The Wiener Festwochen push the envelope with a new co-director setting the tone

Being voted “most-livable” city can be a double-edged sword. Every metropolis has its charms – a heady mix of unique tastes and memorable experiences. Living up to such an accolade isn’t easy.

What sets Vienna apart is the sheer number of world-class events, many of them offered for free in public spaces, with international performers returning each year to connect locals with the world – and the world with Vienna.

The upcoming Wiener Festwochen is the quintessence of the city’s inclusive attitude to culture: an annual, five-week series of music, performance, art and special events, a sizable number in English or bilingual. In the capable hands of Marlene Engel and Tomas Zierhofer-Kin, the 2017 Wiener Festwochen (WFW17) converges around three new conceptual spaces: the Performeum, a temporary “Museum of Performance Art” in the working-class 10th district; Hyperreality, an identity- and gender-celebrating electronic music club at the renaissance Schloss Neugebäude in Simmering; and the Akademie des Verlernens (The Academy of Unlearning), which throws our preconceptions of contemporary topics (like refugees) overboard in an inflatable hamam Turkish bath.

Jude Law appears in Visconti’s ‘Obsession’ // © Jan Versweyveld

Anything but routine

The overriding theme this year is Utopia, poignant for a city becalmed in a churning sea of global upheaval – an artistic response to the anxieties of social and financial crisis and  reflecting on the sometimes very ugly past.

“Festivals … disrupt everyday life and the order of things,” notes new director Tomas Zierhofer-Kin, former head of the avant-garde Donaufestival in Krems and a master of mixing high-, sub- and counterculture. In practice, this means a five-week gumbo of top theatre spiced with a generous toss of the unpredictable.

This mad fusion approach explodes on stage in WFW17’s premiere of enfant terrible Tianzhuo Chen’s Ishvara, a multi-genre, multi-cultural potpourri spectacle – as trippy as an underground warehouse party – inspired by the Hindu epic Bhagavad Gītā, with a Q&A following the May 15 performance.

A generous sprinkling of sidebar events extends the festival’s other theme of “Spring Exorcism”: discarding outdated beliefs for revitalizing new possibilities. As Goethe (comfortably seated in perpetuity by the Burggarten) wrote, “The way you see people is the way you treat them. The way you treat them is what they become.” Changing the world begins with how we see ourselves.

The Anti-Fascist Ballet School offers open dance classes in the “social biotopes of shopping malls,” transforming ballet from a rigorous aesthetic to a fun opportunity to try something new and empowering. At the Franz and Gloria hair salon, the Canadian collective Mammalian Diving Reflex asks us to put our precious hair in the hands of children, trained in a crash course. If we trust kids with sharp scissors, why not rethink their ability – and right – to take part in our national discourse, such as voting?

Of course, any worthy festival must offer a thespian aristocrat. While previous years saw plays by Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek and stars like Cate Blanchett, this year Jude Law will appear in Obsession, a Dutch stage adaptation of Luchino Visconti’s 1943 debut film. And from the streets, dancers and DJs from Parisian banlieues perform in the Balzac-inspired Die selbsternannte Aristokratie (The Self-Appointed Aristocracy).

The Brazilian dance group Macaquinhos take on colonialism // © Veronica Leite

Of human bondage

The perennial conflated dogmas of capitalism, democracy, racism and fanaticism are untangled at WFW17, offering hope for angst-riddled attendees. Guest curators from Accra, Berlin and New York showcase artists who often find humorous, subversive means to cut our ties to a troublesome past.

Tools for Action, known for “DIY Empowerment” through pop-up inflatable barricades, offers a workshop in civil disobedience. The highly controversial Brazilian artist group Macaquinhos (Monkeys) performs a satiric portrait of colonialism, taking the phrase “arse end of the world” literally.

With prominent artists such as Ai Wei Wei diving into the refugee crisis, it is no surprise to find a section devoted to “Migrantpoliticization”: Collegium Irregulare, a project of Science Communications Research in cooperation with the Volkskundemuseum’s “Museum auf der Flucht” program, presents an open think tank on using the wasted talents of millions of “superfluous” people – the “worldless” in the words of Zygmunt Bauman and Hannah Arendt; Picknick des Verlernens (Picnics of Unlearning) promote identity- and gender-busting via five weekly free picnics that “use public spaces not as zones for consumers, but for exchange and mutual inspiration.”

Most sobering is the reading, over 48 hours in four consecutive cities, of The Names of those Killed in the Syrian Conflict, 2011–2016. Starting in the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv, it continues through the Wiener Festwochen and London’s Lisson Gallery, before ending – as a performance at least – at the Performance Biennale BP.17 in Buenos Aires.

British artist Jamal Harewood explores race via a metaphorical polar bear // ©  Tara Yarahm

As diverse as life itself

The powerful draw of the Festwochen for major international stars includes this year Jimmy Cauty’s The Aftermath Dislocation Principle (ADP), a scale-model, post-riot diorama. On tour since 2016, ADP is presented in three Viennese locations of past rebellions. The public is invited to write over any offensive graffiti; no artists may apply. The operatic German-Ivorian Mozart deconstruction Les Robots ne connaissent pas le Blues, oder, Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Robots Don’t Get the Blues, or, the Abduction from the Seraglio) blows apart cultural misunderstandings inherent in our views of The Other.

Highlights in English include Australia’s Back to Back Theatre’s Lady Eats Apple, interpreted by actors with disabilities. British theater legend Peter Brook’s Battlefield reworks the Sanskrit epic The Mahabharata, and Elisabeth Bakambamba Tambwe’s Congo Na Chanel journeys into the heart of darkness. English artist Jamal Harewood’s The Privileged holds a mirror to society’s racism via the metaphor of the polar bear.

Hyperreality and the Vienna Party Weeks – organized in coordination with New York’s GHE20GOTH1K – are its most youthful expression: massive DJ lineups under the slogan “Exorcise the Language of Domination,” as a term of celebration, not division.

Wild parties, bombastic spectaculars and provocative performances aside, the Wiener Festwochen ultimately celebrates life – in breathtaking variety. Straight, gender-free, East, West, underprivileged, creative, passionate, talented. It’s gorgeously different and yet the same, striving for meaning, freedom and connection in a complex world.

May 12-Jun 18, various locations. festwochen.at