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Buzzblog, 9-16: Diaghilev Forever
In Hamburg, every season celebrates the Ballets Russes

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2009 Paul Ben-Itzak

The thing I don't like about centennial celebrations is their one-off aspect, celebrating once every hundred years a vital heritage which is then put back in the attic to gather dust until the next calendar coincidence rolls around. So this year, ballet companies and theaters around the world are suddenly remembering a movement, Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, whose aesthetic values and means they should be looking to every year as a standard, but largely don't. With one exception.

In Hamburg, where John Neumeier's prototypical "Nijinsky" will be performed Friday, the Milwaukee-born Neumeier has for more than three decades followed in the tradition of Fokine and Nijinsky in re-forming a classical vocabulary to use dance to create new interpretations of classic stories. These are ballets I want to see, both for the subject matter and the instrument -- the choreographer's uniquely fertile and febrile kinetic and literary mind -- that's doing the telling. Just take a look at this season's line-up, which ranges from the revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire" to a new take on "Orpheus" to a program, "The Floating World," which offers the Hamburg premieres of two Japanese-inspired ballets Neumeier created on the Tokyo Ballet.

In "Seasons -- the Color of Time," set to Claude Debussy, Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, Minoru Miki, Giuseppe Verdi, and Joji Yuasa, Neumeier says, "The central character experiences a kind of journey through the seasons. The question is, are these the exterior seasons of nature, are they seasons of the present, past, or future, or the interior seasons of his own existence and destiny? The seasons he experiences are sometimes reflected in his mood and actions, sometimes contrasting. At times, the man has various companions with and around him during his journey. He may, in fact, experience himself in other seasons of his life. But, as in every life, he is also accompanied by Time rushing him forward, and the blessing of Memory carrying him gently back."

Also look at the respectful way in which Neumeier works with the local, Japanese setting in a decidedly non Orientalist way in talking about the other work on the June 2010 program, "Seven Haiku ot the Moon." I wanted to approach Japanese culture in a very direct, honest and artistically constructive way. That is, not to copy Japanese 'style' superficially, but rather to study and to try to understand certain essences of this very special culture through direct contact with music and poetry. Of course, such understanding remains subjective since it is my (American-European) understanding of Yuasa's music or a Haiku by Basho that inspires the choreography."

This being the 100th anniversary of the you-know-what, Hamburg does offer an official "Hommage aux Ballets Russes" of the first rank, opening September 24 and comprised of Neumeier's version of "Le Pavillon d'Armide," Fokine's version of which premiered at the Maryinsky in 1907 with Pavlova before being featured on that first Ballets Russes Paris program in 1909; Balanchine's 1929 "Prodigal Son," which had its company premiere on Hamburg in June; and the trail-blazing reconstruction of Nijinsky's "Sacre du Printemps" by Millicent Hodson and Nicolas Roerich, originally commissioned by another American who almost singularly revived the Ballets Russes tradition in the United States, Robert Joffrey.

For a full breakdown of Hamburg's extraordinary season -- including some groovy images -- check the Hamburg Ballet site. To read more about Neumeier and Hamburg Ballet on the Dance Insider, check my DI colleague Stephan Laurent's Flash of "Nijinsky," which includes links to Laurent's other reviews of Neumeier works seen in Hamburg and my own take on "Nijinsky" as performed in Paris. And look for Neumeier's "Sylvia" soon on a major American company. Also see my review of the 2000 Nijinsky exhibition at the Orsay Museum in Paris, which drew heavily on Neumeier's collection.


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