Hail a partner: Vienna ‘taxi dancers’ waltz in for ball season

Edgar Kogler, 49-year-old “taxi dancer,” dances with a partner during a dance ball at Hofburg palace in Vienna, Austria, on February 2, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 19 February 2018
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Hail a partner: Vienna ‘taxi dancers’ waltz in for ball season

VIENNA: It’s her third Vienna ball of the season and Renate Drabek plans to dance until the small hours. Tango, waltz, rumba, boogie: her dance partner can’t say ‘no’ as she’s hired him for the evening.
Vienna’s famous ball season, which peaks in January and February, is where hard-headed business sense meets more than 100 years of tradition, whether it’s hiring someone to dance with, taking a crash course in waltzing or handing out promotional freebies.
Some 450 balls organized in the Austrian capital through the winter are expected to attract more than 500,000 revellers, mostly from Vienna, while about 55,000 of them are visitors from abroad.
All the while, thousands will earn their living in the flourishing sector, in hotels, restaurants, fashioning evening wear, hairdressing, floristry as well as the all-important ballroom orchestras.
Rono Alam is one of the season’s entrepreneurs: several times a week he’s a “taxi dancer,” accompanying female ball lovers who need a partner.
Fifty-something and impeccably dressed, Alam was formerly a keen participant in dance competitions and set up his own company around 10 years ago when he realized that “many women couldn’t find a partner to dance with.”
Working for a rival outfit, 49-year-old “taxi dancer” Edgar Kogler is the quintessential Viennese waltzer: trained in the capital’s dance schools and a youth spent opening some of its most famed balls.
A secondary schoolteacher by day, by night Kogler indulges his love of dancing, taking to the ballroom floor and carefully attuning himself to his partner’s level, tastes and conversation.
Drabek feels at ease with the dancers she “hires” for a cost of around 150 euros an evening several times during the season, ever since the death of her husband.
“I love dancing, it’s my sort of sport,” says the retiree, resplendent in a daring bustier gown.
“And I adore this atmosphere,” she says, pointing to the marble columns, chandeliers, bouquets of fresh flowers and majestic staircase at the Hofburg palace, former residence of the Habsburg emperors and one of the most sought-after ball venues.
Austria’s chamber of commerce expects ball guests to spend a record 139 million euros ($172 million) this season — eight million more than last year, or 275 euros more on average per guest.
Every ball has an entry charge, with greatly varying ticket prices that rise according to the evening’s prestige. Students pay 25 euros for a university ball held at the Hofburg, compared to 70 euros for a full-price guest.
“Some balls have become big business,” says Ronan Svabek, master of ceremonies at the most famous of them all, the Opera Ball, which took place on February 8 and where the cheapest ticket costs 290 euros.
The ball season can prove a useful way to wine and dine important business contacts, especially from abroad.
“In many business branches it is a perfect tool to get close contact to business people,” said the manager of a family-owned Austrian milling and farming company who declined to be named.
Although many of his business partners are local and are ball-goers anyway, he said he did invite certain colleagues who are keen hunters to the hunters’ ball.
These days, ball sponsors, along with press offices and product placement, are the norm.
Ball-goers at the “BonbonBall” (“Vienna’s Sweetest“) received samples and freebies from an array of biscuit, ice cream and confectionery makers.
But Svabek stresses that there are still “lots of small neighborhood balls, school balls, balls for co-workers” which all embody the essence of the Viennese institution of “gathering different people together in one place, who don’t know each other but who spend the evening together, they talk and they get to know each other, all through the sheer love of dance.”
The tradition originates in the 18th century, when the balls of the Habsburg royal court ceased to be reserved for the aristocracy alone. The Viennese began adopting court customs and ways for their own soirées.
Now there is a ball for every taste.
Hunters, café owners, florists, butchers, building caretakers, vegans, hip-hop lovers and fans of space exploration can all find a dedicated event.
Certain customs, however, unite them, such as a strict dress code, an imperial ambiance, a choreographed opening dance by young, hand-picked débutants or first-time ball attendees, a succession of dance styles and musical genres, all capped off with a midnight quadrille.
It is no longer de rigueur for attendees to have gone to a formal dance school, whose numbers in Vienna have dropped from 70 in 1998 to around 20.
Many prefer instead to take a few hours’ instruction when they can, or even a crash course in waltzing before the ball.
Though, cautions Svabek, they risk missing out on learning the finer points of Viennese manners, the key to being ball-ready.
“How to approach someone, how to get to know them, how far one should persevere, at what point one should accept,” he said, referring to ball etiquette.
“Useful rules for dancing but also in society, for our way of living together,” he says.


West End theater turns migrant camp to get London audience talking

Updated 20 June 2018
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West End theater turns migrant camp to get London audience talking

  • The Playhouse Theatre in London’s West End aims to immerse the audience in the squalid camp in the northern French port city of Calais that inspired “The Jungle.”
  • The immersive play offers a glimpse into life in the camp, telling the story of asylum-seekers, people smugglers and charity workers who used to populate it.

LONDON: London theatergoers used to spectating in comfort are in for a rude awakening after the authors of a play swapped the traditional plush velvet seating for wooden benches and covered the floor with soil to simulate the feel of a migrant camp.
The Playhouse Theatre in London’s West End aims to immerse the audience in the squalid camp in the northern French port city of Calais that inspired “The Jungle,” whose authors hope their play will stoke debate about migration.
“People often hold strong opinions about this subject because it doesn’t seem to have any immediate answer,” said Joe Murphy, 27, who co-wrote the play.
“Discussion is the only think that is going to get us forward ... and hopefully this play can provide some of that space for debate,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
Co-author Joe Robertson said the pair had “tried to depict both the terrible conditions that existed in the Jungle camp, but also the hope that existed in that place.”
Up to 10,000 people seeking ways to reach Britain used to live in the giant slum before it was cleared by authorities in late 2016.
Immigration remains a major political issue across Europe, as well as in the United States, where the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant families at the Mexican border has caused an international outcry.
Several European leaders including those of France, Germany, Italy and Austria are to hold talks on Sunday to explore how to stop people from moving around the European Union after claiming asylum in one of the Mediterranean states of arrival.
Murphy and Robertson, 28, based the script on their experience as volunteers in Calais, where they ran a temporary theater within the camp.
The immersive play offers a glimpse into life in the camp, telling the story of asylum-seekers, people smugglers and charity workers who used to populate it.
“There were 25 different nationalities of people all forced to live side by side often on top of each other and the phenomenal story about that place was people did make an effort to come together,” said Robertson.
Theatre-goers are invited to seat at the tables of the camp’s makeshift Afghan café, where the action unfolds.
“The closer you are to the audience the better the message is delivered,” said actor Ammar Hajj Ahmad, who plays one of the leading characters.
Ahmad, from Syria, is one of many actors from a refugee background featured in the play. Several asylum-seekers the authors met in Calais are also part of the cast.
“I am proud of this, I love telling stories ... about the many people who lived in Calais,” said cast-member Mohamed Sarrar, a musician from Sudan who arrived in Britain two years ago.
The play, which premiered at another London theater The Young Vic, last year, runs from July 5 to November.