Dancing by Herself: When the Waltz Went Solo

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Waltzing can go on for hours in an endless rotation, as partners coiled in each other’s arms whisk around a brimming dance floor. It requires a significant amount of physical contact, which is why the waltz was considered somewhat of a guilty pleasure until the early 19th century, when its popularity finally overthrew propriety. And now during the coronavirus pandemic close partner dancing raises eyebrows again.

In Vienna, the home of the waltz, a wave of cancellations has shut down the annual ball season. Usually, in January and February, hundreds of luxurious celebrations are held across the city, including a New Year’s Eve ball, the Hofburg Silvesterball, at the Imperial Palace. Just after this year’s events wrapped, lockdowns began. Planning for a new season’s programs came to a halt.

The waltz may have a reputation as the ultimate social dance for partners — the way it is traditionally performed at the balls — but there is another interpretation, one that resonates in this pandemic year of physical distancing. More than a century ago, the Viennese dancer Grete Wiesenthal transformed the waltz into a powerful form of solo movement.

When Wiesenthal first performed her choreography, with its swirling, euphoric movement and suspended arches of the body, she became a champion of free dance in Vienna and a cultural force in the city’s highest artistic circles.

Though her name is not usually found among the internationally renowned pioneers of modern dance, like Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis and Loie Fuller, Wiesenthal is revered in Austria, where her dances have been revived periodically since her death 50 years ago.

Like many Viennese, Wiesenthal, who was born in 1885, grew up with the waltz but her training was in classical ballet. She refined her technique at the school of the Vienna Court Opera, where, she would later insist, there was no focus on artistry.

A solo style of waltzing was Wiesenthal’s answer to what she considered ballet’s weakening relationship to music. She saw the art form, and the Opera’s productions, as hopelessly committed to uniformity, with no space for dancers’ self-expression.

Wiesenthal developed her own technique, which she called spherical dance, and it was centered on a different axis than ballet. Turns and extensions were set on a horizontal line of the body, and her arms, torso and legs would stretch across space simultaneously. With bent knees, she manipulated the momentum of her turns and could tilt into crescent-shaped back bends. Not clasped to a partner, she was free to sweep her arms gracefully, plunging her into balance-defying leans.

Spinning was a critical movement in her dances, as it is in the waltz. And while her contemporaries, Duncan and St. Denis, also turned freely and in more open positions than ballet, they mostly remained vertical. Wiesenthal’s torso was not fixed in a stacked position above her hips, allowing her to create more exaggerated angles.

Wiesenthal also drew inspiration from nature. In addition to smaller theaters, she often performed outside, removing the barrier between audience and stage, and created dances that reflected the elements and her surrounding environment.

The cultural historian Alys X. George, the author of “The Naked Truth: Viennese Modernism and the Body” (2020), said in an interview that the artistic avant-garde in Vienna, who adored Duncan and St. Denis, were thrilled with the homegrown Wiesenthal when she introduced her contemporary style.

“That was just electrifying for the city because Wiesenthal really took this Austrian dance form, the waltz, and gave it a new lease on life,” she said. “She liberated it from the balls, she brought it outdoors, she linked it with nature, too, but kept the ties to music that have so animated the Viennese cultural sphere.”

The Viennese have loved the waltz for centuries. It began in the 18th century as a rambunctious, folksy country dance in parts of Germany and Austria, and swiftly spread through the social classes, rising to prominence among the upper classes and aristocracy as an elegant form of entertainment. In Vienna, the waltz — the city’s version is distinguished by the music’s three-count structure danced at high speeds — edged out the uptight minuet in the early 19th century, and composers like Johann Strauss senior and Joseph Lanner popularized it around the world.

In the waltz, Wiesenthal found what she believed ballet had grown cold to — musicality. “Nobody knew anything about the growing together of music and movement,” she said in a 1910 lecture. “My wish for a different dance, for a truer dance became ever stronger and more defined and at the same time, with the ballet dances, I learned how one should not do it.”

Despite her disillusionment with ballet she began her professional career with the Vienna Court Opera. She danced there for several years, departing after a contentious casting decision that put her at the center of a battle between Gustav Mahler, then director of the Opera, and a ballet master, Josef Hassreiter. Mahler gave Wiesenthal — a member of the corps de ballet — a solo in “La Muette de Portici,” which infuriated Hassreiter and went directly against his wishes.

Just a few months after the “La Muette” premiere, Wiesenthal left the company and, as she put it, a life of “staying with the beat and not getting out of line.”

At the start of 1908, Wiesenthal and her sisters, Elsa and Berta, made their debut at Cabaret Fledermaus with original choreography. They danced together and performed solos, but it was Wiesenthal’s “Donauwalzer” solo to Strauss’s “On the Beautiful Blue Danube,” that was the program’s highlight. (When she became famous, street musicians would serenade her with Strauss’s waltz, the dancer La Meri said decades later.)

The Wiesenthal sisters danced in Vienna and Berlin, and in 1909 made an appearance at the London Hippodrome. They were a hit in London, where The Dancing Times later wrote that the sisters “were not mere performers; they were poems.” In 1912, when Wiesenthal first came to the United States, solo, bringing her program to the Winter Theater, The New York Review, a weekly theater paper, called her “the high priestess of joy and ecstasy.”

Wiesenthal’s energized approach to dance inspired many collaborations with Vienna’s leading artists. In 1910, with her solo reputation on the rise, the playwright and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal became a close creative partner. She starred in his pantomimes and silent films, distilling complex narratives through their emotional essence rather than literal gestures.

She also was in the premiere of Richard Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s “Ariadne Auf Naxos” (1912) in a self-choreographed role, and was contracted to perform with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in the spring of 1913, the same month the curtain opened on “The Rite of Spring.” Though it never materialized, said Andrea Amort, founder and director of the dance archive at the Music and Arts University of the City of Vienna, it was to have been a new production, with a libretto by Hofmannsthal and danced by Nijinsky, Wiesenthal and Ida Rubinstein.

Throughout her career, critics and audiences admired her dancing for its daintiness, and critics consistently noted her charm and femininity in their reviews. But Wiesenthal was experimenting with the extremes of the waltz’s expressive potential.

She was also exploring a deeper connection between dancer and audience. “It seems her secret was to have her dancers waltz not with each other but alone, in such a way that the audience felt itself to be the partner,” the dance writer George Jackson said in the program notes to George Balanchine’s “Vienna Waltzes(1977). (Balanchine’s work, in its final section, also features a solo waltzer who moves across the stage luring the audience along with her.) Wiesenthal, Mr. Jackson wrote, “was able to take the closed waltz and open it to inspection without destroying its essence.”

Her choreography is full of delicate nuances, and its subtleties thrilled audiences when she performed in intimate theaters. Her dances, though, tend to lose some power when performed on a large opera stage. Jolantha Seyfried, a former first soloist with the Vienna State Opera Ballet who performed three Wiesenthal works in the 1980s and ’90s, remembered rehearsing her “Death and the Maiden” (“Der Tod und das Mädchen”).

“Besides these huge swings and floating movements, she has very tiny, very sensitive movements,” Ms. Seyfried said in a video interview, demonstrating an energy flowing through her own hand. “She works sometimes just with the fingers, she lets the fingers breathe.”

Ms. Seyfried is currently working with Ms. Amort (both are professors in the dance department at Music and Arts University), on reviving a fuller exploration of her technique, and not just her repertory. The Vienna State Opera Ballet Academy is also now considering introducing her technique and choreography into its curriculum.

Wiesenthal’s articulation of the music, and her choice of composers — Strauss (Johann, Josef and Richard), Schubert, Beethoven, Chopin — inextricably linked her to the waltz. But it was an entirely new vision.

By the time she returned to America for her second tour, along with the Vienna State Opera dancer Willy Franzl, in 1933, audiences had moved on to different forms of expressive modern dancing and her style was received as pure nostalgia. John Martin, the dance critic for The New York Times, wrote: “Hers was in its day exhilarating dancing, make no mistake. When it can be seen, at some future time, in relation to its period, it will again be exhilarating dancing.”

Maybe now is that future time. It is a year when a bold solo waltz, unattached to any grand theatrical conventions, can seem not only refreshingly of the moment but also exhilarating once again.

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