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December 1996

Waltzing Along the Danube: A Viennese ball extravaganza

The balls of Vienna

The century is drawing to a close but Vienna hasn't stop waltzing. It may just as well be 1897 in the city's ballrooms. Thousands of couples whirl to the one-two-three rhythm of the legendary music of Lehár and Strauss. At the Vienna Opera the command "Alles Walzer" still sends a shiver down the national spine. The most famous of the balls is the Vienna Opera Ball. When I attended, I understood for the first time how Cinderella must have felt. A gray drizzle had settled over Vienna as we squeezed into the last parking place in front of the Altstadt Vienna Hotel. Herr Hirsch, part butler, part concierge and the soul of the hotel, deposited our suitcases in a tiny room on the ground floor and apologized profusely that he was unable to give us a larger room upstairs. Like most of the city's hotels, the Altstadt was fully booked for the Vienna Opera Ball weekend. We had never been to a ball before, and the renowned Vienna Opera Ball was the first of three we planned to attend during our waltz weekend in Vienna last February. "I think we need to practice our left turns," said my husband Henning. There was barely enough room to waltz without bumping into the furniture. Each year nearly 5,000 paying guests and more than 1,500 members of the ball staff and opera company attend the Opera Ball, a tradition that has its roots in the 19th century. It is a celebration of the waltz and the Viennese way of life, with profits going toward next year's event. The Austrian capital holds more than 300 balls every year. In season, from just before Christmas to just after Easter, there is a ball almost every night of the week and, on some nights, three or four. Every profession holds its own: the Policemen's Ball, the Taxi Driver's Ball, the Confectioners' Ball. Some are private, open only to members; but most are open to the public, and everyone with a ticket, a ball gown and black or white tie is welcome. The Vienna State Opera had been transformed overnight. In less than 36 hours, 350 workers had removed the seats, built additional boxes, laid a parquet floor and created a summer garden with lilac trees and balconies draped in pink carnations. Liveried footmen stood at the entrance, where guests were ascending the marble staircase. We checked our coats and watched the celebrities before joining the procession to the mezzanine, where all the boxes are. The most formal and elegant of the season, the Opera Ball is mainly for debutantes. One hundred and eighty couples, chosen from the 800 who apply, form the Opening Committee of debutantes and spend nearly a year drilling for the opening quadrille. The dress code is as rigid as the dance steps: long white gowns and identical rhinestone tiaras for the debutantes and white tie and tails for their escorts, mouse gray for the gentlemen in uniform, tails and floor-length evening gowns for everyone else. Jewels are brought out of safes or borrowed from discreet jewelers by the celebrated, and many Viennese men trot out their red and white sashes and Imperial decorations. The ball opens with a trumpet fanfare followed by two ballet sequences danced by the ballet corps of the Vienna Opera. The debutantes and their escorts then enter from the stage into the ballroom and dance the quadrille. Those without box seats line the ballroom or buy additional standing room tickets for the backstage area. We decided to avoid the crowd and get a bird's-eye view from the balcony, -the best place to be at the opening and the only place to view the intricate patterns of the quadrille. Shortly after, the music stopped and two words boomed out of the loudspeakers: "Alles Walzer!" At that moment the ballroom shifted into a kaleidoscope of color as thousands of couples began to whirl to the one-two-three rhythm they learned as children. Several orchestras and bands provided the nonstop music. The opening fanfare was played by the brass ensemble of the opera's orchestra. The Vienna Opera Ball Orchestra, dedicated to preserving and playing Viennese dance music of the 19th century, was in the main ballroom, alternating with Axel Rot and his orchestra, a popular dance band. It took us more than half an hour to descend the staircases to the ballroom. When we finally got there the dance floor was so crowded we could barely move. Most of Vienna seemed to be at the ball. They paid the equivalent of DM 390 to get in and an additional DM 14,000 to nearly DM 25,000 for a box. A table for six in one of the outlying rooms went for almost DM 1,400. Dressing rooms, backstage areas, even the catacombs of the opera filled up with ballgoers. In the basement, a disco with music arranged by a popular radio station catered to the waltz-weary, and the employee canteen served beer at DM 7 a half pint for those who found the price of DM 420 to DM 560 for a bottle of Champagne upstairs a bit too high. The result was a mixture of glamour and grunge, designer gowns and family jewels rubbing shoulders with polyester and recycled bridesmaid's dresses. Celebrities come to be seen and rarely leave the safety of their boxes. But the rest come to waltz. And once the VIPs have departed, the opera belongs to them. They'll dance until 6 in the morning, then adjourn to the cafés and hotels that open early to serve an after-the-ball breakfast of beer and goulash soup. Our second ball, the Bonbon, is held by the Süsswarenhändler, or candy and sweets dealers of Austria, not to be confused with the confectioners, who hold their ball later. The Konzerthaus, a concert hall dating from 1912-13, was transformed into several ballrooms, each with it's own orchestra. The decorations, which paled in comparison to the Opera Ball's, consisted mainly of potted palms, flowers borrowed from city greenhouses and a revolving mirrored globe in the main ballroom. Candy makers advertised their products with displays and signs among the potted azaleas and wilted carnations. The 4,500 ballgoers were generally younger and less expensively dressed than at the Opera Ball, and the event far more local; most of the guests seemed to know one another, making it difficult for outsiders like ourselves to mingle. As at most balls in Vienna, the ticket to the Bonbon Ball (DM 64) gets you through the door and nothing else. Tables are additional. Refreshments tend to be liquid, with snacks and light courses. The Viennese practice of eating before the ball, not during, made particular sense here. The Magicians Ball at the Vienna Hilton was a relaxed, relatively small affair, with no more than 1,000 guests. About half the men wore tuxedos instead of tails. There were fewer waltzes and more sambas and disco music, fewer diamonds and more sequins. More than 100 magicians performed at the ball. Each ballroom had its own orchestra and stage where the magicians performed between dances. We had decided to spring for a table. For DM 57 we sat on the sidelines of the main ballroom where we could watch the show, sip a glass of wine and relax between dances. At 3 in the morning, having watched 40 magicians and danced two cha-chas and a dozen waltzes, we wandered out to one of the food stands in the lobby and had hot dogs and goulash soup before returning to the Altstadt. We had a late breakfast in the parlor of the Altstadt. The owner gave us a CD of Strauss waltzes to keep as a souvenir and Herr Hirsch carried our suitcases to the car. He looked tired. "What's the next event?" I asked. "Rudolfina Redoute, -a masked ball." We were almost on the freeway before I realized that the tune Henning was whistling was a waltz. "Do you want to do it again?" I asked. "You don't mean next year, do you?" Actually I had been thinking of next week but said nothing. I had already circled the date of the next ball in my calendar. It takes about five hours to drive from Vienna to Munich and I still had plenty of time to convince him. Waltzing after midnight in Viennese splendor A BALLGOERS' GUIDE THE OPERA BALL In White Tie And Tails Black or white tie and long gowns are the standard attire at most of Vienna's balls. At the Opera Ball white tails and gala ball gowns are required. Retailers say they sell more evening clothes in Vienna than in any other city in Europe. Those traveling to the ball should take their formal attire along with them; otherwise, be sure to reserve your tails early. Munich's formal rental shops are often sold out in the weeks near the major balls; in Vienna most ballgoers reserve their formal wear before Christmas. Information and reservations for the Opera Ball are available at the Opernballbüro, tel +43 1 51 44 40. The 1997 ball takes place on February 6, and begins at 22:00. Below are the prices for this year's ball; DM 1 equals approximately 7 ÖS. Entrance ticket: ÖS 2,700. Boxes and Tables: Boxes cost from ÖS 95,000-170,000 for 4-8 people; table seating costs approximately ÖS 2,000 per person. Balcony and gallery seating: Since it's almost impossible to view the opening from the ballroom floor, people sometimes buy an additional ticket for a seat in the balcony; prices range from ÖS 150 for standing room to ÖS 700 for a first row seat. OTHER VIENNESE GALAS With almost every profession having its own ball (not only for members), Vienna's heart really beats in three-four time. At the beginning of the year balls spring up all over town, varying in size as well as price (admission ranges from ÖS 600 to ÖS 1,500). The following is a small selection of balls in Vienna that take place at the Hofburg, unless otherwise noted. Most hotels hold pre-ball events for their guests and many offer packages including ball tickets and dinner.For a complete list, call the Vienna Tourist Bureau at +43 1 21 11 40. 31.12 Imperial Ball. Tickets: Kongresszentrum Hofburg, A-1014 Wien; tel. +43 1 587 36 66-23. 10.01 Flower Ball, at the Rathaus. Tickets: Verein der Städtischen Gartenbediensteten Wiens, Am Heumarkt 2b, A-1030 Wien; tel. +43 1 71 11 69 72 47. 17.01 Ball of the Army Officers. Tickets: Militärkommando Wien, Panikengasse 2, A-1160 Wien; tel. +43 1 49 161-250. 23.01 Ball of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, at the Musikverein. Tickets: Wiener Philharmoniker, Bösendorfrstr.12, A-1010 Wien; tel. +43 1 505 65 25. 25.01 Vienna Physicians' Ball. Tickets: Ärztekammer für Wien, Weihburggasse 10-12, A-1010 Wien; tel. +43 1 515 01-243. 27.01 Hunter's Ball. Tickets: Grünes Kreuz, Eschenbachgasse 11, A-1010 Wien. Tel. (0043) 587 85 18. 29.01 Ball of the Viennese Coffee House Owners. Tickets: Club der Wiener Kaffeehausbesitzer, Stubenring 8-10, A-1010 Wien; tel. +43 1 514 50-241.

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