Crossways in Contemporary Music – Choreography & Dance I

(c) mica AME Crossways in Contemporary Music Dance

To dance without music? That sounds unimaginable to most people at first, and one would like to conclude that dance and music are inseparable. But the performing arts are vain and both dance and music are independent art forms with a long tradition. Apart from that, contemporary dance can do without music altogether if it feels like it, because it is self-sufficient. New music also demands the latter for itself, even if its creators often draw inspiration from other art forms and outside music. With the series CROSSWAYS IN CONTEMPORARY MUSIC we trace these paths.

Which Austrian composers work with choreographers, and what do their collaborations look like? Which art form dominates – which takes over the supporting part – when dance and music meet within a production? How can an elegant coexistence succeed without the music being only a means to an end, or the dance merely illustrating the music? When do composition and choreography play an independent role within a concept? What were the highlights of the last years and which productions are currently being worked on? Can recipes for good collaboration be derived? With regard to performance series and revivals, the domestic new music scene can definitely learn something from the international strongly networked dance scene.

This article focuses on contemporary productions in which music and dance are equal elements. Pieces were selected that include live music, or those in which the musicians are integrated into the stage performance. The first part outlines current collaborations of partly international choreographers with musicians, composers and sound artists living in Austria, beyond genre boundaries.



In the contemporary, things are dissected and fragmented. This applies to contemporary music as well as to contemporary dance. A brief digression: detached from the representational forms of classical ballet, “modern dance” developed in the USA from 1900 onwards as a renewal movement. The leading figures here were Martha Graham and the solo dancer  Merce Cunningham. “Dance is the rhythm of the soul,” Martha Graham reflected on her work in The New York Times in 1985. Here, the emphasis is on physical expression and feeling. The same applies to expressive dance, which also developed in the German-speaking world during this period, around Rudolf von Laban, who founded a summer dance school on Monte Verità near Ascona at the beginning of the 20th century, attracted followers of the new dance style and propagated alternative ways of life. Important companions included famous dancers such as Isadora Duncan and Mary Wigman. Laban also developed a system of notation – the Labanotation – a dance script that is still used worldwide, especially in ballet. Dance is fleeting, and music is the art of time, per se. Both are written down as an art form via notation, whereby choreographers today use the technical possibilities of video.

A good hundred years have passed since the beginnings of “modern dance”, and today it is considered a historically self-contained style, in contrast to “contemporary dance”. Both the dance and the music often rely on emotionalization, and the music becomes more of a means to an end. Contemporary dance – which is what we are interested in in this article – is today understood as a mixture of different dance styles; there is no single fixed language of movement. Each style, which often developed around outstanding dancers, teachers or companies, writes its own movement repertoire. Especially in popular culture, music and dance often merge into a stylistic whole including fashionable dress codes. One thinks here, for example, of hip-hop and its various styles. Here, however, one is no longer speaking primarily of contemporary dance, but is already moving in its own (sub-)cultural system. Contemporary dance is open to new impulses from different types of movement, such as martial arts. Thus it is in constant search and reinvents itself again and again. New music, too, thrives on being open to new approaches and constantly rewriting itself through the work of its contemporaries. So what else connects new music and contemporary dance?

Contemporary dance is often based on extensive research; it seeks proximity to other disciplines, to research, to philosophy. The findings are fragmentarily incorporated into one’s own repertoire and then integrated. In addition, the work is often processual. These approaches are not alien to New Music, which works formally on abstractly defined guidelines or draws inspiration from extra-musical objects, personal references or other art forms – and, as is well known, there are no limits to inspiration.

As part of the two-year FWF PEEK project “On the fragilities of sound” (2019-2021), for example, the Austrian composer Pia Palme conducted transdisciplinary research together with the musicologist Christina Lessiak, among others, as a collective at KUG – Kunstuniversität Graz. The experimental working method of the group lived from the mutual influence of the individual actors and from the interlocking of different practices and stores of knowledge. In intensive research and experimentation phases, the linking of movement, voice, sound and text was practically investigated. This resulted in four scenic works, including “Wechselwirkung” (Wien Modern, 2020) with dancer Paola Bianchi. Choreographer Brigitte Wilfing and composer and turntableist Jorge Sánchez-Chiong create a laboratory situation for the time of elaboration, in which the members consciously leave their disciplines and venture into new terrain. Since 2018, they have been experimenting with their transdisciplinary Assemble andother stage, artistic work in the form of “Shared Universes” – a kind of collective authorship that is a common practice in the world of comics and science fiction. More on this in part 3.


Many, especially young emerging choreographers, work with recorded music or incorporate a DJ set on stage. This may be due to easier availability, certainly also due to financial means. Often this decision is simply based on the concept at hand. Austrian choreographer Karin Pauer conceived her most recent work “Planet Body Perpetuum Mobile” exactly after Christian Fennesz’s latest album “Agora” (Touch Music, 2019) and landed a hit with it at Tanzquartier Wien.

Doris Uhlich, who has been a force in the dance scene internationally for years, explores the relationship between man and machine in a multi-layered way. In her critically acclaimed work “Universal Dancer” (2014) Uhlich explores the effect of techno music by exposing her body directly to sound waves. Via a modular panel with a base plate, she figuratively unleashes the bass waves onto her body. She does not dance, the techno basses move her flesh.

Interestingly, in “Maschinenhalle #1” – an extraordinary collaboration between Bernhard Lang, Christine Gaigg, Winfried Ritsch and Philipp Harnoncourt – prepared floor tiles play a conceptual role, except that here the dancers’ movements influence Bernhard Lang’s composition.


With Impulstanz, the largest dance festival in Europe, the federal capital Vienna is transformed once a year during the summer months into a hot spot for the international dance and performance scene. Under the label music x dance, Impulstanz offers a series of workshops in which dancers and choreographers explore music and rhythm from various points of view. Some already existing collaborations between choreographers and musicians are mentioned here as examples. In terms of genres, these tend to move in the environment of world, electronic or pop music – but the Austrian music scene is characterized by fluid genre boundaries and idiosyncratic crossover formations anyway.

For example, choreographer José Agudo, who comes from flamenco, regularly collaborates with percussionist Bernhard Schimpelsberger for his live shows and entrusts him with the music for his show reels. For the work “Silk Road,” which has been touring since 2017, Schimpelsberger – together with Giuliano Modarelli – acts as both composer and performer. In his capacity as a lecturer at Impulstanz, Agudo brought Philipp Sageder of Bauchklang to one of his workshops (“Rhythm Composition”) to accompany him musically. Rupert Huber of Tosca contributed the music to a choreographic work by Nica Berndt-Caccivio.

Producer, sound artist and composer Peter Kutin does not think in fixed genres per se. At Impulstanz 2021, the label co-founder (Ventil Records), who writes music for film, theater, live performances, and indeed contemporary dance, presented a sound installation. More precisely, a rotating, hologram-like sound object with sound for the large stage in the cinema hall of the mumok – Museum of Modern Art Vienna, which refers to what dance could be at all. When asked by the author when choreography and composition play their own role, he replied, “Personally, I don’t necessarily like too much synchronicity. I find it more exciting when movements – of performers, of sound and music, of light – each follow their own rules. When they have their own rhythm and logic, which nevertheless seem to be mutually dependent, although they may seem contrary at first. Sounds and sound patterns have a tempo, the human body also has a tempo, but if we adapt our bodies to a beat, this does not mean that sound and movement are equally fast. I think that’s a fallacy. In the piece that I will show this year at Impulstanz [BRINA – a kinaesthetic monument, 2021, note] several different medial tempos intertwine by means of a rotating sound sculpture. The exciting spaces and corridors only open up to each other in asynchronous constellations of light, sound and movement – like a kind of multimedia polyrhythm – I find that exciting in the relationship between music and dance as well.” How the recent collaboration with choreographer Philipp Gehmacher took shape in the context of the Wiener Festwochen will be revealed in the third part.


For New York-based choreographer Melanie Maar, live music and dance form a single entity. The Austrian-born choreographer, who grew up in a dance studio as the daughter of a dancer, describes this realization as follows: “For the most part, recorded music set the tone there. When, as a teenager, I took part in the flamenco workshops with my mother in Spain and the African dance classes in her studio, it continuously became more and more obvious: Live dance and music are one! Every sound is a movement. The dancer sets the ‘tone’ for the musicians, just as much as the musicians set the dancers in motion.” In her early choreographies, she used what she calls her own live body music, “very elemental, through the breath and the sounds that come from the contact of one’s body with the floor and walls. Rhythms and accents that are soundless but become audible through visible movement itself.”

NUMEROUS SENSING – Melanie Maar & Christian Schröder (c) Carolina Sánchez

Conversely, Maar has also been attracted to musicians who possess a particularly performative physicality and, in a sense, co-compose the space with their presence. Through an interest in performative expression itself, most of her collaborations with contemporary composers and sound artists have resulted. This includes Austrian electronic musician and visual artist Christian Schröder. In their work “Numerous Sensing,” they raised the question: Can a composition be developed together with choreography, so that composition and choreography become inseparable in the resulting ‘scene’? One possible answer lies in the live performance of “Numerous Sensing” – a composition and sound installation of spoken numbers and extreme breathing that Maar and Schröder perform while walking in circles.

Tanzquartier Wien is also an effective venue for the combination of dance and contemporary music, as it regularly enters into collaborations with the Wien Modern festival.

In the fall, the Tanzquartier Wien celebrates its 20th anniversary with a six-week thematic focus. It opens Vienna’s Museums Quartier with “BRUNO” (October 8-9, 2021), a large-scale choreographic work by Alix Eynaudi in which a cluster-like light sculpture is transformed into a musical instrument by Paul Kotal’s sound design.

BRUNO – Alix Eynaido (c) Daniela Trost

A younger generation of musicians working in a more subcultural way also gets a chance to perform at the Tanzquartier: for “Dancing’s Demons,” choreographer Elizabeth Ward, who comes from the U.S. and lives in Vienna, enlisted musician and media theorist Pia Hofer, aka Ana Threat, who, with her ‘lo-fi, bullshit’ attitude understands pop not as mass entertainment but as an acoustic challenge with political aspirations for sound, and as a fellow dancer on stage. Lisa Hinterreithner regularly collaborates with Elise Mory (GUSTAV, et al.), who moves playfully between rock and experimental and is on the organizing team of Girls Rock Camp. A new work, about which not much can be revealed at this point, will be on view at Tanzquartier Wien in spring 2022. At the beginning of October, Hinterreithner’s work “Up. (Unpredictable Past)” with affectively charged sounds by Lisa Kortschak and Elise Mory will be part of the Donaufestival Krems.


Florentina Holzinger is one of the most sought-after choreographers at the moment. In 2020, Holzinger, who is known for her radical blending of high culture and entertainment and taking physicality to the extreme, was awarded “Production of the Year” for her project “Dance” in the critics’ poll of Theater heute magazine. For the opening of the 70th Wiener Festwochen, she staged a procession in front of Vienna City Hall, recalling Rudolf von Laban, the aforementioned pioneer of European dance modernism, who staged the “Festzug der Gewerbe” (Procession of Trades) as an event on the Ringstrasse in 1929.

What was a tribute to craftsmanship in Laban’s work becomes an intervention in Florentina Holzinger’s, in which motor vehicles and daredevil performers put on a performance show. The music for this came from Soap&Skin, known far beyond the borders of Austria. For Florentina Holzinger’s current piece “A Divine Comedy” (premiere, Ruhrtriennale 2021) Maja Osojnik contributes the composition together with Stefan Schneider. During the rehearsal period of “A Divine Comedy” Osojnik describes in our interview with her this summer, that she enjoys the working process and the development of the piece, in short: “The content is exciting, the team is great, all great artists on board. I learn something new every day.” The work will also be seen as an Austrian premiere as part of TQW’s 20th anniversary (Oct. 22+23).

As mentioned at the beginning, new music and contemporary dance are characterized specifically by their openness to the unknown and permeability. All the more beautiful when these art forms respectfully encounter each other and open up their own fields of experimentation in order to create something new.

Ruth Ranacher


Translated from the German original by Arianna Fleur Alfreds

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