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Flash Review 1, 6-11: A Summer Night's Dream
Master Dances from Hamburg and Neumeier

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By Stephan Laurent
Copyright 2004 Stephan Laurent

HAMBURG -- It has been a tradition every June in this sunny Northern city for the Hamburg Ballet to hold a retrospective festival recapitulating the season just passed. This year however holds special significance, as 2003-2004 marks the company's 30th anniversary season under the inspired leadership of John Neumeier, as important a force in 20th/21st-century ballet as Michel Fokine was at the turn of the last century. The "Dreissigste Hamburger Ballettage" (Thirtieth Ballet Days) which opened last week-end at the Staatsoper will feature no less than 16 ballets by this seminal choreographer, most of them evening-length, spread over 21 days. This is a feat which few other companies could undertake, not only because of the sheer scope of the aesthetic vision, but also because of the financial and personnel resources involved. As such, this festival is a true retrospective of Neumeier's impressive achievements over the last three decades, and a vivid demonstration of the depth of technique and artistry (and ability to absorb an amazing amount of choreography!) among the Hamburg Ballet's 57 dancers, who hail from 23 different countries. Many of these accomplished artists have spent as much as 15 years with the company.

The festival opened this past Sunday with the 1974 "Romeo and Juliet," which I'll review later, as it is one of the few ballets on the festival presented with more than one cast. The second ballet on the schedule, seen Tuesday June 8, was the 1998 evening-length "Bernstein Dances." (Introducing the book "John Neumeier: Traum Wege" in 1980, Leonard Bernstein wrote: "John Neumeier is not only a fascinating and gifted choreographer: he is a thinker, and a profoundly mystical poet. It is rarely, if ever, that I make a transatlantic trip to attend a single event, but I have done so twice for Neumeier events: once for 'West Side Story' and again for that unforgettable evening of ballets to my music. Both journeys were intensely rewarding, and indicative of the great esteem in which I hold this treasured colleague and friend.")

This engaging evening-length work is much more than what its subtitle, "a Ballettrevue," may imply. One might have anticipated a series of short vignettes designed mostly for their entertainment purpose, with a bit of jazzy Broadway stuff thrown in for fluff. But this would be discounting Neumeier's exquisite sense of the psychological and the dramatic, as well as his deep understanding of music. "Bernstein Dances" is a vibrant homage to the great American composer and conductor, as well as a meditation on Bernstein's ambitions, his vision, and his inner fears.

The ballet begins with the buoyant and sometimes bombastic overture to "Candide." Midway through this musical appetizer, the curtain opens to reveal giant photo portraits of Bernstein bravura conducting postures at various stages of his career, while in the corner emerges a piano at which a slumped figure (on June 8, Lloyd Riggins) seems to be dreaming. This incarnation of Bernstein slowly emerges from his torpor, and begins to dance, at first tentatively, then more buoyantly as diverse aspects of his personality, embodied by eight different dancers, join in. While the Bernstein portraits rise up and vanish, bright photographs of the New York City skyline light up on the back wall and frame the action during the entire first act, a colorful rainbow featuring some of the best-known compositions by Bernstein, including excerpts from "Peter Pan," "On the Town," the somewhat teary-eyed "Mass," and of course the unforgettable and highly dynamic Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story." The latter piece provides a rousing first-act finale to this joyous, optimistic retrospective of Bernstein's work, with high-kicking, jazzy daredevil steps mixed in with technical treats from the large ensemble as well as Riggins himself and his alter-egos. The breathtaking tempo of entrances and exits left the audience clapping long after the curtain had fallen for intermission.

The second act is much more introspective and reveals Neumeier's sensibility to the complex personality of the doubt-plagued composer. The setting could be an orchestra rehearsal hall, or perhaps a banquet hall or some penthouse. Semi-transparent double doors in the background revealing a piano area keep opening and closing to successive entrances of people at times seen only as shadows (guests? patrons? critics?) while Riggins and his alter egos interact questioningly. A beautiful and lyrical pas de deux between Riggins and Anna Polkarpova around a large table keeps being interrupted by one of the incarnations of Bernstein's doubts who emerges from beneath. In another scene, trench coat-clad men and women walk to each other for a brief hug then move on to other partners, sometimes of the same gender, freezing for a moment in an almost comic yet deeply troubled embrace. Riggins's meditations are accompanied sometimes by the live piano behind the doors, but the majority of this act is set to the hauntingly beautiful, abstract, tormented "Serenade after Plato's Symposium" for violin, harp, percussion and strings. Here Neumeier uses his talent for sculpting the body into stunningly twisted shapes, and flowing from surprising lifts to flowing balletic combinations seamlessly. This act captures the depth of Bernstein's ambivalence about his own self, incarnated by the dramatically powerful dancing of Lloyd Riggins and his alter-egos (among whom Jiri Bubenicek and Ivan Urban gave particularly strong performances).

The end of the ballet is subdued, quiet, almost questioning; but as a curtain call we hear again the vibrant tunes of the "Candide" overture while group after group, then soloists and finally Riggins himself dance their curtain call with renewed vigor and bravura.

On the night I saw it, a sold-out house gave the Hamburg Ballet a rousing 10 curtain calls, culminating to a standing ovation upon the entrance of Neumeier. Obviously, this amazingly prolific choreographer has built and nurtured an audience that understands him and eats from his hand, and will be thronging every night to the Staatsoper for more drama, artistic vision, and great dancing as the festival continues over the next two weeks.

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