In London in 1981 I met a woman named Sigi Hertzog, who’d turned up rather mysteriously one day to watch me teach class at the Dance Centre in Floral Street, Covent Garden. The class wasn’t that well attended as many of my regulars were on a national tour of the musical Grease, which I’d finished choreographing a few weeks earlier. I was concerned that class was thinly populated, but Sigi seemed pleased with what she saw. Afterwards we met for coffee and a chat, and she put her enigmatic proposition of a job to me. Less than a week later I’d been set up in an apartment in Vienna, about to start rehearsals on André Heller’s production of Flic Flac, the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of that year’s Vienna Festival. Rehearsals seemed to be already underway, which I was a little surprised at. It turned out I was not the first choreographer on the project. There had been another one before me, perhaps two. The production had undergone cast changes too, and there was a sense that no-one was quite safe. The driver who collected me from the airport suggested that I not bother to unpack for a few weeks!
Sigi, Heller’s assistant and trouble-shooter, had been dispatched to London to find a suitable new choreographer for Flic Flac. I met the director only briefly one evening at a spectacularly elegant house in Vienna. Lots of dark walls, polished floors and mirrors reflecting the glimmer of antique urns. He gave me very little by way of guidance as to exactly what Flic Flac was, and no brief at all as to how he saw the choreography for the production. He spoke in terms of poetry rather than staging specifics. On that front I was to be on my own. For Flic Flac I would learn to divine the ‘tone’ of what the director had in mind, and to conjure that for him through movement. (Sometimes I think perhaps Heller had no idea what he wanted, and it was in fact my job to provide him with options to choose from.) The morning after our meeting I presented myself at the mirrored ballet rehearsal rooms of the Theatre an der Wien, and walked into one of the most bizarre experiences of my choreographic life.
How to describe Flic Flac? Heller himself described it as ‘ein poetisches varieté’, and that probably sums it up as well as anything. The cast of acrobats, speciality performers and dancers were drawn from all over the world. The rehearsal rooms were a United Nations of languages. The dancers were American and British and Austrian, and an impressively beautiful team of men and women they were. The production team too was multi-national. Heller was assisted by the capable Sigi, who I later learned, was the sister of the film director Werner Hertzog, and indeed her brother and I later sat next to each other in the audience when Flic Flac opened at the Wiener Konzerthaus. The costume designer was the multi-talented Annette Beaufays. Makeup and prosthetics were by Rino Carboni, who had been a makeup artist on the films of Federico Fellini and had also done makeup for the films of Sergio Leone, including For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. There were a number of distinguished ‘guest’ designers on the production, including the legendary Erté, who Heller had persuaded to provide a beautiful drop-cloth design for the production. The director also commissioned scenic artists to meticulously re-created historic stage drop-cloths by Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Heller was deft at bringing names to the production that added allure and lustre by association. He liked the best to support him.
The mood in rehearsals when he was present was muted, in some ways more like a film set than a stage rehearsal, with Heller the auteur calling all the shots. He would appear suddenly at the dance rehearsals with his retinue, and at that point any new work would be presented to him. He never raised his voice. He spoke quietly and everyone around him had to operate quietly too. My boisterous American dancers often had him grinding his teeth! There were animals in the production, and at various times I shared rehearsal space with a menagerie of pythons, some sizeable alligators and a kangaroo. Heller liked to keep a striking retinue around him. Always beautiful women, little people and animals. Somewhere there’s a photograph of me at the opening of Flic Flac in the company of a chimpanzee!
I choreographed all aspects of movement on the show, and was also called upon to stage the trapeze work. My rehearsal bag contained jazz shoes, tap shoes and tightrope slippers. The experience was quite a wild ride!
What audiences saw when they first entered the Baroque splendours of the Konzerthaus, was a vast free-standing edifice shrouded in white silk, with the word ‘Geduld‘ written on it. ‘Patience’. When the silk was dropped, there was revealed the most exquisite small-scale theatre, glittering and black as though carved from jet. Life-sized elephants reared either side of the proscenium arch, balancing the architecture on raised trunks. The whole thing was mechanised and changed before your eyes. It was like some extraordinary music box, one of those where mirrors unfold and a tiny ballerina revolves so that nothing stays constant. Planes shifted as figures emerged from stage traps. Spaces expanded and contracted, evolving as layers of ravishing drop cloths unravelled briefly before being whisked aside to reveal ever deeper layers of mystery.
Gauzes shimmered, effecting complex transformations, the lighting mimicking the flickering gas footlights and the limelight ‘spots’ of nineteenth century music-hall. And all this was peopled by the most amazing cast of characters. Little people and giants, clowns, transvestites and transsexuals, acrobats and fakirs, illusionists and aerialists.
Audiences were rapt. Long before the days when the physical skills and house-style of Cirque du Soleil had conquered the world, Flic Flac was was like nothing I’d ever seen.