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Review, 6-18: Torn Origami
Neumeier's Living 'Seagull'
By Stephan Laurent
Copyright 2004 Stephan Laurent
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(To celebrate the
30th anniversary of John Neumeier's tenure as director, Hamburg
Ballet is presenting 16 Neumeier creations for this year's Hamburg
Ballet Days. Fourth review.)
HAMBURG -- John Neumeier's
deep love for literature is one of the motivating factors in his artistry.
His admiration for Anton Chekhov, the Russian master of the intimate
drama, goes back for decades. Ever since seeing a rendition by Lee
Strasberg of "The Three Sisters" for the Actors Studio in New York,
Neumeier had intended to choose this play for a ballet. The project,
however, lingered in his sketchbooks for years, until 1996, when he
saw "The Seagull" at the Berlin Schaubuehne and suddenly realized
that this was the Chekhov play he wanted to translate choreographically.
In a program note for Saturday's Hamburg Ballet performance of the
work at the Staatsopera, he explained: "What spoke to me in 'The Seagull'
was the tension between artistic life and love life... Unhappy in
love -- unhappy in art. Success in art -- failure in love.... Another
theme in 'The Seagull' is the combination of missed chances or overlooked
opportunities in one's past."
Thus it was that finally
in 2002 Neumeier inspired himself from Chekhov's play to choreograph
yet another evening-length work, "The Seagull." Saturday's performance,
as part of the Hamburg Ballet Days, was the work's 20th. Neumeier's
interpretation of the Russian playwright's intimate drama of failed
relationships and questioning one's own belief in art is admittedly
loose (or, as the title notes, "freely adapted from Chekhov") but
captures very aptly the inner tensions of the characters, with a
sardonic look at "traditional art" thrown in for good measure.
The characters in the
play have been retained, as well as the provincial location of most
of the action, away from the hustle and bustle of the capital. Instead
of being an actress, however, Arkadina (danced on June 12 with airy
loftiness by Anna Polikarpova) is a famous ballerina. Her son Kostja
(a dreamy-eyed Ivan Urban) is a young choreographer experimenting
with modernism. Arkadina's lover is the established ballet master
Trigorin (Otto Bubenicek, subtly cynical in his commanding presence).
And Nina (Heather Jurgensen, earnest and forthright), the country
girl who in Chekhov's play dreams to have an acting career, is here
an aspiring dancer. To accompany the ballet, Neumeier chose mostly
Dmitri Shostakhovich (the entirety of his Symphony # 15, a movement
from his Piano Concerto # 2, and several other short pieces by Shostakhovich
and a few other composers). Neumeier himself designed the scenery
and the costumes.
Before the music begins,
an open curtain reveals a makeshift square stage high up against
a pastoral landscape with a softly roiling lake in a bluish background,
and Kostja dreamily folding piece of paper into an origami seagull
shape downstage left, sitting on the steps of a simple pinewood
staircase leading to the country estate of his uncle Sorin.
retained from the play) are clearly established shortly afterwards.
Sorin (Lloyd Riggins) is a bumbling but loveable uncle to Kostja.
Arkadina's affection for her son is evident, but she is mostly involved
in her successful career and her long-term relationship with Trigorin.
Kostja and Nina are seemingly deeply in love, in addition to their
professional liaison. The housekeeper's daughter Mascha (Joelle
Boulogne) is pining after Kostja, while the village schoolteacher
Medwedenko (Peter Dingle) is secretly hoping for her affection.
All of the protagonists have come to Sorin's estate for a preview
of Kostja's latest choreographic essay, an angular, austere piece
performed by Nina and seven unitard-clad dancers on the makeshift
stage, to a relentlessly rhythmic percussion improvisation by Evelyn
Glennie. When the onstage audience giggles and scoffs at this unseemly
display, Kostja leaves angrily. Nina is fascinated by Trigorin,
who is charmed by the young woman's naive entreaties and lets himself
be drawn into a duet in which her sweet earnestness contrasts with
his experienced demeanor. From afar, to the fatal sounding theme
of Shostakovich's 15th Symphony (borrowed from the "fate" motif
of Wagner's "Ring"), Kostja spies the developing affair, soon interrupted
by the flourishing arrival of Arkadina and then everyone's departure.
Left alone, Kostja looks pensively at his paper seagull, and resumes
his forward-thinking musings.
The second act deals
with the choices all the characters made at the end of the first.
We are now in a theater in Moscow, where a glitzy revue is in progress.
Among the high-kicking, befeathered/bewigged showgirls is Nina,
bravely trying to blend in but standing out like a sore thumb in
her fluid earnestness. She attempts to remind Trigorin of their
prior sweet contact, but he is now all business and merely pats
her cheek. Nina is left to wonder, in a wandering solo polka, what
she should do next. There follows Trigorin's "serious" classical
ballet, "Death of a Seagull," in which Neumeier spoofs the Petipa-type
stilted Russian tradition, with the entire palette of extreme ballet
vocabulary performed flawlessly by the straight-faced ensemble surrounding
the effervescent and blissful Polikarpova, strongly partnered by
Bubenicek. After being rebuffed both emotionally and artistically
by the condescending Trigorin, Nina writes a letter to Kostja. They
are reunited for the wedding of Medwedenko and Mascha at Sorin's
estate, but during the feast we see the affable uncle slowly sinking
to his knee and dropping into an unconscious heap (in an amazing
display of control and pitiful expression by Riggins). Sorin is
brought back to his feet, but all participants are shaken, including
Nina and Kostja, whose final duet reflects their past affection
in entwining lifts and soft embraces while their gazes are always
cast in different directions. To no one's surprise, Nina leaves
Kostja alone with his reverie to pursue her own dreams. In a haunting
final scene, the dancers of Kostja's modernistic piece intrude upon
the young artist once again. After tearing apart the paper seagull,
Kostja methodically grabs one after the other of his performers
by the neck and slowly pushes them to the ground, where they twitch
for a moment before rolling into the wings. He finally crawls far
upstage and wiggles his way inside the braces of the makeshift platform
while Arkadina and Trigorin continue their happy banter at a table
in the foreground.
blend of classical technique and inventive modern dance is particularly
well-crafted in "The Seagull." The two extremes are represented
by Trigorin's old-fashioned ballet cliches contrasted with Kostja's
modernistic experimentations, reminding one of Bronislava Nijinska's
austere angular forms. But the action itself, throughout the work,
moves seamlessly from balletic lines to the off-balance and bold
twisted shapes of modern dance, lending the whole work a satisfying
flow. This non-literal rendition of Chekhov's play has all the intimacy,
psychological veracity, biting irony, and moving emotionality of
the Russian master's original drama, and was performed on Saturday
with truthfulness and earnest physicality by principals and ensemble
(Stephan Laurent has also Flash Reviewed this season's Hamburg
Ballet Days productions of John Neumeier's "Bernstein Dances,", "Peer Gynt," and "Romeo and Juliet.")
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