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Flash Review Journal, 11-19: Voyagers
Journeys with John Neumeier

By Stephan Laurent
Copyright 2003 Stephan Laurent

HAMBURG and COPENHAGEN -- The Hamburg Ballet this year celebrates its 30th season under the leadership of John Neumeier, and to commemorate the anniversary this thrilling company has embarked on a highly ambitious schedule of 18 different productions: 17 revivals, nearly all of them evening-length, and one premiere, "Death in Venice," slated for December 7.

Neumeier, under whose inspired direction I had the privilege to dance decades ago, has proven to be one of the landmark choreographers of the past 40 years. Aside from his remarkable output for his own company, which has extensively toured worldwide, we find his ballets in the repertoire of some of the leading companies across the globe: American Ballet Theatre, National Ballet of Canada, Royal Danish Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, Ballet of the Mariinsky Theatre, Tokyo Ballet, Vienna State Opera, and the Royal Ballet in London, to name only a few. He has tackled a number of narrative story-ballets, including contemporary re-working of the traditional balletic repertoire such as "The Sleeping Beauty," "The Nutcracker," and "Swan Lake." Other evening-length works include abstract meditations on some of the greatest symphonic and choral works of our time, such as his celebrated "Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler" and "Matthaeus-Passion." It was thus with great anticipation that I prepared myself to attend two recent monumental Neumeier productions: "Winterreise," at Hamburg's Staatsoper, and "The Odyssey," presented by the Royal Danish Ballet at Copenhagen's Kongelige Teater.

Neumeier uniquely mixes both an intellectual and an organic approach to choreography and dramaturgy. He is a deep thinker who seeks under each story, each situation, each score the hidden significance, the symbolic connection, the personal or universal meaning. One finds so many layers in his ballets that by the time the final curtain falls there is a longing for seeing the whole work again, for a first viewing only seems to barely skim the surface. This is true not only of the narrative aspect of his works, but also of their choreographic design, which is deeply harmonic, utilizing groups as a counterpoint for the spatial tracings of a soloist, or combining together multiple layers of space and time within different groups. In this sense, Neumeier is truly a composer of choreographic symphonies in much the same way as Massine was. He also is a master at blending (as opposed to juxtaposing) very contemporary movement with very pure classical ballet technique. He lets the impulse of motion take over no matter where it leads; he carves space across all dimensions, flowing through amazing sculptural or tormented shapes only to emerge with a sparkling arabesque, as if resolving an anguished musical chord back to its tonal root.

"Winterreise," as performed by the Hamburg Ballet October 26, is a meditation on the personal journey of the individual as he or she tries to comprehend a world that seems to constantly (and aggressively) change around the wanderer. Its title, in English meaning "Winter Journey," is derived from a cycle of lieder by Franz Schubert, adapted and expanded upon by the contemporary German composer Hans Zender. The premiere took place in December of 2001. Against a backdrop of kaleidoscopic assemblage of black-and-white portraits of all sorts of people young and old, a vast, snow-swept plain illuminated by a solitary lamppost emerges. The orchestra pit is circled with a semi-circular apron glistening with fresh snow which drifts on the first rows of the audience with each crossing of the recurring characters that take the foreground in a melancholic trudge or a rapid dash while on the main stage elaborate, multi-level groupings or agonized solos or duets occur. There is one central figure, a bespectacled young Japanese man (Yukichi Hattori) dressed in an oversized sweater and a sherpa fur hat, bumping occasionally against other people dressed in empire coats with fur collars or in contemporary garb. Other characters, both male and female, take center stage successively in the role of the wanderer. Their sinuous carving motions through their personal space receive answers from fragments of group movement where the key to the psychological state of the character can perhaps be found. There is a recurring image of a hesitant walk with both arms outstretched and crossed in front of the chest, only to recoil into a sudden jump in fetal position, bent knees and elbows tightly gathered. One of the strongest moments in the ballet occurs when the voyager struggles desperately to prop up a huge leaning glass surface against which tightly packed bodies are pressed, clawing the window in desperation before rolling inexorably towards stage right until they fall into the wing -- a chilling reminder of the September 11 death plunges burned into our eyes by their televised images.

A sense of unanswered foreboding permeates the whole work. The journey of the wanderer(s) may be a flight or a quest -- but Neumeier doesn't depict the origin or destination of this voyage, letting the audience fill in the details and the possible meanings on their own.

The Hamburg Ballet dancers, corps and soloists, are uniformly strong in their technique and perform the demanding, twisting shapes which resolve themselves into breathtaking classical leaps or turns with a physicality that is gripping. The convincing principals included the above-mentioned Hattori, disarming in his youthful earnestness, as well as Ivan Urban, Jiri Bubenicek, Peter Dingle, Lloyd Riggins, Helene Bouchet, Silvia Azzoni, Laura Cazzaniga, Anja Behrend, Elizabeth Loscavio, and Joelle Boulogne. All of them performed with total physical commitment and complete mastery of the technical demands. The stark scenery by Yannis Kokos intelligently mixes real elements such as a door or a lamp-post with symbolic ones -- the faces on the backdrop, an upside-down twig flying in, or a desert plain. Zender's score faithfully quotes Schubert then comments on either words or music with elaborate symphonic treatment not shying away from dissonance. "Winterreise" is definitely a work that should to be seen widely; If it tours to a theater near you, as it deserves, be sure to attend more than one performance.

The Royal Danish Ballet under Frank Andersen has meritoriously enlarged its repertoire to include contemporary choreographers such as Mats Ek, William Forsythe and Neumeier. While the Bournonville repertoire in which the Danes excel continues to be a centerpiece at the Kongelige Teater, and other classical evening-length works such as Kenneth MacMillan's "Manon" are also regularly seen, Neumeier's "The Odyssey" was on the program in early November.

"The Odyssey," after Homer's immortal classic epic drama, on a contemporary score by the Greek composer George Couroupos, is another of the 'today-meets-yesterday' adaptations of a classic at which Neumeier excels. Originally premiered in Athens in 1995 by the Hamburg Ballet, the work faithfully represents the diverse stages of Ulysses's journey home from the Trojan War and his tribulations against monsters such as Polyphem the cyclops and the powerful magician Circe, or away from the delectable nymph-princess Calypso. But time constantly oscillates between pre-Hellenic Greece and today. For instance, the gods' Mount Parnassus is represented as a balcony towering over the upstage area where white-clad elegant socialites seem to enjoy an endless cocktail party while watching on television images of the bombing of Iraq during the first Gulf War. As Neumeier explains in a program note, "Without war the Odyssey is inconceivable. For me it's about how a human being rediscovers himself after a ten-year war; how he finds his way back from the male-defined macho world of battle and war and rediscovers his feminine side. It is called Penelope."

As such, "The Odyssey" is a meditation on the effects of war on the human as much as it is the depiction of the heroic homeward journey of a lone figure against the formidable odds thrown his way by capricious gods. Stripped of his mythical garb, Ulysses (ably if at times hesitantly portrayed here by Martin James) becomes a very likeable companion. Penelope's desperate weaving and unweaving of a shroud for Ulysses's father as a way to postpone the unrelenting assault of her suitors back home involves a long red piece of red cloth passing through the interlocked hands of a chorus of maidens. Telemachus, Ulysses's son (an energetic and very believable Dawid Kupinski), has grand swirling moments during his quest for the father he never believes dead. During a stunning, groveling scene played on the apron thrown across the orchestra pit, Ulysses consults with the soul of his departed mother Anticlea, grimly incarnated here by Lis Jeppesen (whose portrayal of "La Sylphide" remains one of the best ever immortalized on video); she literally emerges from Hades as she mournfully climbs from the pit to prophesize that her son must persevere, only to wretchedly slither away again into the depths. But perhaps the most formidable character in this epic saga may be the Sea, stunningly represented by a group of women clad in huge dark blue dresses, whose long trains sweep the stage as they unendingly cross from one wing to the other, tense torsos inclined at a perfect diagonal against the winds, and from which the wretched, ship-wrecked mariner emerges on more than one occasion.

The Odyssey is, like other Neumeier ballets, a multi-level work both dramatically and choreographically. There isn't ever a movement phrase that occurs alone or a thought that is not developed into more musings. The depth of this work is truly epic, and it is cause for rejoicing to see it adopted by other companies besides Hamburg.

The Hamburg Ballet will tour Neumeier's acclaimed evening-length "Nijinsky" to the U.S. February 11-28, hitting Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, DC. But if you really want to immerse yourself in this great choreographer's considerable work, go to the Hanseatic city in June for the 30th Hamburger Ballett-Tage, when you can witness the entirety of this amazing company's repertoire this season, including the two works reviewed above, as well as "Romeo and Juliet," "Peer Gynt," "The Seagull," "Matthaeus-Passion," "Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler," and "Death in Venice," among others, from June 6 - 27.

Born, raised, and trained in Lausanne, Switzerland, Stephan Laurent emigrated to the US in 1977, after a dancing career in several European ballet companies. After obtaining his MFA in Dance from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX, he has shared his time between the professional world and academic settings, choreographing over 50 works ranging from classical evening-length ballets to contemporary chamber works. He left his position of artistic director of the Des Moines Ballet in Iowa in 1988 to become Chair of the Butler University department of dance and direct the Butler Ballet in Indianapolis, IN, a position he held until September 2003. He is currently on sabbatical in Europe, visiting the major dance capitals and renewing contact with his mentors.

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