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Flash 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.

Relationships (also 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.

Neumeier's signature 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 alike.

(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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