beginning, Patrik Hullman came out with the ensemble and actually sang live. While his effort was passable, the audience could only wonder if Mr. Hullman would attempt to sing the entire evening – a total of twenty-five songs – as Freddie Mercury. Such a performance would be an unbelievable virtuoso performance. Apparently Mr. van Cauwenbergh thought so too, so the live singing was laid to rest after that small piece of We Will Rock You. I wonder why Mr. Cauwenbergh included any live singing at all if he didn’t plan to develop this direction.
In the next song Don’t Stop Me Now, Gregor Hatala took on the Freddie Mercury role. With his stocky figure and dark hair, Mr. Hatala was already in the general neighbourhood of Mercury’s appearance. I wonder why they didn’t dye Hatala’s hair black and comb it in a more Mercury like style and perhaps even give him the signature moustache. While very literal, it would be no less distracting than Mr. Hatala’s own brown hair colour and his constant center part. If you are going to try to take the place of the man, go all out and be the man. Don’t go halfway. While Mr. Hatala is a perfectly passable dancer and a good partner he has none of Mercury’s magic and charisma. Earthy would be a more appropriate description of his stage demeanor.
Gregor Hatala as Freddie Mercury
The next remarkable number was a pas de trois between Patrik Hullman and two of the Staastoper’s leading ladies Karina Sarkissova and Dagmar Kronberger to the tune of A Kind of Magic. Both of the dancers were covered in glittering costumes (Ms. Kronberger in violet, Ms. Sarkissova in emerald) and for a moment we had something of the glamour of Mercury and Queen. The choreography was not exceptional but the two women shone.*
Crazy Little Thing Called Love changed the pace altogether. Samuel Columbet and Emilia Baranowicz danced a splendid rock and roll number first alone and then leading five other couples. As usual, Emilia Baranowicz charmed both here and in her considerable contribution to the corps-de-ballet throughout the evening.
After this story of happy love, matters took a dramatic turn when Florian Hurler strolled across the stage, pulled Ms. Baranowicz away from Mr. Columbet and took her to downstage right where he romanced and kissed her throughout the song My Melancholy Blues. Mr. Columbet danced a dance of suffering and Mr. Hurler posed there like a matinee idol enjoying Ms. Baranowicz’s eager favors. Mr. Hurler was a very good casting choice for his tall figure and Rock Hudson style virile looks. Alas this short dramatic line linking the musical numbers was very much an exception.
The next highlight of the evening was a sensual duet between Daniil Simkin and András Lukács to the song Don’t Try So Hard. The two men were dressed identically in white – the identical clothing rang true for Mercury’s same sex love. This was one of the more successful portrayals of love between two men in dance that I’ve seen. Perhaps partly on account of the young Simkin’s very feminine looks. For the moment, he looks half cherub and half man. Simkin’s dancing is lithe, expressive and quick, while his jumps brought gasps and applause from the audience. Mr. Harangozó recruited Mr. Simkin from the Wiesbaden Ballet Company at the start of this season – the same company where Mr. van Cauwenburgh is the director.
Curiously the video throughout Tanzhommage an Queen is the work of Mr. Simkin’s father, dancer Dmitrij Simkin. Almost every song featured either video or projected digital effects so it was a massive undertaking. Originally on watching the performance, I was annoyed by the out of date and tacky effects throughout the piece. A particularly annoying example was an extended segment morphing Freddie Mercury – Brian May – Roger Taylor – John Deacon heads. I also disliked very much the dreary apartment video backdrop for Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon. I grew very tired of the four different panel boards in red, blue, yellow and green one with each of the band members heads on it used to mask scene changes. But after reviewing Queen’s album cover art and original music videos, I realised my issues were more with the original Queen art work than Mr. Simkin.
Whether it is advisable to base the artistic concept of an entire evening on such scattered and derivative aesthetics remains contestable. But Mr. Simkin was remarkably consistent in merely repurposing existing Queen art and symbols. For a hardcore Queen fan, the stage concept will be a feast. He or she will be able to pick out all kinds of small details and delight in comparing time and symbol and order.
Two other Mercury doppelgangers filled out the end of act one, Vladimir Snizek and Mihail Sosnovschi. Neither left much impression on either myself or my companion. Act one ended with a duet between Karina Sarkissova and Gregor Hatala. Mr. Hatala here was a gallant partner but it is Ms. Sarkissova who really shone given the limelight. She deployed her long arms to expressive advantage, filling every movement with a surfeit of emotion. Again the choreography offered nothing wonderful but with Ms. Sarkissova’s expressive intensity filled Bohemian Rhapsody with a new poignancy. It is the rare dancer – usually Russian – who can make melodrama take on a genuine emotional life.
Finally Mr. Hatala and Ms. Sarkissova were joined by the corps-de-ballet for a rousing end to the first act. Frankly by this time, we’d already had more than an hour of Queen’s music and various digital projections. During intermission, we wondered what other tricks Mr. van Cauwenbergh and his team could have left for us.
The secont act began with a bang. We Will Rock You was performed by the Ballet School of Staatsoper. Lots of the kids with great shoulder drops and midriff shaking. Nothing particularly remarkable but kids and dogs are always good to get an audience’s attention. The early mainstage experience does them good – they see why it is they are playing around at the bar all those hours every day. Remarkably, the best Freddie Mercury double was the young man who played him for We Will Rock You and Radio Ga Ga. I don’t have the student’s name but he showed us a charismatic enthusiasm that none of his elders offered.
The single most dreary number followed Lazy On A Sunday Afternoon which featured a cross-dressed Vladimir Snizek in a live performance interpretation of the original music video. But without Mercury’s moustache, the cross dressing was not particularly funny. An inside joke for Queen afficiandos. Next, Seaside Rendezvous also featured a cross-dressed Mr. Snizek but the corps-de-ballet amused us with their fun in the sun on the artificial beach.
Killer Queen brought Dagmar Kronberger and András Lukács back on stage. Ms. Kronberger danced well enough in another glam role next to a trench coated and tramp Lukács. Yet somehow outside of the first pas de trois with Karina Sarkissova, Ms. Kronberger didn’t seem to hit full stride in this production. Either the choreography didn’t quite fit or she couldn’t fully engage.
Perhaps part of the issue was that there was no storyline or character development in the production. Just one dance skit after another. Neither Ms. Kronberger nor anyone else was given a dramatic thread to grasp onto but were just left to float through each number.
Karina Sarkissova and András Lukács
The most outlandish site gag came in Fat Bottomed Girls. András Lukács turns his back to the audience, slips out of his trenchcoat down to his knees, showing us his naked backend. Down his back is a bodylength tattoo of a woman. Mr. Lukács’s naked butt cheeks do duty as her breasts. He shakes his butt until it jiggles like breasts to Mercury’s trills.
Gregor Hatala ends these burlesque festivities by riding out on a bicycle. Bicycle Race ends up being a mix of video of the ballet company down by the Danube and of the dancers riding around on stage.
The next notable section included two tragic duets from Gregor Hatala and Mihail Sosnovichi. The two men wore white costumes very similar to those that the Daniil Simkin and András Lukács in the first half. The first duet was on Save Me and the next on Who Wants To Live Forever. The second was dominated by video of Freddie Mercury singing the song. That video was shot in 1991 just months before Mercury’s death and he is a shadow of his former self. Personally I wasn’t moved enough by the choreography to say that the dance had more effect than the video would alone.
The final chorus line The Show Must Go On began with a sea of dry ice – this time mimicing fluffy white clouds. Both school and corps-de-ballet in white costumes rise up through the clouds as if angels. It’s as if we’ve ascended to heaven with Mercury after his Live Forever coda. This ending is very strong and very uplifting.
Tanzhommage An Queen Corps de Ballet: The Show Must Go On
Much applause from the audience. A ringing farewell.
Unfortunately, Mr. van Caugwenbergh didn’t know when to stop and added a final mixed video and dance section on top hit We Are The Champions.
The video includes Mercury singing and the Staatsoper and Volksoper troupe rehearsing at the bar and in the theatre. Quite frankly the piece is supposed to be an hommage to Queen and Freddie Mercury not self-aggrandisement of the ballet company. We all know how hard dancers work. If we wanted a dance documentary there are many fine ones to see. The juxtaposition of Mercury’s stage performance and the dance company rehearsals jarred terribly.
Das Ballett der Wiener Staatsoper und Volksoper is developing nicely under Gyula Harangozó’s direction but they have a distance to go until they will be the champions. Nor does the completion of standard musical fare raise them much in that direction. Musicals are produced every day all over the world to audience delight. Nothing exceptional in that.
In general, is the history of Queen served well by being told in dance? I am not at all certain. I’m sure one could make a much more informative and moving documentary film, drawing on the same archives and more. Another more imaginative and internal and cohesive dance treatment of Mercury’s passage from foreign unknown to the idol of millions while a secret homosexual might very well have some substantial artistic merit. That is not what we have here.
Is there legitimate criticism or blame to be laid at anyone’s feet for Tanzhommage an Queen?
No. As part of the river of popular culture and derivations thereof, it is a worthy enough piece of musical ephemera. Fans of Queen or of musicals will find much to like.
Even those without an inclination in either of those directions will not be bored. Any spectator will get more than his money’s worth. There are music videos, dance, gorgeous women, pretty costumes, light, smoke and chorus lines galore. There are twenty five songs and two and a half hours of performance.
Just sit back and enjoy the show.
* As a whole, the women are very strong now at Staatsoper with these two and four more behind them. If ballet directory Gyula Harangoza would bring in a couple of top-notch teachers (perhaps one native Russian star for the large Russian contingent) to personally train his female leads (that’s the system used in Moscow at the Bolshoi and in St Petersburg at the Marinsky: a private coach for each leading dancer), he has the talent in the stable to push the level of dance in Vienna up a level. He might also consider additional performance-acting coaching. What Mr. Harangoza plans to do with the men is another story. There are few natural stars among them – he probably needs to recruit a little harder.
Photographic Credits: All photographs by Dimo Dimov. Copyright Dimo Dimov/Das Ballett der Wiener Staatsoper und Volksoper.