Gisèle Vienne has done for the idea of the serial killer with contemporary dance and experimental theatre what others have done with cult cinema and prose. The young Franco-Austrian choreographer and director is currently a ‘hot ticket’ on the highbrow international cultural circuit, packing out venues for her productions that combine the iconography of underground music culture, disposed youth and unspeakable crimes of passion.
If Vienne’s rises to prominence – which of course hasn’t happened overnight- reinforces a certain vein of the collective consciousness that remains preoccupied with the Gothic – at times her tableaux vivant of skinny teenage boys all clad in black are not far from blockbuster mainstream film and television’s notion of the contemporary vampire- then this should never be misread as Vienne simply being a fellow traveler on the bandwagon. On the contrary, as the content of her extant body of work already shows, she is far more interested in the dark forces within culture that long predate a mere current trend. Bataille, Genet, Von Sacher-Masoch; Vienne’s points of reference repeatedly return the nineteenth century and early twentieth century to extrapolate a stream of dark passion that only highlight the arriviste and uninformed nature of many of the contemporary Gothic posturings.
The very name of one of her acclaimed piece ‘KTL’ refers to Kindertotenlieder, Mahler’s song cycle for orchestra. The Austrian composer’s title – literally ‘Children’s Songs about Death’- already show the dark preoccupations of this late Romantic composer that would first inform early modernist culture in Vienna at the end of the nineteenth century and then build into a steady river flowing centrally through the Weimar Rerpublic’s ‘culture of despair’. Serial murderers, violent crimes of passion, sexual deviance and angst informing the body’s own fragmentation are all constant motifs in the culture of the period; from George Grosz’s depictions of murdered prostitutes to Fritz Lang’s film about a child murderer.
With her macabre life-sized dolls that acknowledge their lineage from Hans Belmer and a taut choreographic language that is more likely to draw on recognizable expressions of the body that we do not usually understand as formal expressions of ‘dance’ (for example, the body movements of a rock musician performing with a microphone) Vienne weaves a hybrid aesthetic that pulls these ideas and histories into a contemporary context. Her stages are filled with skinny teenage boys in jeans; the iconography of the contemporary wastrel that one might encounter lurking around empty nocturnal suburban strip malls or parks from Berlin to Barcelona. And in Gisèle Vienne’s deployment they are given a heightened, stylized expression in which their actions persistently return to the human body as an arena for violence.
Gisèle Vienne’s work has found a new audience amongst a generation that feels that it speaks to them about their world. But it has hardly developed in a vacuum. Like any other art form, choreography builds on what has gone before. Perhaps more than any other influence, the spirit of Pina Bausch looms large. And, even if the bright-eyed young audience wasn’t aware of it – of course, the Wenders’ 3-D film may have helped- one gets the feeling that Gisèle Vienne is not unaware of it. If the constantly falling snow in ‘KTL’ seems completely fresh to a younger generation, then those who have been around longer will remember Bausch’s work that used exactly the same device. What is not important is that the device is read as the signifier of ‘originality’ (or not). That Holy Grail remains within the total content and therein, Vienne has already proved herself consummate.
At its top level, the world of international contemporary dance is a small one. It is expensive and not really commercially viable, relying on sponsorship and subsidy for choreographers to realize their unique visions. Thus, there are only ever one or two choreographers from each generation privileged enough to have the resources to fully develop their oeuvres. Fortunately for her, it appears as if Gisèle Vienne is currently taking up her place amongst this elite group.
Thus, Iliana Fylla’s article, accompanied by Mathilde Darel’s stark images, on Gisèle Vienne in the current international issue of the Greek magazine Ozon provides a timely catch-up for those who are yet to hear about contemporary dance’s next big thing whilst also paying insightful attention to the more serious aspects of Vienne’s work.