The Belly Dancer

On this All Souls Day, it has been just over ten years since Hans Werner Henze passed away. I still miss him dearly. With the passing of time, it sometimes seems as if my memories of him are slowly becoming more nebulous and faded. As if in my imagination he has turned into some sort of character from a novel or a movie. Salomé by Gustave Moreau As if it were totally impossible that such a flamboyant, vivacious and outrageously clever person could have ever existed in real life, where dullness so often prevails.
But then a smile appears on my face: No, I am not mistaken, such a gentleman truly existed, and I have been fortunate enough to have spent a considerable amount of time with him. I merely have to close my eyes to hear his thin and slightly raspy voice again, and to see him pacing up and down the room, orating, smoking a joint, abruptly pausing in front of me to gaze at me intently, weighing the effect of his words.

I have many recollections of Hans, which I wish to share some time before I dissolve into the fog of time myself. For now, I will focus on a story that came to my mind the other day, while I was looking at a painting by Gustave Moreau of a dancing Salomé. I am actually not quite sure what this anecdote means to say. Is it a display of Hans’ remarkable talent to invent elaborate schemes in order to achieve what he wanted? Or did it happen out of mischief and for the sake of fun? Perhaps a combination of both? You be the judge of that, I will simply relate the facts :

It was a glorious spring day in May 1992. We were at his apartment on the Zweibrückenstraβe in Munich. Hans was on the phone with the Biennale-office, probably Christa Pfeffer. It concerned the choice of a venue for a dinner gathering with the people of the cultural department of BMW, the main sponsor of the Biennale. I was sitting opposite him at his beautifully ornamented, late 18th century desk, preparing some thin, spriggy joints for him to be consumed in the course of the afternoon. I was in Munich at that time as a member of the jury for the BMW Musiktheaterpreise. In fact, I was the chairman, nobody else raised their hand. Tania Leon was vice-chair.
Hans said that for him it was absolutely necessary there would be vegetarian food on the menu as well. The office suggested a new and highly acclaimed Iranian restaurant, in the vicinity of the Isartor, that would certainly be able to accommodate his preferences. He then paused for a second, looked at me while a tinkle appeared in his eyes and proceeded: “And Christa dear, do you think it would be at all possible zhere could also be a belly dancer at zis place as well, ja? … Ja? … Zhis would be very nice for Robbie.” He was looking at me quite intensely now and briefly lifted an eyebrow.

Henze, Zandvoort 1992 When the evening of the gathering had arrived, I made my way into a rather dimly lit cellar (after all, that’s where things happen in Munich). It was tastefully decorated, both chic and exotic, with a lot of ochre and terra colours. Tania Leon was also there, and Hans and Fausto, as well as about four people from BMW. It was a very pleasant evening, Hans was seated on my righthand side, to my left was herr Richard Gaul, the head of the communications department. We chattered politely and nicely, very much like one does on such occasions. The food was excellent and the conversation was much more cultured than you might expect from the representatives of a car manufacturer. Really nice and kind-hearted people. So everything seemed completely normal, straightforward and predictable.

Then, all of a sudden , at the point where we were kind of done with the main course, the lights dimmed even further. A spotlight lit up and beamed its cone of light at the grey shutter doors of the kitchen. Arabic music sounded out from the speakers, fairly loud, tantalizing and percussive. The kitchen doors swayed open and out came a belly dancer, with raven black hair and a caramel complexion that made a striking contrast with the white translucent veil that covered her face and shoulders. Skilfully and seductive, she started to move in the direction of our table, while slowly unveiling herself. Two or three waiters clapped along with the music and faintly imitated some of her moves. Little bells, attached to a string around her pelvis and on her white laced brassiere, were tinkling as she wiggled her hips and shook her voluptuous bosom. I was pleasantly enchanted by her for a few moments. Until I started to sense a strange trembling, as if there was a minor earthquake, on my righthand side. It was Hans, who produced a grumbling that sounded like a distant but rapidly approaching train, a volcano about to erupt. His hands were shaking and he seemed poised to rise up from his chair. First he muttered “Das….. das ist ja doch furchtbar!!” still in a rather mezzopiano kind of voice. But then he went crescendo molto subito: “Das ist ja… ein SKANDAL!!!” He now was standing upright and the last words were shouted at the top of his voice.

Chaos and confusion enfolded in the restaurant. The music was cut off abruptly and its void was filled by a somewhat concerned murmur from the other guests. The danseuse stood still, looking somewhat bewildered and indecisive, until the headwaiter put his hand on her shoulder and started ushering her in the direction of the kitchen. Herr Gaul looked a bit pale around the nose and seemed to mainly concentrate his gaze on the part of the table right in front of him. Throughout all this, Fausto intermittingly tried to cool down the situation: “Hans, …piano … piano!!” he admonished sternly, while moving both his hands downwards simultaneously, as if pushing down air. What a wonderful counterpoint.
After the belly dancer had disappeared, Hans gradually seemed to calm down. Tania spoke some comforting words, and persuaded him to sit down. Less than a minute after that, he leans over to me and whispers in my ear: “Would you like to sleep wizh zhis woman? I can arrránge that, you know.”

Rob Zuidam, November 2nd 2022.