Vienna, Austria – July 2014
My first experience at Impulstanz was by chance, while visiting Vienna on that requisite Euro-backpacking trip some years ago. A girl at my hostel was a dancer. “You should check out some classes with me,” she said, so I went. I remember watching a Hip Hop class in a big, airy studio, with the sun shining through floor-to-ceiling windows, and a Swedish girl with blond dreadlocks who danced really well. That evening, I was absolutely floored by a performance of Blush by Ultima Vez. I had never seen dancers so physically powerful, telling such a poetic story. The reception after the show was filled with dancers buzzing from their post-show high; the room was alive with a raw, unpretentious energy. Though I never made a firm promise to return to Impulstanz, there must’ve been a reason why that memory was so vivid, and why I made it back this year.
Impulstanz is Europe’s biggest dance festival and has been held annually in Vienna since 1988. During the four weeks, thousands of dancers infiltrate the city for the over 200 workshops, the performances and the auditions. Amongst all the dance moves learned and shared, the immediate and genuine friendships made and infinite smiles exchanged, we were there for one reason – to dance.
I met dancers of all kinds, who were talented, inspiring, generous, and from whom I learned so much. They were company dancers, independent artists, dance university students on summer break, teachers and budding choreographers. I also found dancers like me, who held degrees in completely different fields and who either had a past life, or concurrently ran another life outside of dance. Incidentally, all of the Indian dancers I met had degrees in subjects such as engineering, microbiology and sociology to fall back on, just in case the dance thing didn’t work out.
“If it weren’t for the scholarship I received, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to come here,” said an Australian dancer, an independent artist. “I’ve been saving up for this for awhile, I’m going to make the most of it,” said another dancer in my class. No one took the their time at Impulstanz for granted. “I’m thinking a lot about how I am different from last year, how my style has changed and my body also,” said a dance teacher and choreographer who had been coming to Impulstanz for the past few years. They treasured everything that they learned here. “Do you recall what we did in class today, after that floor phrase?” asked one of my new friends, with pen and notebook in hand. It didn’t matter that we were in a night club, the light was barely bright enough to write under, and we were shouting over some thumping club music. Talking about class was more fun than crowding into the sweaty dance floor, especially after we had been dancing all day in those big studios.
I met some of these new friends through dance exercises in class. Although not a word was said in those exchanges, sometimes, I felt like I knew them better than if I only had a spoken conversation with them. It seems I sometimes zone out when speaking with people. A lesson in staying present.
I had fun with these dancers demonstrating Laban’s directional coordinates while walking down the street. They shared my lament about the overuse of music by Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt in choreography. One of them told me about his eyebrow-splitting experience of auditioning for Jan Fabre. They were committed to improving their artistry, not just aiming to build physicality in their bodies. I was humbled by their compassion and their sensitivity to peoples’ intentions, which extended beyond their practice of dance. Despite each one’s talents, I heard no one boasting about their own. In dance there’s no need to brag, the body says it all.
“She wasn’t being honest,” said one dancer of false compliments given by a dance teacher who was more attentive to her phone than the students in her class. His comment called to my attention the importance of honesty in dancers and artists alike. If dance, and more generally art, is to be a reflection of us, of human nature and the human condition, then artists must be able to connect with our sentiments and express them truthfully. Ignorance to that truth, whether by artists or in the preconceptions of audiences, may be the greatest obstacle to art, and for which, art, in its cause for truth, could be the best remedy.
I challenged the limits of my body in workshops that seemed too short for what the eager instructors wanted to teach. I discovered new ways to move, and I deepened my understanding of my own artistry.
Francesca Harper’s Forsythe repertory workshop heightened my self-awareness and awareness to my surroundings. I became aware of how aware I became. It was exhausting to be so aware all the time. But then I saw the clarity that it brought to an improvisation by two dancers in the class – that 30 second dance said more to me than what I could write in 800 words.
In Juliana Neves’ Alain Platel repertory workshop, I got to play. Like preschool with an absent teacher, we were left in a big studio to sort ourselves out through various emotional states of being lost, drunk, nervous, calm, and a rock star. I learned a lot from the dancers in the class.
Exercises in Kenji Takagi’s Motivating Dynamics workshop provoked my immediate, most honest reactions through the many ways I could express myself with my body. Verbal communication seems so one-dimensional now.
Laura Aris’ Ultima Vez repertory workshop showed me how to harness that sense of urgency in physical risk. “Go there!”, she would urge us to reach our body’s limits, “but take care, ok?”, because it was just as important to avoid injury. Her voice still rings in my head.
Jose Agudo had so much more to teach us in his Akram Khan repertory workshop, but we were already stumped by the mix of Flamenco and Kathak rhythms in the choreography. It was rewarding for us to finally get the piece, and likewise for Agudo, who humbly confessed, “Your performance is my paycheque.”
In Damien Jalet’s Centrifugal Empowerment workshop, I found freedom in letting gravity control my movements, rather than trying to go against it. It was exciting to see the true personalities of the other dancers in the class emerge when they relinquished their own deliberate intentions to gravity and momentum. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that people dance the way they act.
Catching my breath between my workshops, I watched the numerous others. The workshop timetable was like a TV program listing and I surfed from one studio to the next. In one studio, Terence Lewis, a Bollywood choreographer, was teaching one of my favourite Bollywood dances – Kajra Re. In another studio, Archie Burnett’s Voguing was, in a sense, the modern, electrified manifestation of Afternoon of a Faun; it’s a narcissist’s dance and there is nothing more NYC than that. Finally, the Femme Funk workshop from Jermaine Browne was like the relief of speaking English after gargling through foreign languages. I realized, after challenging myself in the other dance styles, that my body felt at home in this style and I could almost pick up the choreography just by watching.
I leave Impulstanz with experiences worth more than the time I spent there. I’ll spend months reviewing everything I learned at the workshops to work it into my mind and body. I’ll reminisce over the ephemeral moments with the special people I met here, and feel blissful that together, we became part of something so much larger than ourselves.
Will I return next year? I hope so, but I can’t promise. Anyway, it wasn’t a promise that brought me here this year, it was my heart.