Lena Megyeri looks at climate and memory in the first of two routes through Vienna’s sprawling ImPulsTanz festival
The more time I spend at Vienna’s month-long ImPulsTanz festival year after year, the more I’m convinced that it is not just one festival: it is as many festivals as the number of its visitors (this year that number was around 137,000). From the 122 performances, 230 workshops, 128 free dance classes in the ‘Public Moves’ series and the talks, discussions, dance contests, exhibitions etc., each festivalgoer needs to curate their own selection, resulting in a very unique festival experience. One thing is sure though: if you, like me this year, are lucky enough to spend several weeks at ImPulsTanz, around the third week you won’t even bat an eyelid if you see someone starting to dance at a tram stop (true story). For one month, dance becomes an inherent part of the city.
My ImPulsTanz consisted of 16 shows and 1 workshop; here is my account of the thoughts and issues that arose during those weeks of living in an intense dance dream.
The festival was opened by Tanztheater Wuppertal with one of Pina Bausch’s last works, Vollmond from 2006. The show is a series of joyful nonsense in typical Bausch manner with typical Bausch characters on a stage dominated by a huge rock and water – lots of water. Towards the end of the first act, it starts raining, and soon enough the scene is literally flooded, a playground for dancers to swim, splash and spill. When you enter a theatre, you are often expected to leave reality behind, but this time, amidst concerning news of severe drought throughout Europe all summer, it felt a bit uncomfortable to watch a performance that turns an entire stage into a swimming pool to provide a spectacular backdrop. Vollmond dates back to a more carefree time (only 16 years ago!) but I couldn’t help wondering: in the near future, will it still be acceptable to create and perform such a show? Given our resources – will it be possible at all?
Water in times of drought: Pina Bausch’s Vollmond
Now, 16 years later, the discourse about sustainability and climate crisis is as present in the dance world as everywhere else – both on and off stage. On stage in the ImPulsTanz programme, Akram Khan took up the issue in his reimagined Jungle Book, set in a dystopian near future where Mowgli (a young girl in this version) has her family torn apart by a terrible flood. Designed to be enjoyable and comprehensible for younger audiences too, Jungle Book Reimagined uses crystal-clear dramaturgy (by Sharon Clark) that many contemporary dance shows painfully miss. Khan puts his choreography at the service of Tariq Jordan’s text, illustrating it almost word by word. That means less room for intricate dancing than usual in his pieces, but he compensates with clever character-building through movement, with funny and hyperactive Baloo outshining everyone else. Music and sound design are enhanced with extracts of climate activist Greta Thunberg’s most powerful speeches, but this time it is Mowgli’s mother’s gentle lessons about respecting nature (presented in the form of flashbacks through beautiful animations) that really speak to our hearts.
Off stage, Jérôme Bel has been one of the forerunners of sustainable working in the dance field, announcing in 2019 that his company wouldn’t fly for work any more, and that he would conduct rehearsals online. His decision was met with scepticism and criticism – until one year later the pandemic forced everyone else to do the same. For his current show, Dances for an Actress, he doesn’t allow the printing of programmes; instead, said actress, Jolente De Keersmaeker (younger sister of Anne Teresa) starts the performance by reciting all the credits and information that we would otherwise be reading on a piece of paper that most of us would soon dispose of. It’s reasonable, but there’s more: De Keersmaeker announces that the power consumption of the 60-minute show will equal that of a vacuum cleaner used for an hour. Many in the auditorium laugh, but I get a little sad; this time I’m wondering whether the dance world will be able to find a balance between being wasteful and feeling guilty about the ecological impact of every step it takes.
Revisiting personal and collective history
In Dances for an Actress (which so far has two versions, one with Valérie Dreville and one with Jolente De Keersmaeker), Bel wants to pay tribute to iconic works of dance history. He has worked many times with amateurs before, and his actress (De Keersmaeker at ImPulsTanz) is not a trained dancer either, but she brings a professional presence to the stage, which makes all the difference. She doesn’t try to recreate the selected scenes, but rather creates her own interpretation of them. In the first scene she remembers childhood ballet classes and clumsily presents their exercises, before moving on to Isadora Duncan’s Prelude, to Chopin. The first revelation comes when she takes off her clothes to perform Pina Bausch’s solo from Café Müller: it’s not like Bausch’s original at all, and yet somehow she still captures the essence of the scene, not through movement but through the tragedy she brings into it. Then cut to Rihanna’s 2012 hit Diamonds, to which De Keersmaeker improvises a badass free dance, still in the nude, showing her wit – not for the first and not for the last time during the evening.
With the next scene she pays tribute ‘to Kazuo Ohno and my father’: her distorted face, changing from one grotesque grimace to the next, tells quite different stories about the two personalities. She sits down to catch her breath and begins to describe two YouTube videos, and as she speaks we begin to see the scenes in our mind’s eye. One of them is easy enough – you soon realise it’s John Travolta’s iconic disco scene from Saturday Night Fever. The other is lesser known: a scene from one of Simone Forti’s works. If you haven’t seen it before, you are now forced to imagine it with the help of De Keersmaeker’s words; what an original way to recreate a dance.
Bel has stated countless times with his productions that dance doesn’t just belong to professional dancers, and Dances for an Actress is further proof of that. But it’s also more: it’s an experiment with ways of preserving and interpreting important pieces of our dance heritage.
Boglárka Börcsök also evokes figures of recent dance history in her piece Figuring Age [also reviewed in Springback here], but in quite a different way. In 2015, the young Hungarian choreographer met several elderly dancers in Budapest, and together with filmmaker Andreas Bolm she decided to make a documentary about three of them, resulting in the movie The Art of Movement. Irén Preisich, Éva E. Kovács and Ágnes Roboz were aged between 90 and 101 at the time of filming, and all three have since died. Before showing the footage, Börcsök herself embodies the three women, whose ghosts, she says, have entered her body. With porcelain skin, dressed in white against the white walls of mumokK, Vienna’s museum for modern art, she indeed looks rather otherworldly. Her transformation from narrator to old lady is quick and complete: her moves become heavy and burdened, and she frequently asks members of the audience to help her as she walks to a sofa or a bed, fragile and trembling. Even if we are just feet away from her, the illusion is perfect: the signs of old age are so authentic that she is almost painful to look at.
Embodying the past and the departed: Boglárka Börcsök in Figuring Age
Börcsök merges the women’s words and stories as she talks about how modern dance flourished in Hungary before the second world war but was banned after it, ending many dancers’ careers; or when she explains how she chose to be a dancer because her father didn’t let her study medicine. She sporadically illustrates her words with hand gestures and movements, some of which we recognise later as we watch her protagonists (all in amazing shape and physically active) on film in their homes. The constant change of Börcsök’s face is just as dramatic as her body’s, and among the many transformations of her expression I see another ghost appear: for a couple of moments, she uncannily reminds me of Mary Wigman in her Hexentanz solo. If I’d had any doubt before whether Börcsök really was a medium for departed dancers, they were gone at that moment.
The solo ME – NMU – AMI, performed by Mani Obeya and created in collaboration with Austrian artist Willie Dorner, is like a reckoning with his own loaded history, before moving on to a new, happier identity. ‘Our bodies are political’ is the conclusion of the Nigerian-born, British-raised dancer, after telling us about his difficult start in the dance world for an hour, while presenting ballet and tap numbers with incredible lightness, precision and the manner of a born entertainer. These qualities didn’t protect him from the racism of the dance elite who told him things such as: black boys never get to dance princes. Two things weaken his cause in this show: first, his text and talking are much less elaborate than his dancing; second, he preaches to the converted, as diversity is by now a very natural value of a festival like ImPulsTanz. Whatever the case, Obeya is clearly a very multitalented performer – and demonstrates yet another talent at the end of his solo when he brings on his band Sofa Surfers, leaving no question that he’s a true rock star too.
If Obeya’s solo ended on a high, my ImPulsTanz was far from over, for I also found a rich seam of choreography working with, rather than just to, musical scores. You can follow that route of this ImPulsTanz itinerary in Part 2 of this text. ●