Death and water: Choreographers Guido Markowitz and Nikolaus Adler Jump Start Oper Graz

June 20th, 2011 § 1

For the final Oper Graz dance work in June, ballet director Darell Toulon brought two promising choreographers to Graz to create new works.

The lucky pair: Vienna’s budding star Nikolaus Adler lately of Homunculus and Villach born Guido Markowitsch, best known for his choreography for musicals and his work in Darmstadt Staatstheater.

While both pieces were part of a coherent evening, as separate and nearly full length works, I have divided this review into two sections.

Resurrection or the Alienation of Humanity – Nikolaus Adler

At first glance Resurrection appears to be a reprise of Törte für Alle, which premiered at Choreolab in 2006. Adler has brough back the cakes, the clowns, the brutal music from the Tiger lillies, a statue of the Virgin Mary next to a dead man and even a little girl singing a beautiful song at the end.

But in fact Resurrection is more a complete remake of the original with a little more time and a dedicated cast. The last piece was created at Choreolab where the dancers are just borrowed from Staatsoper between rehearsals for the main stage. Very happily Adler has made some of the explicity intellectual pretensions of Torte fur Alle (billboard style references to Sartre and Fox news) implicit and reinvested the returns in the dancing.

Nikolaus Adler Resurrection oder die Befremdlichkeit der Zwischen Menschlikeit
Nikolaus Adler – Resurrection oder die Befremdlichkeit
der Zwischen Menschlikeit: Cakes and Clowns again

Resurrection opens very strongly with high speed deep bending dancing with grinding rhythms. The opposite of what one could expect from the usually austere Adler. What is remarkable about his choreography are the contrasts. Even during a powerful energetic duet, Adler will stop to show delicate work with fingers. Without being afraid of movement, Adler has always shown an unusual fineness of gesture.

I’ve always wondered how and why Toulon chooses his performers for Oper Graz. His auditions go on for weeks and in the end, he usually chooses not particularly tall nor superficially attractive dancers in what is frankly a buyer’s market. Now I’ve found out:

Opera Graz dancers can really move. Particularly astonishing are Laura Fischer, Michael Munoz and Bostjan Ivanjsic.

Bostjan Ivanjsic Laura Fischer duet Resurrection
Bostjan Ivanjsic Laura Fischer duet Resurrection:
wonderful movement and powerful duets based on contact

After the opening burst of energy, Resurrection quickly slows down to Adler’s usual ironic sadness: Adler’s macabre clowns stand in a line and push a cake in one another’s faces.

Adler takes us through a sinister pantomime of funeral by a group of clowns, complete with statue of Virgin Mary by the head of the deceased. Adler’s clown-faced brutes kick the poor corpse in the head. Wtih all the cellars in contemporary Austria filled with the corpses of unwanted lovers and incest’s children, Adler’s wanton brutality seems part of daily life here in Austria.

The pace doesn’t relent with a spectacular duet between Ivanjsic and Fischer without music: swinging arms writ large, difficult lifts and kinetic gyration. Stunning dancing: mesmerising enough to only notice the absence of music when sound reappears in the next duet.

Adler was able to go to complex, dangerous movement with these dancers experienced with one another and with enough rehearsal time. Much of the movement seemed polished versions of very good contact improv. Contact improv is about communication with the partner so refining it for the stage is to choose communication through movement.

All good things must come to an end and they do with a little girl on stage with another dancer. Tatjana Wiesenhofer sang extremely beautifully:

My papa was a wonderful clown. My father was a beautiful man.

All children are charming on stage. Wiesenhofer has a great voice and seems a natural.

Sometimes it is not nice to be me – Guido Markowitz

The simple narrow black stage was divided into three with two ten metre silk like transparent black curtains. Two men begin the action with an extended duet. Neither Mathias Strahm nor Gyorgy Baán much impress. Their movements are exaggerated and false, parodic. Not nearly so fine as the work Adler just showed us. The tall Strahm reminds one of typically world weary Nicolas Cage.

Happily enough the next duet between Michael Munoz and Shaohui Yi brought some real intensity back to the stage. Munoz seems to woo Yi to no avail. Yi’s persistent rejection is relentless. Munoz’s grimace of fury sears us.

On the curtains, water drops are cleverly projected. I’m as tired of projection as the next contemporary theatre-goer: most projection is mainly a worn out trope but here the moving drops felt real and right. Sounds of rain and water justified the visual. Stagecraft which works and is not expensive: you can see that Markowitz worked hard to bring light, sound and texture together to support the water theme.

Occasionally the antics to extend the water metaphor consume art, leaving only device: the dance with a full glass of water trying not to spill it was either pretentious or something from reality TV.

But then suddenly an astonishing solo from Dianne Gray stroking her own body with handfulls of ice offers a breathtaking visual and moves us with its strong emotional text.

Dianne Gray Guido Markowitz Sometimes it is not nice to be me
Dianne Gray’s exceptional solo with ice cubes in her hands

Action now takes place in all three stages, with two sets of action on the left. The drama in the center, solos and duets on the sides while Munoz still weeps as the Japanese ex-girlfriend slaps him around. The effect is symphonic.

On both sides, there are ice solos while in the middle a trio dance: Michal Zabavik and Ivansjic with Fischer between them. The two men beat each other senseless for Fischer’s favours. The scene ends with Michal Zabavik drowning Ivansjic. Ivansjic’s head is held under water several times for up to as long as a minute. Even two of the girls come in to help hold a struggling Ivansjic upside down. When Ivansjic’s comes out of the water wet and gasping, it is not play acting.

The music splinters between klang effects, the crash of ice against metal (live) and vocal lullabies. The contrast makes each more effective in turn. The two men fighting on a wet floor means real danger, a sort of Ultima Vez light (Wim Vandekeybus’s company will likely hold the record for the highest career threatening injury per dancer forever).

Now six of the girls lie on stage and gargle together, extending the water metaphor to undreamt extremes. Ivansjic is strapped by the men into a trapeze on the left. As he hanges there helpless, Fischer comes and dances the most astonishing passion with him.

At times she climbs up onto Ivansjic to embrace him. At times Fischer is on the floor and Ivansjic pulls her limbs up to him as she somersaults or hangs upside down in his arms. Fischer’s long tresses cascade in the light, shiny and feminine and beautiful. They kiss kisses of passion. Finally Fischer rides Ivansjic like a broken horse.

Bostjan Ivanjsic Laura Fischer trapeze
Bostjan Ivanjsic & Laura Fischer on and off the trapeze together
one of the best duets I’ve ever seen: perfect conception
with touching performances from both dancers

For the last ten minutes into the golden age of Rosas and Ultima Vez. We don’t often see dancing or choreography as raw and passionate as what Ivansjic and Fischer have just shown us. The duet is like all of Romeo and Juliet distilled to seven minutes.

Michael Munoz is still to go mad, spat on from all sides by seven comrades or ex-lovers. The ice crashes louder and louder. In the end, he slaps his own leg out from under himself in an amazing acrobatic and symbolic fall. Like Munoz, sooner or later we all slap a leg out from under ourselves. It is only human.

Still, Sometimes it is not nice to be me piece slowly disintegrates after the trapeze duet. There is nothing Markowitz or frankly nearly any other choreographer can offer to maintain the intensity after such a moment. Perhaps the piece should have gone out on a high. Perhaps it’s better that it winds down with a slow thud. The last performers are not nearly as interesting as Munoz, Ivansjic, Fischer, Yi and Dianne Gray.


A spectacularly successful evening on a very small and narrow stage. Markowitz, Adler and Toulon demonstrate you need neither large stage nor large budget to mount ambitious work. A will to create, strong dancers and the time to do it (rehearsals were spaced out over months and the premier date was moved a month later) are all it takes.

If you are tired of the Vienna silent non-movement conceptual scene, if you still love dance, if you’d like to see passionate movement, get thee hence to Graz while you still can. Jump Start is not an evening to be missed.

There are Jump Start performances on Tuesday 21 June, Wednesday 22 June, Saturday 25 June, Sunday 26 June. Keep in mind the performances are not in Oper Graz but StudioBuhne Wilder Mann Jakomimistraße 3-5 about ten minutes walk from the Opera. Photos © Werner Kmetisch/Oper Graz: frankly both shows are much more exciting than the photos show.

Rumi in Flammen: Jochen Ulrich at Landestheater Linz

June 19th, 2011 § 0

The stage is a wooden arena, with benches on all sides including one before the audience. Above the arena sits a drummer who immediately begins to beat a large skinned drum. Talented deep rhythms, slightly foreign to our ears.

A man in a blue martial arts costume stands in the center. Drift in various young men and women in combative poses. The fight begins.

Long bouts of shadow fighting eventually bring in some long legged blondes in the back to watch the combat (Marietta Kro, Lucia Patoprstá). The dojo atmosphere moves towards that of film noir. The long legged blondes end up in writhing embraces with bands our half naked fighters. Very sexy, moving us quickly towards B movies and Russ Meyer and Tarantino.

The two Blondes Marietta Kro Lucia Patoprsta
The two Blondes Marietta Kro Lucia Patoprsta

Group sex where one woman submits to multiple partners against her will appears to be a recurring them in Ulrich’s work. Lots more of it tonight. These fighters and ravishers carry around life size plush lions on their shoulders to amuser themselves between sexual assaults.

A lady in white enters with face hidden behind a wide brimmed hat, followed by the firsts man in a frightening wooden tribal mask. The first amazing dance of a man behind a mask follows. Flinging, lifts, flips. After a struggle nearly to the death an exhausted Fabrice Jucquois is revealed.

Our first clue as to the true nature of the evening has dropped. There is neither story here nor conventional characters. These figures on stage are symbols as in the Life of Man or Tsar Hunger of Leonid Andreyev or later the epic theatre of Berthold Brecht. Death, Life, Despair, Hunger, Desire. Nouns with capitals are come to reveal to us the meaning of life.

An enormous man in a death mask and dreadlocks follows the woman in white into the dojo. As a dreadlocked leather jacketed biker Wallace Jones gives the dance performance of the evening. The speed and grace and power of his long limbs terrorised the audience in his nightmare appearance.

Jones’s overhead lifts of Anna Sterbová astonish.

Rumi in Flammen lifts Anna Sterbova Martin Dvorak
Rumi in Flammen lifts this time Anna Sterbova flies
in the arms of Martin Dvorak

The next character still mystifies me. Mickey Mouse comes on stage. Yes, really, Disney’s guy, the one from the top of mother’s cookie jar from the fifties. Big ears, big eyes, big round smile. But Mickey’s spoiling for a fight tonight and he gets it.

On beat the drums boombity-boom-boom in the steady hands of Mohammad Rez Mortazavi an alternately spellbinding and oppressive rhythm.

We storm the boundary of kitsch here with the mouse and go right over the other side with our next warrior. A downhill skier complete with skis and tall boots. He trudges into the center of the fighting ring and then stops. It turns out there are dancing moves you can do only in ski boots and Emilijus Miliakus does a good job showing how you can lean further forward and back than humanly possible and writhe in spellbinding ways. He throws a woman or two over his head before finally Sterbová pulls the skis and boots from his feet.

At that point the other fighters gang up on Miliakus and beat him to death.

Martin Dvorak is a curious choice for the Master as Ulrich has more overtly charismatic dancers to carry this lead. But Anna Sterbová does great work as his apprentice who is regularly tossed into poses foreign to flesh and blood.

Irene Bauer provides an atmospheric shadow across the back of stage, head to toe in black chiffon. Sarah Deltenre is a convincingly macabre lady in white.

I thought Bauer and Deltenre were Death and Life but they turned out to be Day and Night.

Apparently this symbolic dance drama began with the work of a Persian poet who died about a thousand years ago, Rumi. Rumi’s full name is Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī. Rumi took his nickname from the part of Anatolia where he lives and which used to belong to Byzantium, aka Eastern Rome. In 2007, Unesco celebrated the year of Rumi, with international conferences with as many as 450 presentation. The guy is a big deal: think Persian Chaucer or at least William Wordsworth.

There’s nothing in his writings to suggest a martial nature or a fascination with combat. Rumi was more into long walks and philosophical talks. His idea of love seems to have been more Platonic than consumed with trashy blondes and group sex.

Once again with Ulrich’s work, we are left more impressed with the strength of the conception and the musical choice and performance than the choreography. Nearly two hours of live drums is an impressive sonic experience. The musical score and the performance are the work of a handsome young Persian musician, Mohammad Reza Mortazavi. His stamina and energy delighted both dancers and audience.

The choreography is more focused than Ulrich’s preceding piece Winterreise: the combat area engendered a string of dance and movement events. As well as the action on the center stage also background notes which appear and reappear. Bauer as the night goes up and down the stairs and brings Mortazavi more into the performance. The other fighters/disciples remain on the stage actively observing the action when not participating.

Simon Corder’s lighting is more consistently detailed than the lighting in Winterreise. Again, the tones tend towards the strong, apparently a consequence of the planned outdoor performanes of Rummi in Flammen. In open air, the dojo is to be placed among the spectators and the dancers will circulate freely in the audience.

Rumi in Flammen will be even more effective with the dancers among the audience. It still won’t have much to do Rumi’s poetry and will owe more to B movies than Persian literature, but can survive on its own merits. If Ulrich has managed to expose Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī’s work and Persian literature to more Austrians, his appropriation of Rumi’s name will have done no harm and much good.

Regardless of what the rest of the world and modern Persia may think of Rumi in Flammen at its premiere, Linz stood and applauded Ulrich and Mortazavi’s work for over fifteen minutes of curtain calls.

More info about Jochen Ulrich’s Rumi in Flammen, more photographs and tickets can be found on the website of Landestheater Linz. Photos courtesy of Landestheater Linz (uncredited). Do not miss the open air performance on July 2 on the  MainDeck of the Ars Electronica Center (July 3 in case of rain).

Winterreise Linz: Jochen Ulrich and Heinz Winbeck

June 18th, 2011 § 0

Winterreise is one of the best concerts you will ever attend. A splendid evening of Schubert music. Choreographer Jochen Ulrich worked hand in hand with composer Heinz Winbeck to develop a full length score of the best of Schubert’s music for orchester and a singer.

The singer Martin Achrainer fills each song full of portent and passion. Fans of German lieder would swoon. I hope there’s a compact disc for sale. In his dramatic performance, Achrainer often takes the role of the composer Schubert himself, writing out sheafs and sheafs of music on stage in the first act.

The stage is dramatically decked out with a huge round mirror overhead, about 15 metres across, which can flutter in moments of dramatic importance offering a strange through the looking glass feel. At the front corner of the stage there is an impressionist painting of Schubert’s time. Alas, the painting at 1.5 metres wide is too small to be intelligible and too large not to notice. Most of the lighting is strongly green tinted for some reason. Alas for most of the piece, the lights are also just too bright. I’m no fan of watching dance in the dark, but until the last half hour of the two hour performance, one felt that one was under rehearsal lights and the light technicians went off duty while the choreographer and dancers worked.

Jochen Ulrich Winterreise ensemble
Jochen Ulrich Winterreise ensemble

With such bright lights, the large atmospheric candelabra arrangements on stage had little effect.

In spite of the interrogation lights, the dramatic development is extremely difficult to follow. In the beginning there is a stream of beautiful women wandering on stage only to be accosted by pairs of men and disappear. Later when the women reappear on stage they are inebriated and stumbling. Now they are out and out ravished by packs of four and five men. Looking into the program one learns that there’s a bride (Clara Pascual Martí) and her mother (Irene Bauer). Bauer changes costume more than anyone else in the production, strutting gorgeously in high heels and a tight tiny white skirt in her first appearance and with a long spell in the second act in a long black evening gown, an elegant precursor to the flappers. I’ve rarely seen someone dance so well in high heels but as the mother, Bauer is sadly often left to just wander around.

Fabrice Jucquois Irene Bauer Clara Pascual Marti
Fabrice Jucquois Irene Bauer Clara Pascual Marti

The cast list continues with a father (Fabrice Jucquois), a sister (Anna Sterbová), a brother in law (Wallace Jones) and an uncle (Daniel Morales Pérez). On the other side we have a groom (Matej Pajgert), his mother (Sarah Deltenre), his father (Alexander Novikov), his brother (Emilijus Miliauskas), his female cousin (Lucia Patoprstá) and his sister-in-law (Marietta Kro). Who all of these people are we really have no idea. They spend a lot of time kissing one another and pulling up the women’s skirts. Kro is particularly winsome in her long dress with her attentive lover Daniel Morales Pérez. Wallace Jones impresses with his tender attentions to his partners male and female in his appearances. Jucquois convinces as a sufficiently dominant patriarchal presence.

Schubert’s personal life was difficult, he often lived abroad. Towards the end of his life he suffered from severe illness and near blindness. But there is no direct equivalent in the Ulrich’s libretto. Ulrich’s starting point was of course Schubert’s music and curiously wedding scenes from the films of Fellini and Kusterica.

Fellini’s mad weddings are difficult enough to comprehend on film. In the theater, one doesn’t have the same chance to change viewpoint or perspictive, unless its via selective light of which we saw little. I’m not quite sure how an early death to syphilis at 31 (Schubert’s fate) is equivalent to incest and rape among the gypsies.

Still the lyrics of the Winterreise songs (the words were not written by Schubert but rather by a poet he admired, Wilhelm Müller or for some of the songs by composer Heinz Winbeck) do support Ulrich’s dark vision:

Heart be still
Why do you hammer relentless
It's the will of the heavens
That I must leave you now.

Of course, with dancers as luscious as Bauer, Kro and Patoprstá one doesn’t always need a linear libretto. The men don’t look too bad stripped to the waist and in black trousers either. Whatever the story, there is far too much walking and too much pantomime. Why they wander and wander in circles is a mystery to me. I can understand that Ulrich wants to experiment with gait, but that doesn’t seem to be his intention. It’s as if we are watching an early walk through where the steps haven’t all been set and the dancers are just finding their places.

Nearly all of these episodes could be energetically danced and bridged with dance. Grigorovich told stories through dance in his ballets, particularly Romeo and Juliet, I don’t know why Ulrich doesn’t want to take the final step and insist the movement tell his story.

No matter how fed up one gets with strutting dancers and the incoherently episodic story, one can always return in the end to Achrainer’s singing.

Besides Achrainer’s fine singing, the musical side had solid support from a good orchestra performance under conductor Takeshi Moriuchi’s energetic leadership. Maaki Namekawa’s solid piano solos.

The final half-hour picks up when the lights go down and something approaching a marriage and the family photo afterwards slowly devolves to surrealistic spinning of the stage while a figure in red silk lies crucified. At one point the feathers are thrown up in the air over the group as dancers pose in the middle giving us the effect of one of those glass snow scenes shaken up as the snow floats down. Later Achrainer plays with a wooden rocking horse in the foreground with dark glasses, slowly going blind and losing his mind.

One wonders why Ulrich waited for the last half hour to do something with the lights and to really work his story.

In the end, no harm is done. For the languid stretches, one can close one’s eyes and just listen to Schubert’s astonishing songs beautifully renderd by both orchestra and singer. Yet if it weren’t for the wonderful music, Winterreise might be judged confusing and over long.

In spite of it all, there is great pleasure in Winterreise. At least Ulrich’s dancers are doing something and there’s great music to hear. Dance life can be much worse: one could be stuck in the Vienna contemporary dance scene, watching dancers sulk in the corner in dirty jogging suits, picking at scabs on their arms. Go to Landestheater Linz instead.

While you’re at Landestheater Li, don’t miss the Promenadenhof next door. There’s a fabulous garden and the traditional Austrian pastries are top-notch.

Having seen Winterreise here in Linz, I’m very curious about the Hamburg Ballet’s version by John Neueimeier from 2001.

For more information about Jochen Ulrich’s Winterreise, including performance dates, photographs and tickets, visit the Landestheater Linz website.