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Flash Review, 6-14: Peer-less
Neumeier's "Peer Gynt" as Everyman

By Stephan Laurent
Copyright 2004 Stephan Laurent

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(To celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of John Neumeier's tenure as director, Hamburg Ballet is presenting 16 Neumeier productions for this year's Hamburg Ballet Days. Second review.)

HAMBURG -- "Peer Gynt," Henrik Ibsen's 1867 satiric literary work, is well-known to Western audiences through the music of fellow Norwegian Edvard Grieg, as his Suites from the 1876 stage version of the play have become a staple of the symphonic repertoire. The few ballet versions of "Peer Gynt" (most notably Ben Stevenson's for the Houston Ballet, re-staged last April for Stevenson's newly-constituted Texas Dance Theatre in Fort Worth, and former Hamburg Ballet soloist Francois Klaus's version for the Queensland Ballet last performed in February) have all been set to Grieg's music. In 1989, John Neumeier commissioned the contemporary Russian/German composer Alfred Schnittke for his version of this quasi-absurdist tale of a young Norwegian peasant's pranks and pitfalls, experimentations and deceits, selfish rise and abject decline, and eventual redemption through the love of the faithful and patient Solveig.

Neumeier's "Peer Gynt," seen this past Wednesday at the Hamburgische Staatsoper, unfolds in three stylistically very different acts and a breathtaking, quasi-mystic epilogue. Picking up on Ibsen's intent to portray Peer as an anti-hero who incarnates every foible and fault of mankind, the ballet begins with a first act that depicts the youth of the Norwegian equivalent to Tyll Eulenspiegel, after a surrealistic birth scene, played in total silence, in which Peer's mother Aase (in Wednesday's cast, Laura Cazzaniga) seems to re-ingurgitate humanity as slithering bodies crawl backwards under her before letting her son be born as a curled figure between her legs. Schnittke's abrasive score then takes over, and Neumeier utilizes one of his favorite devices to show the complexity of Peer Gynt -- danced with gleeful abandonment, by Ivan Urban -- in the form of other dancers enacting multiple aspects of his personality. Among those alter-egos are his soul (Anna Polikarpova, who also dances Solveig); his child aspect (Yukichi Hattori); his sensual side (Otto Bubenicek); his aggression (Jiri Bubenicek); and his doubts (Lloyd Riggins). Those dancers momentarily take Peer's place in the various scenes that unfold, for instance Hattori's playful arrival atop a child's wagon, teasing his mother Aase with wild flinging gestures, mounting her as if she was a beast of burden, and throwing her around.

After a brief encounter with Solveig, a young but solitary beauty whom he does not seem to understand, Peer steals away a bride named Ingrid (Joelle Boulogne) during her wedding ceremony, only to abuse her and discard her puppet-like remnants on the side of the stage after an erotic duet. After this pitiful act he is forced to flee the village of his youth, described here by folksy-stepping peasants in authentic-looking Norwegian costumes (by Jurgen Rose, who also designed the stunning set). This leads Peer to descend into the underworld of the Troll-King, where he finds "the Green One," the King's Daughter (Boulogne again), who persuades him to accept a pointy hat to become a troll like the other creatures prancing about wildly in the cavernous realm. But after a while Peer tires of this life too. He retreats alone high up in the mountains, where he builds a hut for himself (a mesmerizing moment as Urban energetically hammers together, on a tall platform far upstage, a strange structure formed of a ladder, a bed's headboard, and a swing). There Solveig returns to him for a while, and the strident sounds of the score make way for a melodious pas de deux sequence with fluid lifts and lyrical flowing lines. But the Woman in Green re-appears to show Peer his Troll-son. He then realizes he must leave Norway, and as he journeys away he encounters his mother, lying supine in the child-wagon of his youth, dragged about by Hattori, and Peer cradles her to her death.

The second act, which follows without intermission, depicts Peer's meteoric rise through an exotic world (in Ibsen's play this act takes place in Morocco and Egypt) and unfurls here in a glitzy Hollywood environment, complete with shouts, cameras rolling across the stage, and Oriental-looking cutout decors. Peer Gynt is seen auditioning for a mean-looking choreographer (Peter Dingle) and in spite of his bumbling executions of the precise but outlandish jazzy steps he is hired for a principal role in the show. Soon he becomes a star, competing for the public's adulation in several exotic "film scenes" with a famous actress, Anitra (Boulogne in her third incarnation), whom he finally upstages and discards as has been his habit. In his last garndiloquent role as Emperor of the World Peer falls prey to insanity, widly trashing about, and is lead away in a straightjacket. This rise and fall of our anti-hero is portrayed with precise, exaggerated technical dancing by the successive ensemble and soloists oscillating between glitzy jazz, angular modern, and balletic feats, to the unrelenting rhythmic Schnittke score.

The third act changes mood completely as the music now mournfully unfurls minimalist waves of sorrow. An aged Peer Gynt returns home, rowing a boat center stage, clad in a gray trench-coat and hat. He is joined soon by his doubting alter-ego (Riggins), who takes over the rowing while other men similarly clad in gray progress in slow-motion walks across the stage, sometimes touching their hats in an agonizingly slow salute to Peer or each other. Discarding the boat and his occupant, Peer is confronted by the child's-wagon-as-a hearse once more (this time bearing the Woman in Green/Anitra/Ingrid) and ends up sitting pensively center stage. Solveig reappears from the tall platform upstage, now revealed after the jagged, stormy backdrop vanishes. Polikarpova's depiction of the character as old and blind is highly convincing, as she stumbles about exploring the space with a white cane, seemingly never looking at anything directly. She eventually reaches the dejected figure of Peer, who is surrounded by the continuous slow procession of alter-egos in gray, now joined by a whole ensemble of similarly-clad mournful marchers, gradually subsumed in the anonymity of the grayness and the engulfing sadness of the repeated slow chords.

The Epilogue is probably one of the more luminous moments of choreography I have seen in its sober, mystic depiction of death and the afterlife. As an adagio chorus of sweet sounding voices resonate from off-stage, Solveig carefully, deliberately strips Peer of his gray garments one after the other, delicately lying them down flat on the ground, until he is as naked as he was at birth (except for a dance belt, of course). Peer helps her out of her own white dress down to her underwear, and together they slowly glide upstage, side by side, their arms moving like wings as they take their flight away from the lowly remains of their discarded clothes. The gray men's parade gradually has evolved into a slow, sweet procession of couples dressed in light blue unitards, forming a continuous wave of peacefulness in the background during Solveig and Peer's sustained final adagio. An angled mirror floats down from the stage loft so that the last picture we have of the entwined couple standing beneath it is seen simultaneously from above and from the normal frontal perspective, as the final curtain drops ever-so-slowly and the final harmonies resolve themselves.

This "Peer Gynt" is about as close to dreaming while perfectly awake in your theater seat as you can get. Neumeier's fluid choreography, sense of surrealism, and incredibly smooth transitions in ensemble movements and appearances lend an oniric quality to all three acts -- one keeps wondering where this group or that character suddenly came from. The first act is more realistic yet somehow surreal too, the second aggressively exaggerated and fast-paced, and the third incredibly smooth and mesmerizing in its arrested time. Schnittke's score alternates between energetic, dissonant full ensemble and lyrical, almost Grieg-sounding haunting melodies. The sets by Juergen Rose, who has frequently designed for Neumeier, are bold and ever-moving from all directions -- up and down, side to side, and sometimes all directions at the same time, as an iris closing or opening on a picture. The drops' dark lines are jagged and fractally abstract at times, Edvard Muensch-like in their surreal starkness at others. Rose's costuming evolves from from quasi-realistic in the first act to grandly excessive in the Hollywood scene to morose, then sublimely calm at the end. The success of this work depends also highly on the superb technique and stylistic versatility of all the Hamburg Ballet dancers, ensemble as well as soloists, from the convincing and boisterous Urban to the patient and fluid Polikarpova. They and the other soloists and corps dancers move with a physicality that is gripping.

Dramatically, Neumeier's highly personal and deeply psychological interpretation successfully communicates Ibsen's original intent: that Peer Gynt in fact is not a unique, bizarre, misogynist anti-hero character, but a metaphor for mankind as a whole. As the program tells us, in the end "Peer Gynt ist jederman" (Peer Gynt is every one of us). In the performance I attended, the sold-out audience was deeply moved, breathing collectively for a long fraction of a second after the final curtain before exploding into a boisterous standing ovation for this exceptional ballet.


(To read Stephan Laurent's Flash Review of the festival performance of "Bernstein Dances," please click here.)

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