UHLICH ON POINT(E) WITH "SPITZE" IN VIENNA'S BRUT
velvet curtains will rise on a ballerina in a tutu. Somewhere, but not at brut.
When the lights come up on "Spitze", an unlikely trio faces you from a bare
floor: Susanne Kirnbauer, former first soloist of the Vienna State Opera
Ballet, Harald Baluch, soloist at the Vienna State Opera Ballet, and the
heftily appealing contemporary performance choreographer Doris Uhlich, in
pointe shoes. No overture. No curtains. "Spitze" takes you to the ballet while
the ballerina is busy elsewhere.
Kirnbauer and Uhlich draw together to reflect on a performing art in which none
of them may occupy center stage: Kirnbauer turned in her toe shoes 22 years
ago, Uhlich is more Renoir than Degas, and Baluch, though in his prime, excels
in an artistic form that has always revolved first and foremost around the
woman, the ballerina.
may have banished these three from portraying a princess or a swan. But Ballet
has a life after hours. Here's where Ballet lingers when the lights go out.
Stripped of the Romantic personae – the Sleeping Beauty, the doomed swan, the
peasant girl, the sylph – what is left is ballet language laid bare. In
"Spitze", the Ballet giggles and gets naked, and we are in for an evening of
interest and delight.
The Ballet eats its medium
music plays elsewhere in that other theater, our three performers begin to go
through silent, concentrated motions. They are taking orders from and
responding to some Invisible Force. They are evidently being watched and
judged. Ballet is in the theater with us, presiding like some kind of god.
was somebody's dream. A dream of beauty, of flight, of transcending the limits
of what the human body could do. After all, we locate our gods in the sky. You
could say that the precursor of aeronautics was the ballerina. That our trio
appears to be taking a class drives home this point – each day is a microcosm
of your entire life as a dancer, and every morning you start all over from the
beginning, an eternal student of unattainable heights. What you mastered
yesterday can escape your grasp two days from now. If you don't build up, you
slip back. By evening you must be the embodiment of Ballet itself. Ballet is
this invisible Thing that slips inside you and takes possession of your body
like an alien so that it can speak its language through you. It is the only art
form that fully consumes its medium, and spits out the bones when it's done.
magnificent Ms. Kirnbauer flutters about the stage with the gestures of a
blushing ingénue, but with the countenance of the Black Swan who had ditched
the barre for the bar long ago, she's making it clear that those steps weren't
choreographed for anyone who can't get away with portraying a 16 year old. This
is the central paradox of ballet – when you are reaching the height of your
artistic, your expressive powers and your mastery of character, your body is
The language beneath the
role, and its gestures, no longer fit, what does Ms. Kirnbauer do with that
language of which she was one of its most eloquent speakers? She removes her
spike-heeled boots to unleash two of the most articulate feet in the business,
and straps on toe shoes for the first time in 22 years. They yield at her
command. Is anybody still listening?
the language of the male dancer look like without the ballerina? Harald Baluch
goes through the motions of his part of a pas de deux, his hands around the
absent ballerina's torso, toggling, tipping, tilting and lifting her imaginary
body. This is quite literally the language of a "supporting" role. Kirnbauer
and Baluch mark time to the music of "Don Quixote" in the nonsense syllables
dancers sing to themselves – "ya-ta-ta-ta – tee-ta-ta – tum" – as if they were
Dadaists. Then they embark on the same dance, it would seem, but each unto her-
or himself. Are they each dreaming of what it could have been like to share the
same stage at the same time? Would they together have been able to attain to
undiscovered dimensions of their ballet selves?
Uhlich. The pas de deux
for two separate soloists in separate temporal spaces, becomes a dance for two.
With quiet determination and utmost concentration, seven weeks after donning
toe shoes for the first time, Doris Uhlich dances the dance, without acting the
role. She and the Ballet meet with mutual respect, tickled at what they have
been able to reveal about each other. Face to face with a self-possessed adult,
the remorseless judge inside our minds has gone. Or has it?
Is the price of a ticket a
license to judge?
the piece, Ms. Kirnbauer takes a seat center stage and observes, casting a
knowing, watchful eye. Is she reviewing her own performances from the distance
of time, experience and memory? Perhaps she is watching this present generation
slip into the ephemeral skin of a role to bring it into being. But in the end,
there is no denying it – it's us she's looking at. What is our role in this
performance? Is the performer mustering us for our ability to be an audience
for the dance? Is the price of a ticket a license to judge? Who are we? A ballet audience? A contemporary performance audience?
Are we equipped for either? Are we in danger of missing the point?
that came after ballet has been cast as a rebellion against ballet. Maybe that
was the need of its creators or historians in search of heroes, to cast
themselves in heroic roles and see themselves as revolutionaries. In fact, no
form of dance should have a need to resent another for not being like itself.
Uhlich, Baluch and Kirnbauer are adults with an eye for adult pleasures – defining themselves on their own terms, with equal doses of self-possession and
self-irony. This allows them to enjoy the ballet on its own terms while
thinking about what those terms really are.
(April 28, 2008)