The New York Times

An Invisible Director Gets Physical

by Tobi Tobias


When Johannes Wieland gave his dance company no name but his own - just that, Johannes Wieland - it may have been the only ego-driven act of his career. More typically, this postmodern choreographer, whose austere dances suggest both physical and psychic violence, operates like a disappearing act.


Mr. Wieland's small, feisty company will appear at the Citigroup Theater Thursday through Saturday in a program featuring two pieces new to New York, "artificial" and "reverse," as well as excerpts from "coma," a work in progress. Mr. Wieland, still a fluent mover at 37, will perform in none of them. When he does dance, it's usually in a brief solo piece, his actions the equivalent of whispers and shadows, his head shying away from the spectator's gaze. In rehearsal and conversation, he is the gentlest of creatures, solicitous of everyone's well-being. He looks like an ascetic monk in a 15th-century Flemish painting, and his presence is so unemphatic as to be on the verge of vanishing.


Mr. Wieland's choreography for his group, however, tells a different story. The work is obsessive, nakedly so, and that is crucial to its power. It's lean and mean, often threatening, usually enigmatic and occasionally bizarre. Still, though the dances are generally abstract, with an architectural structure that evokes the Bauhaus, they are not infernal machines. Rather, they serve as conduits for emotional atmosphere, revealing contemporary urban life laid bare: the perilous landscape, the harsh terms of survival, the repressed feeling about to explode, the unraveling relationships, the numb perseverance.


The movement vocabulary of these pieces has a ballet base because Mr. Wieland trained as a classical dancer and because ballet is the lingua franca among today's concert dancers. But a slew of other modes adds to the picture, such as contact improvisation, in which bodies moving at full throttle cantilever unpredictably off one another to achieve, fleetingly, improbable feats and configurations.


Every move is a metaphor. In "membrane," when the dancers slither in and out of glossy black windbreakers - their own and their partners', even if the partners are still wearing them - the viewer is clearly meant to think of the term "second skin" and then think further on how such personal armor can be penetrated. In a Wieland piece, even the décor is metaphoric. Time and again, the dancers operate in and around lighted boxes that read easily as cages, cells for solitary confinement or vitrines offering tempting wares for sale. (The dancers keep their faces impassive, which only intensifies their sensuous allure.)


Mr. Wieland will tell you his dances are conceptual, sprung from ideas that, he says cavalierly, may be more or less apparent in the outcome. The dances tell you that their maker is heavily invested in how things look. Even Mr. Wieland's most menacing stage pictures remain handsome. So here is a choreographer primarily interested in thoughts - which are, by definition, invisible - and in sights that can be effectively freeze-framed. Contrary to usual choreographic practice, music and motion (motion, that is, for its own visceral sake) take second place. "Dance is just my medium," Mr. Wieland concurs. "A tool."

by Tobi Tobias, Published, November 13, 2005


A three-hour working session on the segments of "coma" reveals material that seems far from finished. Mr. Wieland allows himself to create (and then modify) slowly, meditatively, in collaboration with his dancers, keeping every possible option open. His aesthetic procrastination is worthy of Jerome Robbins, who was famous for holding onto myriad variations on a passage before making his final decision. But Mr. Wieland has a keen eye and a commitment to his vision that gives his slowly arrived-at choices the air of inevitability.


A run-through of the "coma" segments in the session's last 15 minutes, suddenly looks performance-ready - physically confident and laden with half-hidden meanings. It's vivid, too. A passage with split-second dressing, stripping and simulated shooting - reiterated, then run in retrograde - comes across like a Raymond Chandler-esque film noir.


Mr. Wieland has been something of an escape artist, elusively slipping from one mode to another. He was born in Germany, where his father was a fourth-generation physician and his mother came from a musical family. (This dual heritage, he proposes, accounts for his meticulous analytical inclinations on the one hand and his artistic leanings on the other.) He studied dance - ballet, primarily - in Hamburg, then earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Amsterdam. His career first took him back to Germany and then to Lausanne, Switzerland, where he was a principal dancer for Maurice Béjart.


The yearlong stint with the Béjart company was his glory period as a performer, but it was marred by personal problems. Earlier, over a span of eight months, he had experienced the death of five close relatives, including his father and a sister. He thought he had pieced his life together again, but in Switzerland, he says, he felt events catch up with him. He decided to make a radical change.


He emigrated to the United States, enrolling at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, where he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree. His choreography - terse, strange pieces - attracted attention even before he graduated in 2002. That same year he formed his company.


Since then, Mr. Wieland's work, performed in new-dance spaces, has received positive attention from The New York Times, The Village Voice and Dance magazine. It generated recognition abroad as well, notably, a Kurt Jooss Prize in 2004, commemorating that early innovator in modern ballet. The award gave Mr. Wieland financial encouragement and the opportunity to show his winning work "shift" on a program that included two pieces by Pina Bausch. Still, despite his gifts and his early acclaim, Mr. Wieland's future remains precarious, as is true for all but the most celebrated and established American choreographers. Any one of them could disappear overnight.