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ImPulsTanz 2023: past presence

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Soa Ratsifandrihana and Laura Bachman in Fase by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. Photo © Anne Van Aerschot
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The imprint of the past on the performance of the present, at the 40th edition of ImPulsTanz Vienna

A blast from the past

Last year, writing about Impulstanz, I called Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s show Mystery Sonatas/For Rosa ‘one of the most profound experiences’ of the festival. One year later, at the 40th edition of Vienna’s month-long dance marathon, it was the same choreographer who impressed me the most – only this time it was with a 41-year-old piece.

There is a video recording of Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich, this very first full-length choreography of the now legendary dancemaker, available online. I’m glad it exists (especially since it features the original cast of De Keersmaeker and Michèle Anne De Mey), but I’m also glad I hadn’t watched it before I was able to see it live, because this way I could have an experience that was probably almost as revelatory as for the 1982 audiences. It would feel foolish to describe or analyse a work that became so important in the history of contemporary dance and that so much has been written about, so I will only look at what makes Fase still look fresh and relevant in 2023: its performers. Laura Bachman and Soa Ratsifandrihana are both excellent, but Bachman has such a fiery and sassy intensity that she almost burns up the stage throughout the whole performance, and makes it very difficult to focus on anyone or anything else – I’m sure that not only here, but in any other setting. Therefore, it’s good to be able to concentrate on Ratsifandrihana’s calmer and softer energies in the solo movement of Violin Phase before this compelling and unlikely duo rounds off the evening with the fierce last movement, Clapping Music.

Laura Bachman and Soa Ratsifandrihana in Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s classic Fase

In the midst of my excitement, I tried to imagine how it must have felt like to see this show 40 years ago, and being witness to the rise of a new and original talent: I think all of us who watch dance passionately are constantly seeking and hoping for that experience. Nowadays, at the same time, the sheer volume of new work can feel intimidating both for audiences and for creators who are trying to break through in this difficult field. This might be one of the reasons why, in the last couple of years, while attending shows of young and emerging artists all around Europe, I often felt that trying too hard to stand out and be different stands in the way of their being truly authentic. Among the shows that I watched at Impulstanz this year, I haven’t found the ‘new Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’ either, but it doesn’t mean I didn’t get to spend inspiring evenings in the theatre – it’s just that this time they mostly came from more established artists.

New tunes

My Impulstanz experience this year proved once again that while it’s always exciting to discover new talents, watching ‘older talents’ experiment with new ways, freed from the pressure of having to prove themselves, is equally fascinating. For example, the new director of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, Boris Charmatz, created his first solo work for himself, at almost 50. Somnole examines the fragile state between being awake and being asleep. Charmatz slowly stumbles to the stage in a pleated skirt, whistling a tuneless tune. At first, his movements are similarly vague and small, but gradually, as his whistling starts to become more melodious, his choreography also gets more defined. Just as after waking up the contours of the world slowly become sharper, Charmatz’s scenes also get more and more narrative: at one point he dances with a member of the audience, at another time he imitates a sports game.

Boris Charmatz, Somnole

It might sound like Charmatz provides the ‘background music’ for his movement with his whistling, but I felt like it was the other way around: the choreography was only an illustration for his tunes that were impressively varied and interesting on their own. The choreographer said that he was long playing with the idea of an entire whistled concert, but decided to also use movement this time – I would certainly sign up for the sound-only version as well.

Of past, present and future legends

The heritage of the Ballets Russes has been an inspiration for dancemakers (and other artists) for more than a century. The 100th anniversary of the premiere of the riotous Rite of Spring in 2013 brought about a new wave of works that drew on their legacy – a wave that hasn’t yet ebbed, as also reflected in this year’s Impulstanz programme. DeSacre!, by Austrian choreographer Christine Gaigg and her company 2nd Nature, was created in 2013. Gaigg was invited by Austrian Federal President Heinz Fischer to develop and perform a piece in the Hofburg chapel, and she took the opportunity to commemorate two notorious performative acts by weaving a connection between them: the then 100-year-old Le Sacre, and the 2012 art action of the Russian feminist protest group Pussy Riot in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ.

From the 2013 performance of Christine Gaigg’s DeSacre!

Set this time in one of Vienna’s most unique churches, the Otto Wagner-church, the dancers start by performing excerpts of Nijinsky’s choreography (reconstructed by Millicent Hodson), interrupted by informative readings about the 1913 piece and the art world of the era by the choreographer and her co-creator Erich Klein. Then the dancers move on to recreating the mere 40-second performance of Pussy Riot and analysing it from different angles and points of view. While the sequences about Pussy Riot are engaging and creative, the parts about Le Sacre never go beyond the level of an art history lesson, and the connection between the two performances seem forced.

FLY by Sidney Leoni, retelling the story of Nijinsky on film and on stage

Otto Wagner didn’t only design a church at the hillside area of Steinhof in Vienna, but also a mental asylum just below it, which opened its gates to patients in 1907. Only a couple of years later, the legendary choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky would spend most of his time in similar institutions around Europe. This tragic decline is one of the central topics of Sidney Leoni’s FLY, a movie that tells Nijinsky’s story based on texts from his diary. But Leoni didn’t stop here: he wanted to combine film with live performance while avoiding that the projection take ‘centre stage’. Sadly, this is exactly what happens in the end: the live performance of the three dancers achieves nothing more than provide unnecessary illustration to the movie: they act out or repeat things we hear or see on screen, or evoke some of the characters that Nijinsky danced or choreographed, which doesn’t add to the movie experience, only distracts from it.

Relative Calm, by Lucinda Childs and Robert Wilson

Enter Lucinda Childs, the living legend of American postmodernism, who at over 80 decided to pursue new ventures. In Relative Calm, a three-part evening created together with Robert Wilson, jammed between a 1981 piece, Rise (set to Jon Gibson’s music, minimalist in set design and choreography) and an aesthetically similar new etude, Light over Water (to music by John Adams), she presents her version of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, a ballet that was first performed by the Ballets Russes in 1920. As Childs explains in the programme notes, she has long avoided narrative works, and choreographing to music that is not from the minimalist tradition she’s familiar with has been a challenge to her as well. As we know, the best things often happen outside the comfort zone, and this is what occurred here: Childs’ Pulcinella is smart and exciting. She doesn’t tell the story but rather reflects on the music: at first working against it with three main characters sitting motionless with their backs to us, then slowly giving in to it as they start to become more and more animated, and the stage gets filled with members of the ‘corps de ballet’. The performers of the Italian MP3 Dance Project (led by Michele Pogliani, a former member of Childs’ own company) evoke historical characters and dances, which, together with Robert Wilson’s black and red scenery and well-known white masks, creates a fascinating blend of styles.

A white-haired woman in black lies sideways on a plinth, her head and upper body slightly raised and an expression of slight surprise on her face
Lucinda Childs in Distant Figure, with MP£ Dance Project. Photo © Yako One

Serving as interludes between the three parts of the evening, we get to see Lucinda Childs herself, who performs excerpts from Nijinsky’s infamous diary. I have often wondered what it must have been like to see Nijinsky live on stage: what was his appeal, what made him so enchanting for contemporary audiences? We’ll never really know: there are no video recordings of him, but even if there were – it’s never the same as in the flesh. So, on this night, watching Lucinda Childs, I was wondering: will we be able to explain the magic of her disarming stage presence to future generations? I’m afraid we won’t. You have to experience it to understand it, and when that’s not possible any more, it is only the legend that remains. 

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06/07.23–07.08.23, Vienna, Austria
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