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.
Dance rehearsals at the Theatre an der Wien. That’s me with hands on hips.
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 cube shrouded in white silk, with the word ‘Geduld‘ written on it. ‘Patience’. When the silk dropped, there was the most exquisite small-scale theatre, glittering and black as though carved from jet. Elephants reared either side of the stage, balancing the proscenium on raised trunks. Throughout the performance the spaces of the stage seemingly endlessly reconfigured. 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 descended briefly before being whisked aside to reveal ever deeper layers of mystery.
Gauzes shimmered, effecting complex transformations, while the lighting mimicked the flickering gas footlights and the limelight ‘spots’ of nineteenth century music-hall. The stage was a platform for 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.
Warrior Angel. The start perhaps of all the angels that would later populate my paintings.
Part II may be found HERE
This share was amazing, how wonderful to be a part of this adventure where you were a highly qualified protagonist. So glad that you were able to share it with us. More please…
Clive, I remember this! You going to Vienna, but never knew the details. So glad you are now bringing everything together. Of course all of it is you, you have always been an artist. I remember your sketches for costumes and make-up, your designs were always sublime!
Dancer, designer, creator of magical things always. You were and are, a most gifted and talented man in whichever area you choose to scatter your magic dust/glitter over!
Yes, yes, yes, this is why time machines will be so popular!
You know, painter Makoto Fujimura did a book of his blog posts called “Refractions,” and I think you should do one as well. Or maybe a series. Your theater life, dancing and directing and endlessly on (since you did everything.) Your marvelous pieces on animals, wild and tame. Your art and collaborations and tiny theaters.
I so wish he would Marly!
We need to beg him, perhaps. I’ll bet Peter would help, too. (Not to mention Jack… inspiration!)
The problem is that he is constantly busy, working against time for deadlines. If only one had the funds to commission him to do it, then it might happen!
Lorrie, Marly, I’m greatly touched by your enthusiasm for the Arlog, and by your beliefs that I might make a book from its contents. But the fact is that producing such a publication would be a massively time-consuming and expensive enterprise, and despite your belief in me, I don’t believe that ‘Clive’s Monster Book of Blogging’ would find a ready market!
While I love books and I enjoy making them, these days I have to confine myself to working on projects that are publisher-led. Artlogger Maria Maestre is forever importuning me to to make more books, and her ideas are splendid and give me pause for thought. But there are no offers coming in on this front, and self-publishing would take all of my time, energies and money. Moreover, making all these books would keep me from my easel, which would rather defeat the object, the subtitle of the blog being ‘views from the artist’s studio’.
I do occasionally get panic attacks about the long-term security of what I’ve produced here. I’ve been running the Artlog since 2008, and that’s a hell of a lot of writing. Even I get surprises when I dig deep into the archive, discovering posts and series of posts that I’d forgotten about. But while I’d be devastated to lose it all, I can’t dedicate my life to shaping it into a book.
Marly has occasionally mused on the fact that in another life I might have been a writer. I’m not so sure. I know that being one worthy of the job description would have taken a great deal more time than I quarry to regularly blog, and a great more skill than I currently possess. I do my best, and it’s enough that many of you seem to enjoy what I produce here. I’ll keep it going for as long as I can.
Clive, I would be happy to have print outs of everything, and make my own book! There is something about hard copy that is very reassuring. I am a bit old school, I want to touch and turn pages.
If I ever had the huge funds neccesary, I would commission you! 😍💋
Oh Clive I was mesmerized reading this & seeing the photos. What an extrodinary & amazingly interesting project it must have been to work on. I could see instantly the effect it had on some of your pieces you shared with us . Feeling honored & blessed to have been a part of it. Now open those boxes they won’t bite , we need to see more pretty please ❤️
Oh Clive, this is so wonderful! And I love being able to see ideas and interests that echo in your work to-day, Absolutely fascinating. I just wish I could see the expression on your face in that top picture (although I can imagine..) 😉
One day I will tell you about that particular young man, though not here. Suffice to say that on my last day in Vienna he sprang quite a surprise on me.
Hey this post is awesome. You should do more like this, and possibly in colour.
Hi Anton. Thank you. Glad you liked this post. All of these particular images of Flic Flac were made in black and white, though if I dig deep into my old scrapbooks I probably have some colour snapshots that I took. I’ll have a riffle through them.
These costumes- and the photographs of them- are astonishing- they are the stuff of dreams and Weimar cabaret- and so much more besides. What eloquence there is in your writing- and what surety of vision in all you produce…
What are you doing sitting at your laptop you naughty boy? You should be painting!!! (-;
i am totally blown away! what amazing costumes, i can’t imagine the experience! and look at you!
you worked on some fantastic productions…i am so happy that you share these experiences, they are too unique to be lost.
trapeze is so much fun to work with, i danced for a few years with a trapeze studio in the city, and i loved it. i still pester g every once in awhile to hang me one on the huge (*huge*) swing set behind the house…
Yes, I’d buried this stuff for too long. Hiding it all away was part of my coping strategy when I gave up the theatre. But I can see now the impact of it all on my work as a painter, and I feel at a stage where I can confidently unpack and examine it. I show it here on the Artlog in the spirit of being open about my influences. After all, there are parts of me that will forever be dancer, choreographer, director and designer.
Tell G from me to get that trapeze up in the yard! But go safely. No playing on it after a glass of wine!!!