By Patricia Boccadoro
VIENNA, AUSTRIA, 21 DECEMBER 2007-"I only go
to the ballet to see The Nutcracker , boasted an
Austrian friend recently. "In Vienna, everyone is like me, and
people want to see what they know, and after all", she
confided, "who really wants to see anything else?"
Yes, this might be hard to believe, but the fact that the
Viennese will only see productions that are familiar to them
was confirmed on a recent trip to the Austrian capital. On a
visit to the Wiener Staatsoper, I was bewildered to discover
that the programmes this season are almost exactly the same as
last season, probably the same as next, and that local critics
as well as the native population, found this quite normal.
Granted, the coming season, which includes Romeo and
Juliet, The Nutcracker, Coppelia,
Manon, Swan Lake, and Onegin,
culminating with The Bayadère in June, are all super
productions with familiar melodies which fill all theatres
across the world each time they are programmed, yet the lack of
fresh air with such a heavy diet of the classics is worrisome
in what was such a fine company. It is possibly one of the
reasons why the Vienna State Opera Ballet no longer enjoys its
reputation of earlier days, when, at its reopening in 1955
after being destroyed during the war, Erica Hanka brought
European modern dance into the repertoire as well as the
traditional works. Today, despite an improvement in technique
some ten years ago, the Vienna company is not one of Europe's
I asked Gyula Harangozo, the star dancer of the Hungarian
National Ballet who became artistic director in Budapest from
1995 to 2005 before
being appointed general director in Vienna 2 years ago, why
this was so and what he intended to do about it.
We met at the legendary Sacher Hotel where we
breakfasted over a selection of those buttery-rich viennoiserie
for which the capital is famous, during which, while Mr.
Harangozo agreed with me that taking risks to programme
something new advanced the art of dance, it was something he
could not and would not do in Austria where, yes indeed,
audiences had somewhat conservative tastes.
"I frequently guested here before I retired from the stage in
1991, and I knew the house, the 103 dancers, and the
circumstances quite well", he said. "I was given complete
control of the two companies here, the Vienna Volksoper and the
Vienna State, as well as the school, together with my own
budget. I'm the general director and my first priority is to
sell seats. If not, I would lose part of my financing and so
I'm treading carefully."
"This is only my third season and I'm still getting to know my
audience", he continued, "and so for the Christmas season,
we're programming The Nutcracker, but in a new version
of my own which keeps very close to Petipa's libretto. The
novelty lies in the fact that we are using pupils from the
school in many of the main roles. The ballet opens on a
celebration of Christmas today before leading into Petipa and
Tchaikovsky's fantasy world. It will be followed by The
Bayadère, another very popular work, which will be
restaged next June."
"In March, the company is presenting Rudolf Nureyev's
version of Swan Lake as a special tribute to the
great Russian dancer on what would have been his 70th birthday.
"I learnt so much from Nureyev", the director told me. "I
danced in so many of his wonderful ballets on this very stage,
and every time one of his ballets is programmed, there's not a
spare seat to be had."
"It's also easy to forget that the Vienna Opera State Ballet is
the only dance company in Austria, a fact which obliges us to
interpret the classics with a title that pulls in the crowds",
he added, "and although I made many changes on my arrival,
bringing in new dancers from the U.S., Brazil, Canada, Russia
and the Ukraine, signing new contracts, I still have to break
even with my budget. If too much contemporary work was
programmed, the theatre would not be filled. However, I do
present modern works that I'm sure will please."
Indeed, one of Harangozo's first moves was to present The
Miraculous Mandarin, the successful production
choreographed by his father, Gyula Harangozo, senior, the
respected dancer, ballet master and choreographer who dominated
dance in Hungary for over 40 years. And this year, in four gala
performances which ostensibly showcase great classical pieces
of the repertoire, Glow-Stop, a short work by Jorma
Elo, and a new piece created for Vienna by Andras Lukacs, have
been sandwiched between Kingdom of the Shades, from
La Bayadère, and the Grand Pas from Paquita
in clever programming. Glow-Stop, created by the
Finnish choreographer for American Ballet
Theatre last season, which Harangozo went to see and liked
enormously, was very well-received while the work of company
member, Lukacs, is arousing general curiosity. "They are both
excellent pieces which work", Gyula Harangozo commented, "I'm
very happy we have something new!"
But are the Viennese?
Amidst much growling, my friend of The Nutcracker fame
repeated her affirmation of refusing to see any ballet than
that, but agreed that it would perhaps be a little unreasonable
to have the company dancing it every night. At the thought of
"modern' pieces" being programmed at the Vienna Staatsoper, her
hair stood on end. Should such a thing happen, she would walk
off to the café to eat her ice-cream.
Well, hopefully, under Harangozo's intelligent and patient
guidance, attitudes will change, the level of the company rise,
and meanwhile those who don't want ice-cream and have grown
tired of sausage, sauerkraut and schnitzel, should circle away
from the café adjoining the theatre and head for Demels, a
wonderful "coffee shop" not far from the palace of Sissi in the
centre of town. Its strudels and sweetmeats, which are served
with a smile, are the finest in Europe while the hot chocolate
there, served with mountains of cream, is alone worth your
Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in
Europe. She contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and
Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus
documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance
editor for Culturekiosque.com.
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