Sunday, November 25, 2012

Rotcreutzball - Learning to be Viennese

Something that Vienna does that you’d never see in America is ball season.  Balls for everything.  They’re the big, expensive parties that you’ve only dreamed of – a live band is playing waltzes or jazz, everyone dressed to the nines swirling around on an open dance floor, chandeliers lit and everything glowing with in the colors of class and aristocracy.  It’s fairytale-esque. 

When I was planning on going to Vienna and looking at what the city had to offer, ball season was one of the things I just couldn’t pass up.  What girl doesn’t want a chance to feel like a princess?

Going to a ball is a major social event here.  Highschoolers take dance lessons for at least two years to learn how to tango, rhumba, cha-cha-cha, foxtrot, and waltz.  The Viennese waltz is essential with its one-two-three beat and accompanying step.  It’s not straight one-two-three, however.  The ‘um – pah – pah’ feel is delayed a bit in a way that I can only comprehend as syncopated but here it is expected.

So I found myself at the Rotcreutzball (Red Cross Ball) in a thrifted black gown from Humana.  I’d been taking a semester of dance courses from Tanzschule Elmeyer and wanted to try my hand, as well as see what the fuss was all about.  Late in the evening, a group of friends and I (some studying in Italy and visiting for the weekend) boarded the U-Bahn to get to the Rathaus.

The Rathaus at night.

If the neo-gothic façade of the Rathaus glows intimidatingly huge from the street, the interior is only the next step.  Crystalline chandeliers hung everywhere from under the vaulted ceilings.  Red carpets lined the many stairways leading up to the main ballroom.  Paintings and tapestries hung from the walls.  Though it was only built in the late 1800’s, the Rathaus, situated like a platter of cake on the Ringstβe is a sight to behold.

I’ve heard that visitors to Vienna will most likely remember the Ringstraβe better than the historic (and older) buildings that are actually inside of the first district.  It circles the area as a wide boulevard, where a massive wall used to stand protecting Vienna.  In the 1840s it became an obstacle, working against its protective purpose as a fortification for rebels.  Thus, Emperor Franz Joseph commissioned the wall’s demise, replacing it with some of the most iconic buildings of Vienna today.  Each was built in a different architectural style to match the purpose of the building – the university is in a neo-renaissance style to signify the ideals of the enlightenment, and the parliament is in a neo-attic style to symbolize the Democracy of ancient Athens. 

This is the kind of history you walk into when you step into any of the Ringstraβe buildings, the Rathaus included.  A re-building of sorts – the purpose of this construction at the time was to make a place where both the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie could mingle in places of common interest.  Attending a ball for the first time, I felt this same kind of connect.

Though my dress was thrifted and a little out-dated, I fell right into the middle with denizens of the Rotcreutzball.  Everyone looked elegant.  Ladies in their floor-length gowns, sweeping across the hall with a glass of wine in their hands and men in their tuxedos gracefully leading the ladies around to the tune of a Strauss waltz – everyone was on the same level regardless of the type of ticket that was purchased.  


My friends and I had student tickets; the cheapest you could find and at a steal for 35 euro.  This just means getting in but not having a place to stand.  Though the place was pretty full when we arrived, it cleared out around midnight and we had no problem copping a table to sit and relax our feet. 

I can’t express how weirdly in and out of place I felt at the same time.  I’ve never done this before.  My attempts to waltz were passable, but not amazing, and even less-so compared to the other dancers spinning around me.  In the States, a ball such as this would be reserved to the upper- upper- class, and would be relatively unheard of.  When’s the last time an American needed to buy a floor-length gown?

I was dressed to code, had the proper dance shoes, even the right pair of earrings and hairstyle to fit in.  But because I was so unaccustomed to the idea of a ball, and one that I could attend, I spent most of the evening staring at the other dancers in awe.  

 The dancers.  These couples were incredible to watch.
It was just like you always hear good dancing is - it's
like watching them float on air.

Like most parties, however, everything gets leveled out when the attendees have had enough to drink.  Once the wine was freely flowing around the patrons, I saw a couple scenes that were no different from what you would experience at a regular bar.  A man bought a massive pastry just because it was funny, everyone wanted to take pictures with a midget, and a couple was making out in a shady corner of the carpeted staircase.  I guess the only real difference was the presumed atmosphere that is presented when you first step in.

Like I said, I did waltz.  My small training prepared me just enough not to fall down and to just follow whoever was leading me.  Teaching a lady to follow… I compare it to breaking in a horse, but that’s another matter entirely.  I also attempted a polka, which sent me hopping across the dance floor, gritting my teeth, holding on for dear life to the arms of the man that had asked me to dance.  I’m learning.

The experience was nothing like the clubbing experience I’ve had in Vienna.  At a ball, almost everyone can dance gracefully with a partner to almost any genre of ‘classical’ music.  The night after, I went to a club called Praterdome.  The Viennese tend to have a good sense of class, but there it’s a little bit different atmosphere.  Neon lights, strobes, and lasers replace chandeliers, and a deep bass that vibrates bones takes the place of an orchestra.  Different kind of fun.

Technically, ball season in Vienna doesn’t start until January, but now I know a bit more about what to expect.  Maybe by then I’ll even have improved my dancing.  

Sunday, November 4, 2012

An Afternoon with Klimt

           For those of you that are not aware, Vienna (and most of the world) is currently celebrating the 150th birthday of Gustav Klimt.  A healthy plethora of exhibits of original artwork have cropped up since January to honor Vienna’s home-grown painter and many have extended their exhibition closings to January 2013.  There’s even a Gustav Klimt: The Musical floating around at the KünstlerhausWien, for those that don’t do art so much as they do theater.

            Even were it Klimt off-season, Vienna would be scattered with Klimt-residue in the form of kitschy this-and-that hanging from gift-shop windows.  It’s like the spirit of the man will never really leave – you can purchase prints of TheKiss or Adele Bloch-Bauer adorning handbags, scarves, novelty pins, and refrigerator magnets nearly anywhere you go.

            The golden sheen of Kilmt’s work hangs over Vienna, and it was high time I went to actually see one of his works in the museum.  Tis the season, after all.

            I elected to go to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, as my school provides a discounted year-pass that gets me entrance and it’s within walking distance from my house.  While they do not fool you into thinking that they have one of the world-famous paintings that defined Klimt’s style to the world, they do have something entirely their own – a series of wall paintings that a 28-year-old Klimt himself did to decorate the main entry staircase.

            The story of how he came to this assignment is actually a little sad.  He wasn’t the first pick of the museum, no.  The artist that was originally commissioned to do the work died after finishing about 50% of the entire task.  Klimt, accompanied by a few other artists from an art organization of his, stepped in.

            The Kunsthistorisches Museum erected a large scaffolding in the entryway which upon climbing, allows the museum-goer a close-up view of Klimt’s early works.  Walking in and looking up, I became doubtful that his work would even be noticed by the casual observer were the scaffolding and big, bold “KLIMT” signs weren’t so blatant.  But, because stairs are there and we’re always inclined to ascend, one goes right up to be nose-to-nose with the young painter.

Because it’s the entryway to an art museum, the overwhelming theme of the staircase is that of ‘art through the ages’.  While this entire painting was completed in 1891 with the Klimt canvases, it seems to assume an interesting complete history of art and time, represented by some painters that would later become renowned for their own work.  The section-of-interest, the Klimts, rendered human figures as art movements starting with Ancient Egyptian art.

While these paintings are nowhere near the fame and notoriety that his later works would achieve, I noticed that many themes would echo hints of his later style.  The erotic nudity of the female figure, the gold leaf halos around religious beings, the influence of fabric patterns draped around the body; all of these elements were apparent.

However, I felt a little guilty getting nose-to-nose with some of these paintings.  How often had tourists passed through this museum, audio guide pressed hard to left ear, getting to the ‘real’ exhibits full of 16th and 17th century art?  How often had these gold-leafed archways accompanied by gold-leafed figures been simply passed by?  Really seeing them, not just as a part of the museum, but as a point-of-interest in the development of Vienna’s favorite son affords some kind of fascination, like sharing a secret with an old friend.

The season of Klimt is soon to end in Vienna, but here it’s always the season to wear a Klimt-patterned scarf or handbag.  I suppose that could be just as easily passed by, though.

Sorry, no pictures in this post.  Will make up for it next time!