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Flash Review 1, 6-24: A Workshop and a Sketchbook
Hamburg's Neumeier Cultivates his Audience and Stretches it Far

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. Fifth review.)

HAMBURG -- One of the reasons the Hamburg Ballet has developed a huge and faithful audience is the patient outreach work undertaken over the last 30 years by its visionary leader, John Neumeier. In addition to periodic open houses at the company's Northside "Ballett Zentrum," a former large secondary school donated by the city to provide spacious studios for the company and school, Neumeier offers three or four public workshops or "ballett-werkstatt" every year at the Staatsoper. The 162nd such workshop since 1973, presenting short excerpts of works in the repertoire with commentary by Neumeier himself, took place during the 30th Hamburg Ballet Days on Sunday, June 13. The theme chosen for this edition was "Geheime Verbindungen" (Secret Relationships). The auditorium of the opera house was just as sold-out for this event as for Neumeier's 16 evening-length features during the festival, an indication of the company's impressive popularity.

Among the examples of these "secret relationships" was one of Neumeier's very first choreographic attempts, premiered when he was still dancing for John Cranko's Stuttgart Ballet in the 1960s, the trio "Haiku." Set to music by Claude Debussy, the short piece was danced expertly and with convincing innocence by three Japanese students of the Hamburg Ballettschule (the company's official ballet school). As Neumeier explained on stage prior to the start of the piece, "Haiku" was based on a theme which he utilized frequently during his career: a psychological approach to character development showing his subject's sense of inadequacy and subsequent growth. In "Haiku," a young woman who can't stand the way she looks keeps hiding her face behind a fan, conjuring her ideal alter-ego, her "dream-self" if you will, every time she conceals herself. A young man who is really interested in the person behind this mask finally convinces her to drop the artifice of the fan, and the piece finishes with a very fluid and innocent pas de trois. "Haiku" was a rare opportunity to witness a very early work of Neumeier's, one in which the vocabulary, while mostly balletic, was already announcing a subtle touch for rich characterization and experimentation with modern shapes.

Other examples of relationships were given in the workshop, each time introduced by an engaging commentary by Neumeier. These included a repeat of Juliet's first appearance in "Romeo and Juliet" (reviewed earlier in these pages), danced again with convincing naivete by Helene Bouchet; short excerpts from "The Nutcracker," in which Marie (danced here by Adela Pollertova) is presented as a klutzy young girl who dreams of dancing and is being introduced to the beauty of the theater; and a duet from "The Lady of the Camelias." The highlight for me was a tantalizing male pas de deux from "Death in Venice," a late 2003 creation which will be featured in its entirety later during the festival. Based on the short story by the German writer Thomas Mann and choreographed to music by Richard Wagner, this duet bears Neumeier's signature psychological approach to character development. Tadzio, an angelic-looking adolescent (a luminous Edvin Revazov) accidentally bumps into the Poet (Lloyd Riggins) while playing with a ball, knocking him to the ground. As the youth pulls him back to his feet with an apologetic but helpful hand (in a long diagonal dragging pattern), the mature man begins to daydreamabout a possible sensual involvement with this beautiful boy. A haunting duet ensues, in which the two take turns engulfing the other in distant embraces punctuated by entwined lifts. At the end, the dragging motion is repeated and we understand that in the Poet's febrile mind time has stretched itself to near-infinity for that magic instant. This striking excerpt was a tantalizing preview of Neumeier's latest opus, which unfortunately plays at the festival after I have to leave Hamburg.

That same evening the Staatsoper was again sold-out for "Preludes CV," one of Neumeier's most avant-garde musings, premiered just a year ago. The evening-length work is set to two compositions of a very young (barely 30 years old) Russian composer/pianist/writer named Lera Auerbach. She wrote two sets of 24 Preludes each, one for Cello and Piano, commissioned specifically for the ballet by Neumeier, and one for Violin and Piano. This explains the cryptic meaning of the ballet's title: "C" stands for Cello, and "V" for Violin. Auerbach herself proved her virtuosity at the keyboard for the "Preludes C," accompanying cellist Ani Aznavoorian, in what to me was the stronger of the two sets both musically and choreographically.

The subtitle of the ballet bears the name of "Skizzenbuch" (Sketchbook), and Neumeier warns us in a program note which, as we are instructed, is 'to be read before the performance': "Don't try to understand this ballet. It has no 'story' (that I could tell you) aside from the many stories that you yourself might sense, remember, or recognize. Parts of the ballet resemble a page in a sketchbook on which various objects are drawn in what seems to be unrelated juxtaposition to each other. Yet this page may have a cryptic beauty of its own." The program book also has one other set of notes, 'to be read after the performance,' with this enjoinment reinforced by those pages being sealed. When I finally read them back in the comfort of my hotel room I was disappointed to find in these notes a series of suggested meanings for what I had just seen. As Neumeier prefaced this postlude, this was to be "a libretto after a ballet" (as opposed to the reverse). This succession of somewhat contrived, often non-sequitur flashes of everyday life bore little resemblance with what I thought I had experienced.

"Preludes CV" tells thus no story but does (or does it?), and offers not much cohesion aside from the parallel structure of the first and second sets of 24 Preludes, in a succession of solos and duets with brief ensemble moments, and the repeated stylistic choices of abrupt movements, intricate and daring lifts, and convoluted shapes. The "Dramatis Personae" bear the first names of the actual dancers in the work: "Silvia" is Silvia Azzoni, "Lloyd" is Lloyd Riggins, "Sascha" is Alexander Riabko, "Heather" is Heather Jurgensen, etc. But in the second "act," some of the "characters" are suddenly represented by "alter-egos"; in other words, "Lloyd" is at times played by Yogan Stegli, "Heather" by Niurka Moredo, and so on.... Confused? I certainly was.

This work is much more "in-your-face" than any other Neumeier ballet seen at this festival, so much so as to even suggest street-smartness in this violent world of today. The juxtaposition of situations sometimes works well, as for instance at the beginning of the ballet when Lloyd and Silvia keep exchanging frantic solo moments of perilous off-balances on the apron. This restricted space is backed by the theater's charcoal-colored fire curtain on which have been drawn chalk outlines of the two dancers as they stood frozen at the beginning of the work, rough drawings as might be found on the sidewalk at a crime scene. The action is watched impassively by Yukichi Hattori, the only character who is not bearing his own name but is called simply "im'r da" (in vernacular German, "always there"). Hattori simply sits in various poses of apparent boredom (or supreme Zen self-control), occasionally shifting from one side of the apron to the other, seemingly impervious to the agitation of the other dancers. When Lloyd finally crashes into the thick wall of the fire curtain it suddenly raises quickly, sending Riggins tumbling into a crowded scene of milling passersby behind it.

There are other little gems to be picked up in this kaleidoscope of brief, unrelated scenes. Another very strong moment is a quasi-violent exchange between Laura Cazzaniga (in one of her strongest performances so far in this festival) and Otto Bubenicek, both dancing lusciously bare-chested, which finishes with them pointing accusingly at each other while Cazzaniga haughtily pulls her garment back over her glowing endowment. At other times, some of the choreographic choices seem almost gratuitous, in spite of the fluidity with which one tortured shape gives way to another. Occasionally my eyes, drawn to too many different points of the stage at once, got perilously close to becoming glazed. Perhaps the most cryptic moment in "Preludes CV" comes between the two acts, when the impassible Hattori freezes downstage center after an interminable slow-motion walk contemplating the flickering flame of a candle held protectively in his outstretched hands. He keeps this pose for the entirety of the intermission, not batting an eye while the audience shuffles in and out of the theater's seats. Quite a demonstration of control, for sure (the British Royal Guard can do no better, minus the candle of course). But the meaning of the torment inflicted on a dancer otherwise known for his acrobatic, dare-devilish impetuousness escaped me.

The very engaging score by Auerbach meanders smoothly from quasi post-romantic mellowness to sharp and angular moments, punctuated by virtuosity in both bowing and keyboard-pounding. There is something of Shostakovich in her music -- intense and almost violent at times, deliciously self-absorbed at others.

Sets and costumes (designed by Neumeier himself) are minimal and suggest either the rehearsal studio or the street. A shallow square box planted upstage has its contours illuminated by glowing neon light and at times becomes a focal point of the nonsensical action surrounding it.

"Preludes CV" is certainly rather unique in the Hamburg Ballet's repertoire, and appears to owe much to the large cast of dancers who created the work a year ago. Their unrestrained physicality in daringly throwing themselves into the changing succession of asymmetrical and precarious shapes deserves much credit. Beyond the admiration one is forced to give to their performance, however, I was not able to sustain the intensity of the visual shower of unrelated materials being thrown at me for the long two hours of the ballet; I found myself questioning the validity of the disjointed images springing into my mind. But perhaps this was the intention of the piece all together.

(Stephan Laurent has also Flash Reviewed this season's Hamburg Ballet Days productions of John Neumeier's "Bernstein Dances," "Peer Gynt," "Romeo and Juliet," and "The Seagull.")

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