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Forget the economy, let's have a ball, say Viennese

AFTER spending a month sewing the beading on to her white satin gown, Russian student Emma Akopjan is attending her first Vienna ball and hopes to forget the economic downturn for just one magical night.

The season is in full swing and showing few effects of the economic crisis, with many of the city's 450 balls fully booked and 300,000 people attending.

"It does not depend upon whether it is a time of crisis or not, balls were always in Vienna ... and you wish for just one night which is a fairytale," said the 21-year-old economics student at the Moscow Ball in Vienna's neo-Gothic City Hall.

The Moscow Ball is one of the newest additions and highlights the Vienna season's international standing, with dozens of young Russians like Akopjan flying in to make their debut in a throw-back to a bygone era of imperial splendor.

Dancers twirl in gowns and black tails, or sip champagne and listen to the orchestra at tables decorated with white roses and scarlet amaryllis.

"Compared to last year's balls there is no difference. People still like to have fun," said Roland Krupitza, out of breath after dancing to Johann Strauss' "The Blue Danube."

Austria's economy declined in the fourth quarter of 2008 for the first time in eight years and the downturn is just beginning to make itself felt among the population.

Krupitza, 47, a tour operator, has seen a slowdown in business but that did not deter him and hundreds of others from dancing through the night.

"People are feeling the pinch in their wallets, but they don't want to admit that something is happening ... they are wearing blinkers, like horses," he said.

Although the balls are as well-attended as ever, Austria's business leaders and politicians are keeping a low profile, grappling with the fallout from the financial crisis which is likely to spread as the quarterly earnings season approaches.

Austrian companies such Voestalpine, a supplier to Europe's car industry, have issued earnings warnings this year and several banks are in talks with the government about drawing on its rescue package.

"The only ball where you can tell the impact of the financial crisis, and this is a political impact, is the Opera Ball which some politicians and chief executives have said they will not attend," said Brigitte Jank, president of the Vienna Chamber of Commerce.

The Opera Ball on Thursday, the high point of the season and traditionally an event for high society to be seen, was shown live on national television.

The ball was sold out, despite giddy prices ranging from 230 euros (US$288) for a normal ticket to 17,000 euros for a box, according to an official on the organizing committee.

Company heads such as Telekom Austria's Boris Nemsic and Raiffeisen Zentralbank's Walter Rothensteiner will not be attending this year.

"In times like these when you are talking to the government about a capital injection, it just doesn't look very good to sit there in public, sipping champagne at the Opera Ball," said a banker.

Local politicians and organizers argue the show must go on and the balls provide a stimulus to the economy, especially at the start of the year when spending is sluggish.

"For the whole season we are expecting a consumer investment of 65 million euros, on average 215 euros per ball guest on the tickets, clothes, shoes, hair, taxis, dinner before the ball ..." said Jank.

City's business card

Eva Dintsis, an organizer with the Opera Ball, said it would be counterproductive to cancel or shun the usual festivities.

"Some 40 companies start work on the ball four months in advance for the carpets, wallpaper, renovation ... and there are an incredible number of people working at the ball itself, caterers, musicians ..." she said.

Austria's ball tradition is proving a popular export, with Viennese balls now established in cities such as Johannesburg and New York.

"We see Viennese balls as a form of business card for the city," said Renate Brauner, deputy mayor of Vienna.

"We sometimes combine them with economic presentations, and try to present Vienna as a tourist destination ... it is a romantic and very Viennese way to present our city."

For most Viennese, however, the balls are a long-held tradition, one they are not likely to forgo in the near future.

"For us Austrians, it goes without saying that your wardrobe includes black tie, tail coat or ball gown ... and that you attend a dance school," said Renate Danler, managing director of the Hofburg Palace, which is hosting 17 balls.

Danler, 50, herself a keen dancer, said Viennese would rather spend less on other things than miss out on their beloved balls.

The last luxury the Viennese would give up would be their balls, said Christian Rainer, 47, editor of Austrian weekly magazine "Profil."

"The Viennese would spend their last cent on balls because it is the nucleus of Viennese social life ... we would dance into disaster."


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