Europe’s largest contemporary dance festival soars above all preconceptions

Impulstanz showcases the many forms of contemporary dance, as seen here in Ivo Dimchev’s I-cure
Impulstanz showcases the many forms of contemporary dance, as seen here in Ivo Dimchev’s I-cure

Dancers dream of space, limitless space to move. Of rooms with no walls and of floors that flout gravity.

The ten studios at the Arsenal nearly fulfill that dream. The gigantic rooms, walls entirely of glass facing walls full of mirrors, can feel like infinity. From September to June, Vienna’s performance season, they are the rehearsal stages for the major theaters: the Staatsoper, Theater an der Wien, the Burgtheater. But for a month in the summer, the Arsenal hosts the workshops of Impulstanz, the largest contemporary dance festival in Europe.

Founded in 1984, Impulstanz was the brainchild of Austrian culture manager Karl Regensburger and Brazilian dancer/choreographer Ismael Ivo. For more than ten years it was financed – “naively,” Regensburger has said in an interview with Susanne Dressler, publisher of Germany’s connoisseur Guides & More – by Ivo’s own world tours. That naivety, or perhaps chutzpah, has blossomed into one of the most important dance events in the world.

A colossal event it is: more than four weeks of daily performances, legions of parallel workshops and classes, a wild mix of professional dancers, renowned choreographers, dance pedagogues and a dancing – and dance-loving – public. Last year the workshops had more than 5,000 participants, coming from more than 80 countries. The range is vast: from ballet, hip-hop and afro to contemporary, improvisation and Bollywood. And the classes cater to all skill levels: There are courses for experts to beginners, children, handicapped, even “golden age” classes for the over 55s.

Mixed Media Movement
The world of dance is “a baffling kaleidoscope,” admits Regensburger. Nonetheless, Impulstanz performances are hugely popular, playing to sold-out crowds. With 15 different venues around the city, the epicenter is the MuseumsQuartier, and the Volkstheater across the street.

The festival opens on July 14 with Bit, the latest work by French choreographer Maguy Marin. A grande dame of contemporary dance, Marin just received a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale. The piece for six dancers is set to strobes and a techno-metallic soundtrack (in French, “bit” sounds like “beat”). It begins as a seemingly simple farandole line dance, a sirtaki, evoking Matisse’s La Danse. But the relentless rhythms soon develop into a complex yet subtle game of obsession. Is it portraying our digital world of ever more agitated ­binary bits?

After more than 30 years, the festival has become an institution. But one of its most important founding principles – experimentation – is still very much part of the act. This is perhaps most evident in the [8:tension] performance series, a platform for young choreographers, this year featuring 13 debuts. On the last day of the festival, one will win the “Prix Jardin d’Europe” – already a coveted international dance prize in its ninth year.

“Many art forms and media are combined in contemporary dance,” says Regensburger. “It works with language, videos and also fine art. That’s what enables it to incorporate genres like classical music as well.”

Indeed, Arnold Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night – one of the most accessible works by this difficult composer but nonetheless a stumbling block for many would-be concertgoers – is the basis for a revised work by Belgian Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. Perhaps contemporary dance is where an audience for classical music can be reawakened and rejuvenated.

The choreography, like the music, is based on a poem by the late romantic Richard Dehmel, a moonlit pas de deux about love and sexuality, the story of a woman forgiven by her beloved for being pregnant by another man. As always, De Keersmaeker’s vocabulary includes familiar gestures linked together in quirky ways. “She takes awkward steps,” says the poem, and in fact the woman does. The pair shifts rapidly between intricate, technical movements, ordinary running in circles, and limp, expressionless tumbling to the ground. Intentional confusion, even ugliness, is combined with moments of touching beauty.

Creating a canon
Ivo emphasizes the need to repeat older works to create a “classical” repertoire of contemporary dance, so to speak. As he said in a 2012 interview with the Wiener Zeitung, creations from the 1980s and 1990s should not be forgotten; they should be experienced live. “The next generation needs a foundation from which it can develop,” says Ivo. “Like it has in ballet.”

This year sees a revival of Belgian Wim Vandekeybus’ 1999 classic In Spite of Wishing and Wanting. Controversial when first performed, the piece depicts the dangerous and sharp edge between desire and violence among men, the touch that turns from caress to invasion.

If the kaleidoscope of workshops is too much to fathom, you can try short performances by the dance faculty at the Arsenal on the afternoon of July 17. The Burgtheatesr’s Vestibül also hosts an Impulstanz Festival Lounge every day from 10:00, a place for encounters and networking. And the “soçials,” summer-night parties not quite in the traditional sense of the word, are another hotspot.

Dance stays relevant by responding quickly and directly to today’s world, Regensburger says. At Impulstanz, dancers defy gravity and paradigms in eloquent kinetic metaphors of human emotion and everyday life.



Jul 14 – Aug 14, various locations

Previous articleThe Last Word: Thomas Drozda
Next articleLetters to the Editor – Jul/Aug
Cynthia Peck is originally from Southern California, but she does not miss the sun. She lived in Tokyo for a decade, and she does miss the food. Now the Konzerthaus and Musikverein are her main living rooms, as are a few select restaurants around town. Trained in Vienna as a professional cellist, she also works at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, translates and edits lots of books about Buddhist epistemology and Austrian history, and is thinking about apprenticing as a chef. What she enjoys most is writing about music.