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OBSESSION: A VIENNESE NUTCRACKER

Gyula Harangozó

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 glories.

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 trip!

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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