“melancholic ground” at Wiener Festwochen

Dana Rufolo in Vienna
19 June 2023

Vienna’s May-June Wiener Festwochen date back to 1951 when the city decided to re-invent itself as a post-World-War-Two centre for culture. This year’s offerings included theatre, music theatre, opera, dance, performance, cabaret, visual arts, discourse (talks including Oleksandra Matviichuk’s 2023 “A Speech to Europe”), and night life entertainment. This article is a short treatment of melancholic ground by Austrian choreographer and dancer Doris Uhlich, a performance piece that offers “subtle resistance … against the dictates of productivity and the standardization of bodies” in the Donaupark children’s playground Sparefroh.   


Photo credit: Dana Rufolo.


I took part in the 2019 Wiener Festwochen’s experimental performance piece Breath Core which was a low-lighting indoor performance of the sound of actors breathing with accompanying instruments. I therefore attended the June 2023 free admission performance of melancholic ground with the expectation that it would be a similarly out-of-the-ordinary experience. But perhaps because theatre is in a post-Covid stage right now and the festival artistic director has the goal simply to re-start cultural experiences, melancholic ground was an extensive performance piece that was highly traditional with little sign of new conceptual thinking.  

Uhlich’s piece is original because it incorporates performers with physical handicaps and in wheelchairs as well as performers who are facing no apparent physical challenges – they were of differing ages from about 20 to around 70. However, how these performers were deployed comes out from an already tried and true aesthetic.    

Although I haven’t been able to find any post-performance reference to Thomas Bernhard in connection with Uhlich’s piece and she herself denies it, melancholic ground was advertised by Wiener Festwochen as a revisiting of melancholy as interpreted by Thomas Bernhard, the major Austrian playwright who wrote bitingly critical and almost eccentrically unusual plays. Critical esteem of these plays is increasing and they are seen as quintessentially Viennese.   


Photo credit: Dana Rufolo.


Thomas Bernhard speaks of melancholy in a Viennese context in the 1970 film Drei Tage (Three Days). Here is an excerpt from Douglas Robertson’s 2013 translation: “Melancholy is quite a beautiful condition.  I fall into it quite easily and quite readily.  Not too often or pretty much never when I’m in the country, where I work, but right away in the city… For me there is no more beautiful place than Vienna and the melancholy that I feel in the city and have always felt… there are the people there whom I’ve known for two decades, and who are melancholy… there are the Viennese streets.  There’s the atmosphere of that city, the city of studies, quite naturally.  There are the ever-unchanging sentences that people there utter to me, probably the same ones that I utter to those people, a marvellous prerequisite for melancholy.  You sit anywhere in a park, for hours on end, in a café, for hours on end—melancholy.  There are the young writers of yesteryear, who are no longer young.  Suddenly you see one who is no longer a young person, he’s pretending to be a young person—probably just as I pretend to be a young person but am no longer a young person.  And it intensifies over time, but it becomes quite beautiful.” 


Photo credit: Alexi Pelekanos.


Melancholy as Bernhard defines it is the memory of accumulated repetitions of words, gestures, and movements that lose intensity over time. This is a fair definition of melancholy that can be applied to melancholic ground. Nonetheless, the repetition of rhythms, or even the mirroring of other performers’ repetitive gestures while slowly incorporating slight variations were not aspects of the performance. The performers instead seemed to be expressing personal emotions, often anger, frustration, or hostility. Uhlich’s dramaturgy reveals the chasm between therapy and performance.  

Therapy involves the emergence of the individual’s personality, a self-expression that expands and – if successful – somehow enchants or informs the audience because it speaks to a shared Zeitgeist. Performance shows the performer internalizing that he is addressing an audience and conforming to the thematic objectives of the piece – performance draws the audience magnetically into a deep and detoxified space. So, a performer’s “handicap” is not what we are led to stare at but is simply a part of the performer’s personality. That is true unbiased equality which purportedly Uhlich is looking for.   


Photo credit: Karolina Miernik


These performers all had the look of “the first time” about them in an unintentional reversal of the Stanislavskian actor. The performers had not been instructed by their choreographer to take their initial impulsive actions and convert them into one imbued with her concept of melancholy. There hadn’t been enough intellectual pre-performance conversations.  For instance, one performer who must normally feel glued to his wheelchair because he is legless, for whom the wheelchair’s wheels must feel like substitutes for his legs, rocked on a large sort of see-saw with his wheelchair atop the opposite side sometimes with brute energy and sometimes more passively, but there was no accumulation of meaning in his gestures. The energy he used came from an embarrassed awareness that he was performing, and not from a deep-seated understanding that he had to open up a channel of melancholy between himself and his audience. Similarly, a woman’s implicitly aggressive burying of a male performer up to his neck in the wood-shavings of one area of the playground acquired no metaphorical meaning, because it also did not trigger any melancholic feelings. And why were a tightly packed group of performers slipping slowly sideways down a long playground slide clad in silver costumes, other than for the fact that their choreographer believed this to be a startling image?  

Although the performers were paid and some of them have worked with Uhlich before – the disabled performers since 2017 – they gave the impression of being amateurs. This has often, over the decades, been a problem in performances. The instructions given to the performer are not specific enough, rehearsals are not long enough, and the performers have to rely on their own initiative.   

It seems to me that performance developed nebulously out of the experimental music movement and its link to “happenings” back in the late middle of the twentieth century. The work of John Cage for instance. Untrained, enthusiastic amateur performers were dazzling to the audience, simply because the aesthetic was new. And, of course, there may have been people in the audience in Vienna for whom this kind of performance is utterly new, and they might have been fascinated. But I doubt it. I overheard one person tell teenaged sons that it was a lesson in tolerating boredom, and they were immediately to switch off their mobile phones. That is because not only were the performers self-referential and their initial impulses did not correspond to the choreographer’s purported meaning but also the entire performance was dissipated. Fields of performance like circus rings were never truly distinguishable. Music floated out of low-quality loudspeakers in English, some kind of contemporarily popular songs that may have sung of melancholy or may have been perceived as melancholic in tempo wafted through the otherwise silent air, the audience including children were stony silent – no laughter, an occasional chuckle, no smiles. No tears.