Celebrating Sacre in Graz

June 2nd, 2013 § 2

In Graz the 2013 season was dedicated to the work of Nijinsky and the Ballets Russes. The crowning achievement is a three piece full evening of Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky with full orchestra.

A sumptuous rendition of Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloe opens the evening. As substantial a stage as is the Oper Graz, the orchestra pit is full to bursting while the female voices take up the the left upper lodge. The male singers are in the wings backstage. The musical performance is worth the price of admission on its own. Combined with ballet director Toulon’s complex visuals, this is an extraordinary work. Majestic dancer Bostjan Ivanjsic takes centre stage as Daphnis. The role is a complex one, exploring a young man’s sexuality – first timid, then more aggressive. He throws himself into a pool on stage and comes out soaking wet and fully nude, challenging the slightly bourgeois Graz Opera audience with full frontal male nudity.

Celebrating Sacre in Graz Continues »

Oper Graz: Deal.West.East

April 27th, 2012 § 0

A trip to a Graz dance premiere is always a challenge. Graz Opera ballet director Darrel Toulon has been either dancing or creating dance for a quarter century, ever seeking the grail of the new.

Once again we are in the extraordinary studio theatre Wilder Mann. What makes Wilder Mann different from almost any other space is that there is no depth to the stage and it is enormously wide. Dance works horizontally instead of vertically. Alas neither of tonight’s choreographers took full advantage of the space this time: to take advantage of the space, one needs to program opposing important actions on either end of the stage. The effect in when used properly is almost like Mike Figgis’s Timecode film with four frames of action taking place at the same time.

In Deal.East.West, the something new involved bringing together two young choreographers from the two far extremes of the Eurasian continent: Shanghai native Jie Dong and James Wilton from England. Both are dedicated national artists, working respectively in their native lands, rather than from the European melting pot of choreography (French in Belgium, Spaniards in Paris, Russians in Germany).

I can think and dream about it

To be fair, Dong’s work is very much in the Western tradition of modern dance and has very little to do with Oriental movement: his masters studied in the tradition of Martha Graham, Isadora Duncan and Pina Bausch. Dong is as Chinese (or not) as Hong Kong action films.

Jura Wanga Jana Drgonova Daphne van Dooren Ruo Chen Wang Dianne Gray
Jura Wanga, Jana Drgonova, Daphne van Dooren,
Ruo Chen Wang, Dianne Gray

Dong collaborated with long time Toulon stage designer Vibeke who onced again offered us one her extraordinary minimalist environments in white. On the left there was an enormous three meter high white chair. Later a smaller white chair is passed among the dancers. Small elegant details which worked.

Oper Graz: Deal.West.East Continues »

Upper Room – Darrel Toulon: Two pieces under one moniker

September 19th, 2011 § 1

Upper Room is a strange name for a dance piece. Dance is about movement and not about static space.

On the other hand, perhaps the title is not so out of place as space is crucial to Oper Graz ballet director Darrel Toulon’s latest work. The Wilder Mann studio theater where Oper Graz ballet will work for the next two years of Next Liberty renovations is very special.

The space is exceptionally wide and very shallow. What this wide space means is that everyone in the audience as first to third row seats. In the front row you are so close to the dances you could reach out and touch them. Or as in Upper Room, feel the wind of a pillow flying in the hands of a pirouetting dancer across your nose.

Upper Room leaps
Upper Room: pillows, pillows, pillows everywhere
notice the breadth of the stage: this is only about half of it

The great advantage of this stage is the possibility to work with multiple independent dance units at the same time. It’s easy and even desirable to have as many as three different sets of action informing one another at the same time. For choreographers who want to control the audience’s eyes and minds, the opportunity to have multiple action at the same time is frustrating. For those who accept its potential, multiple centres of action is very liberating and very modern.

Upper Room Bostjan Ivanjsic
Upper Room Bostjan Ivanjsic

We live in a world of intense sensory input: billboards, cellphone, radio, television, telephone, street traffic, computer all compete for our attention at the same time. We are constantly making choices of what information to absorb and what information to discard. Wilder Mann is a contemporary stage for contemporary dance.

Toulon’s Upper Room is an evening length work divided into two distinct parts. Part one and part two include entirely different costumes and entirely different stagings. The only unifying element is the music of singer Vesna Petkovic and violinist Boris Mihaljcic.

Including live music is a wonderful decision. Live music brings dance to another level and Petkovic and Mihaljcic offer powerful performances which visibly infuse the dancers with energy.

Michael Munoz handstand in Graz
Michael Munoz acrobatic handstand in part one

One could argue that also unifying the two pieces is that in both parts a single metaphoric prop is central to the work. Part one focuses on metal frames, about the size of a large door or a single bed. Part two focuses on pillows, large white pillows on which to lay your head for sleeping.

Sarah Schoch in front of frames Upper Room
Sarah Schoch in front of frames Upper Room

In part one, the dancers lie inside the metal frames, walk through these frames, observer one another across these frame and jump through these frames. At times there are up to five frames on stage at a time worked each by a pair of dancers.

Even more striking are the costumes in part one: each dancer is wearing a bob of shiny bronze hair. Each wears dark silver pants. The men are naked from the waist up, the women in small tube tops. The look is very androgynous. As is the dance.

Upper Room Darrel Toulon
Upper Room: part one fantastic wigs and alien look

With the strange wigs and clothing, I felt a certain alienation and otherness from the dancers. As they all look identical and different from us, it’s like watching another species live out their lives and feelings. This alienation creates an interesting distance and encourages scientific observation. At one point, Michael Munoz’s wig flew off in a powerful duet and we could see him for the next fifteen minutes as himself: the impression was enitrely different. If the dancers looked more human, the emotional text would be far more powerful as we could identify with them as individuals and not conceive them as a group.

Much of the dance is pairings. Sometimes two women will live an intimate relationship, sometimes a man and a woman, sometimes two men. There is a very disturbing near rape scene of a woman trapped in her frame. Upper Room Part One takes a very violent look at human emotions. Vesna Petkovic’s dark Serbian songs echo and lead the action. That most of us are not able to understand the words is intentional: Upper Room Part One is about emotional text and not about literal metaphor.

Dianne Gray Bostjan Ivanjsic
Dianne Gray – Bostjan Ivanjsic

Towards the half hour mark, Swiss dancer Sarah Schoch makes a very dramatic entry in a long red dress and a baroque coiffure. Moving with abandon, Schoch reveled in her moment in the light, kicking her long legs high. Her intervention was a delight in itself but I didn’t entirely understand its place in an otherwise very disciplined exploration of the frame metaphor.

Sarah Schoch Lady in Red
Sarah Schoch – Lady in Red

Another highlight is the solo by and duets including Bostjan Ivanjsic whose physique is in magnificent form. When Ivanjsic is center stage he dominates the other dancers who struggle to keep up with his presence. On the other side, after the summer pause, Michál Zábavík has returned with a spare tire more suited to a sedentary man ten years his senior.

Bostjan Ivanjsic in good form Graz
Bostjan Ivanjsic in good form with Laura Fischer

Among the premiere audience, some suggested that part one with the frames could make an entire evening of dance. I’d agree with that. One might be able to cut the score back to minimalist elements, leaving most of the explicit text behind.

When we reenter the theater the dancers have taken our place and Vesna Petkovic is enthroned on a mountain of pillows. We surround her as she sings. Five minutes later, the dancers being to guide us back to our places one by one. The confusion and role reversal here is very powerful. I wondered why Toulon chose not to develop the switch further by creating multiple circles of action from which spectators could move from one to the other before sending us back to our seats.

Once we are back in our places, the dancers each take a pillow to caress.

Part two is an exhiliarating voyage through violence and tenderness. But by the time it windes down after forty odd minutes, the work with pillows feels like it has run its course by the time. Pillows have been used as a giant bed, as sleeping companions, as hurled weapons, as instruments to suffocate friends, as dance partners. After watching part two you will never doubt the importance of pillows in our lives.

You don’t perceive it as you watch the show, but dancing with pillows limits the range and precision of dance. A pillow is an object constantly changing form and weight balance. Unlike the frames which are stiff and certain contexts with which a dancer can work carefully.

Sarah Schoch and Laura Fischer face off with pillows

The pillow piece feels more like a great fun experiment than the normally deep work of Toulon. There is some very good work with focused light in the hands of the dancer. Dianne Gray is particularly adept in lighting the other dancers dramatically while managing to stay low to the ground and move smoothly with the action. Newcomer Challyce Brogdon danced near my place and danced with discipline and flair as did compatriot New York native Serge Desroches. There is a particularly charming catfight between Areti Palouki and Agnès Girard.

Near the end, Vesna Petkovic breaks out in Fran Landesman’s 1959 Beat classic “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men”. While the duet between Serge Desroches and Ruo Chen Wang is powerful, the change of musical language grates after a full evening of song in Serbian.

Upper Room opened exactly one month after rehearsals started. The normal period of development for an evening lenth work is anywhere between six weeks and three months. With Upper Room, you feel that you are watching a work in progress. All the elements have been found but not worked through to the end. It’s like a half-finished sculpture where you can see the grand lines of the form, but the expression has not been finished.

My hope is that Toulon if he revisits to Upper Room will return to the frame metaphor and the very groundwork he has done for a one act evening length piece. He could retitle it very simply “Frames”. While the pillows piece was more fun and valid as a technical experiment, it remains more a divertissement than a work of art.

Upper Room can be seen 20, 22, 23, 24, 25, 29 September and closes 2 October 2011 at Jakoministrasse 3/5 in Graz. On October 19, in the same space the single evening Tanz Nite 2 will take place.

Toulon and the Oper Graz ballet will be creating a ballet of on Henry Purcell’s majestic baroque opera of Dido and Aeneas in May. Purcell’s music will be performed live so this is not an occasion to miss.

Photos except Pillows, Pillows, Pillows by Werner Kmetitsch
Video & Pillows, Pillows, Pillows by Alec Kinnear

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.