Dancing in the Land of Edelweiss: My Adventures in Salzburg

By Sonia Reiter

December 1, 2008, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Three months ago I was living the good life. I resided in an apartment in beautiful Oakland, California seven blocks from Lake Merritt with two cats, a boyfriend and another roommate. I commuted daily to San Francisco to take class at ODC Commons with Kathleen Hermesdorf or Janice Garrett and to work in a variety of dance related employments including teaching children how to creatively move for ODC and Performing Arts Workshop, and being the Outreach/Advertising Coordinator for the righteous Dancers’ Group. I also catered, babysat, modeled for artists and generally hustled. I danced and performed with Hermesdorf, Aura Fischbeck, and Sean Dorsey among others. It was a good life but it was time for something different. In truth though I loved working at Dancers’ Group and hanging out with little kid dancers what I really wanted was to dance—all day long, and see other people doing it and do it myself in other countries where they speak other languages.

In spring of 2008 I flew to New York and auditioned for the Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance’s (SEAD) post-graduate program. Much to my surprise and delight I was accepted into the program, and decided it would be a super idea to actually do it—spend a year dancing in the tiny town of Salzburg. So, in September 2008 I packed my bags, drove across the United States and then got on a plane bound for Austria. The following are excerpts from my blog posts, letters, and journal entries chronicling experiences so far.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Arrived…the things that have happened:

1. I miss my connecting flight because the Frankfurt airport is a mess and I have to stay an extra five hours.

2. I realize that I don’t speak German.

3. I get to my school and sit in the lobby being confused for a long time.

4. I call my landlord and she has no idea who I am and therefore doesn’t have a room for me.

5. I meet very nice fellow company members who invite me to their house and give me my own room for the night.

6. I take a shower.

Friday, September 19, 2008
Wandering and Settling

It’s midnight in Salzburg. I arrived 3.5 days ago. My English has begun to change into the simplified grammatically odd style one speaks in Europe around funny Europeans. I find myself speaking this way with the other Americans here and with my boyfriend Michael and my Mom on Skype. Silly.

Salzburg has charm. The school is built on the edge of a giant mountain that juts out of the middle of Salzburg like a beautiful wart. This is where the Sound of Music was filmed and on the days when it is not gray and rainy it is quite easy to start humming “the hills are alive….” Salzburg is also the place where Mozart was born. These two pieces of history, along with beautiful architecture and landscape make the city a tourist Mecca. There’s a beautiful river and city center about a 20-minute walk from school and it’s nice to go there to look at expensive jewelry and chocolate and the plethora of Mozart paraphernalia.

Monday is the first day of school and we get to audition for two choreographers that are making work on the company. I’m a bit nervous to audition, but I’m very anxious to start dancing so I remember why I’m in here.

I’m learning a bit more about the program. The company will be known as the Bodhi Project, and act as the resident dance company here at SEAD. Bodhi for those of you who haven’t been to a local ashram lately means “enlightenment.” The school consists of a lower school with four different class levels including Grounding, Locating, Defining and Going On. It sounds like I’m still in California.

My housing is turning out to be a real hassle. I went to the place I had reserved and found a smelly, ugly place with a very old landlord who seemed kind of crazy. I later learned from previous tenants that she showed up almost every day, went through their things and on one occasion even shook them awake as they slept in their bed. Needless to say I am not living there. I have spent my days struggling to understand housing ads in German and walking long distances.

I’ve eaten at McDonalds an alarming number of times, though I will say the McDonald’s food is quite a bit better than the McDonalds in America. I don’t think the Austrians have factory farming and their salads here have shaved parmessiano-regiano on them.

Monday, September 22, 2008
First Day of School

It started at 9am with a meeting with the school’s director Susan Quinn, a former Cunningham dancer expat who started SEAD. There are 17 of us in the program: eight men and nine women. We come from Japan, Sweden, USA, Australia, India, Italy, Hungary, Denmark, Poland, Spain, Costa Rica, and the Czech Republic. Luckily for me the working language is English.

Following the meeting we had contemporary class with Jeremy Nelson who is a New Zealand choreographer living in New York City who is a former Stephen Petronio dancer. He along with his partner Luis Lara Malvacias from Venezuela will be make one the pieces on the company this session. Jeremy’s class was based in Klein technique, which is a very anatomical method of movement focusing especially on the sitz bones-heel connection. We start working slowly but soon move quickly though the space with a lot of weight transfers and even some sweet jumping Rond de jambes.

After class we had an audition with Vanessa Justice who is also a New York City choreographer. Why I had to come all the way to Austria to work with choreographers who live in New York? I have no idea… Vanessa is a very serious choreographer who had us doing improvisational exercises and we learned several phrases that were nice—very “Trisha Brown” but also with their own distinct flavor.

Then a short break for lunch in which I ate more McDonalds. I really need my own apartment so that I can cook. Seriously.

A rehearsal with Vanessa was followed by an audition with Jeremy and Luis. Everyone wants to be in their piece but they can only take a maximum of 10 dancers. Then on to another rehearsal and a three-hour rehearsal was planned with Vanessa but was canceled, which was good because otherwise I may not have been capable of moving for a week or more.

Back to Nathalee and Victoria’s house, where I ate more McDonalds—everything in Salzburg closes at 7pm, except McDonalds—and took a hot bath.

Monday, September 29, 2008
More dancing and still no room to call home

My hours away from class and rehearsal are spent desperately seeking living situations, negotiating bank accounts, visa paperwork, and insurance and being frustrated that the school has still not told us where we will tour and which choreographers we will work with in the coming year. I think it is partially the school’s policy to keep the students on a need to know basis and partially they don’t really know which choreographers are coming to teach and where we are touring.

When not frustrated by these various headaches I’m filled with profound gratitude for this exceptional opportunity.

Thursday, October 9, 2008
Peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies

These are the American products I purchased this week to help relax my brain and body, which are working very hard. Like on this keyboard (property of the school) I’m using right now the z and the y are in opposite places. I was thinking this morning about how when zou plop zourself in a brand new situation zour brain must have to work quite hard to form all new neural pathwazs to help zou deal with all this brand new information. How does the bus work? Where is the question mark on this kezboard? What is the German word for laundrz mat? And do thez even have laundrz mats here? Also dear brain, would zou mind learning a bunch of new dance repertorz and would zou mind doing that 12 hours a daz?

I finally have an apartment. The walls in my room started out a ghastly combination of red and magenta with geometric lines and flowers in yellow so I spent a few days painting and now it is pleasantly white. Yesterday my roommate Lutz came with his parents from Germany with an apartment’s worth of furniture. Including a good couch, which is very important to me. I still need furniture—all I have is a mattress on the floor. My other roommate is Vereina, also German. Both are students and are the nicest people.

This Saturday the company will have it’s first performance, which is exciting. There’s a big dance festival happening in Salzburg and our company will be performing an improvisational installation at the opening party. Our concept is to act like strange party guests standing too close to people, smelling them and then falling on the floor. This will lead us to sit stiffly at tables for 20 minutes or so and then play a rowdy game of musical chairs followed by a choral presentation of ‘we all live in a yellow submarine.’ I love contemporary dance.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

October has flown by and involved long days of dancing interrupted by sleeping, cooking and eating. Yesterday we premiered two pieces at a Salzburg theater called the Republic. The company has been warmly received but the pieces have not really been acclaimed. The works lack a certain amount of depth that happens often with a rushed creation period. Perhaps in the rehearsing period before touring we’ll have a chance to shape and ground the dances a bit more. After tonight’s performance the first break of the year begins and I will be off on a night train to Brussels, the Hollywood of contemporary dance where all the young dancers go to strike it big and secure a contract.

Sunday, November 2, 2008
Traveling and Touring

I’ve spent the past week (our first break of the year) in Brussels taking a workshop with Ultima Vez, a dance-theatre company led by Wim Vanderkeybus known for intensely physical and psychological contemporary performance by the best of the best dancers—they all wear 80s style black Reebok’s high tops. I’ve decided that I definitely need a pair. It was a great week of partnering, flying, lifting and wrestling. I got really sore, ate a few waffles, drank some good beer and listened to French and Flemish.

In the workshop I met a slew of new dancers who were very sweet and talented and come from all over including Portugal, Sweden, Palestine, Chile, and Greece among others. Dance is so much about the body located in space, but ask a dancer in Europe where they live and you are sure to get a long pause and a bit of a confused face. “Well, I was born in Denmark, but I’ve been working in Sweden for five years except when I’m working on this one project in Israel, touring, auditioning or doing workshops in Brussels or Berlin or Paris or Vienna or….” It seems the body lives where the work, performance, opportunity or information happens to be at the moment. From my current perspective it feels so different from a dancer’s experience in the United States where travel happens but one is mostly situated in one city in one dance scene. It’s exciting but also has a slightly depressing quality. I wonder how to build a real life outside of the work. I guess it’s just a different life where relationships are sustained via Skype (and in short intense bursts in the flesh), your backpack is your closet and your sleeping bag is your bed.

Speaking of travel, the company first tour date is less then a week away. I will return to Salzburg only to leave after six days for a festival in Lublin, Poland. Then in December we return to Poland to perform again, this time in Warsaw. Following Warsaw I will return for three weeks to the Bay Area to see the boyfriend, cats, family and of course Dancers’ Group before thrusting myself back into this special year. I’ll continue to share my experiences and invite you to read all about them and also to come visit Salzburg. I have a good couch.

This article appeared in the December 2008 issue of In Dance.