Between the macrocosmic challenges that are facing the world and the more microcosmic adjustments that accompany any new director (the Wiener Staasoper has welcomed Martin Schläpfer as its new head of ballet), it’s safe to say that the Wiener Staatsballett has met, with strength and beauty, some significant challenges in these past months. Interestingly, considering the very abrupt transition to dance-on-film that most companies are contending with today, Mahler, live chooses to examine the beginnings of this genre. Prior to 1979, there were dance films, perhaps most notably New York City Ballet’s recording of a number of Balanchine’s pieces in West Berlin (1973); but they stood mostly as records of choreography and of an event, not as creations in and of themselves. In Live, choreographer Hans van Manen uses Liszt’s lyricism to give us a balletic film noir for 2020, using the camera as almost a third artist, alongside dancers Marcos Menha and Olga Esina.

Olga Esina and Marcos Menha in <i>Live</i> © Wiener Staatsballett | Ashley Taylor
Olga Esina and Marcos Menha in Live
© Wiener Staatsballett | Ashley Taylor

At first, I was put off by seeing a few people in the audience masked and distanced; simply because I value escapism in ballet and resented these reminders of today’s painful reality; but this was very brief, and soon Esina took over, dressed in a red tunic and dancing facing upstage, towards her black and white projected film image. I was drawn in further, as it seemed that she working alone, and we were being allowed to watch her watching herself in a mirror. In a strange way, it was a homage to the private work of ballet. Initially, it felt like a derivation of the 2019 Noel Coward production of All About Eve; but the close-ups of Esina’s battered feet in pas de bourrées were gentler, though no less graphic, than Gillian Anderson being repeatedly violently ill over a toilet bowl. Both women, of course, are supreme artists, and can draw the audience in no matter what they are doing.

Olga Esina and Marcos Menha in <i>Live</i> © Wiener Staatsballett | Ashley Taylor
Olga Esina and Marcos Menha in Live
© Wiener Staatsballett | Ashley Taylor

The best portion of this first work was Esina and Menha moving through the foyers, abandoned cafés, nooks and crannies of the public parts of the Staatsoper. Seeing them sad, lonely, in black and white might be like seeing footage of war torn cities… one day. Right now, it was like watching the ruins of a beloved city bombed, burned and, as yet, without the safety of resolution and reconstruction. The dancers worked together almost without seeing each other, almost as if looking one another in the eye would make this all too real. Painful though these scenes were, they highlighted the intimacy with which the dancers are one with this great institution of Viennese culture. When Esina left the building in a coat and pointe shoes, stepping out into the night of the black and white Ringstraße, there was a sense of kinship, pain and hope felt in the best of this cinematographic tradition. This isn’t the first time Vienna has cried. 

The second part of the evening – 4 – was more traditional, returning us to the stage, a full orchestra, and a black backdrop without cinematography. It felt utterly different in theme as well; the joyful opening of Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony bringing to mind visions of happiness and Heuriger, buffets, floating Rieslings, lyrical Grüner Veltliners and dancing for its own sake. Florian Etti and Catherine Voeffray (scenographer and costume designers respectively) did fascinating, geometric work which provided an intriguing counterpoint to the music. I do wish halter tops were forbidden in ballet; they destroy the neckline, yank the levator scapulae forward and pop the rhomboids out like axe-shaped cysts… thankfully, they were few in number. 

Nina Poláková and Calogero Failla in Martin Schläpfer <i>4</i> © Wiener Staatsballett | Ashley Taylor
Nina Poláková and Calogero Failla in Martin Schläpfer 4
© Wiener Staatsballett | Ashley Taylor

It was both wise and sensitive of incoming director Schläpfer to utilize the full company. Particularly given the number of dancers that departed with Manuel Legris, the importance of rebuilding a positive and cohesive troupe is terribly important, and this was a thoughtful approach. It did make it a bit difficult to keep track of individuals, particularly as there were numerous interchanging groups, Schläpfer generously highlighting many. The double pas de deux was a lovely interlude, though it did at times feel like a choreographic movement study (particularly the ladies promenading the gentlemen in arabesque). Rebecca Horner and Andrey Kaydanovskiy stood out for their elegant and classical lines. The sections that featured the corps de ballet of gentlemen were interesting; it did feel as though there was a crucial point to be taken, which might have been more powerful if it has been the focus of an entire work; rather than interspersed with other stories and dances. 

Adi Hanan and Andrey Kaydanovskiy in Martin Schläpfer <i>4</i> © Wiener Staatsballett | Ashley Taylor
Adi Hanan and Andrey Kaydanovskiy in Martin Schläpfer 4
© Wiener Staatsballett | Ashley Taylor

This was a worthy piece, but I share the concern, expressed by others, that the Wiener Staatsballett may tip precariously away from the classics that are its raison d’etre. I hope works like Mahler, live will augment, rather than dominate, the repertoire. The company is strong and relevant, and it is wonderful to be able to enjoy their gifts in whatever form possible right now.


This performance was reviewed from the Arte live video stream

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