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Flash Review 1, 6-29: "Happy Birthday, John!"
Neumeier Feted by NDT, Stuttgart, Bejart, RDB, Maryinsky, and the Hamburg School

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 and a Jubilee Gala for this year's Hamburg Ballet Days. Sixth review.)

HAMBURG -- One of the highlights of the annual "Hamburg Ballett Tage" is an event called "Jubilaeumsgala" (Jubilee Gala) featuring invited companies and schools. Hamburg Ballet artistic director John Neumeier selects his annual guests from what he calls "Choreo-Compagnien" -- that is, companies whose repertoire features mostly the work of a single choreographer -- as well as schools attached to them. On June 15, the Staatsoper's stage was brimming with the talents of guest dancers from several countries in what amounted to a very shiny 30th anniversary present for Neumeier. Featured were Jiri Kylian and Netherlands Dance Theater III; John Cranko and the Stuttgart Ballet; soloists from the Royal Danish Ballet in August Bournonville's "Napoli"; two soloists from the Maryinsky Theater in traditional Petipa fare; Maurice Bejart's school Rudra; and the Hamburg Ballet's own school.

Originally the intent was to have the School of American Ballet also represented, but SAB cancelled, citing a last-minute conflict. The program's nod to Balanchine fell thus to the Hamburg Ballet School, in an impressive performance of "JubilaeumsTaenze" (Jubilee Dances), a full-ensemble piece by one of the company's principal ballet masters (and a former soloist), Kevin Haigen, to the "Theme and Variations" Suite by Tchaikovsky. Haigen himself had been exposed extensively to Balanchine's influence when he studied at SAB, and has cleverly crafted a piece that clearly pays homage to the great Russian-American choreographer, alternately quoting the master and taking flight on its own. The 40 or more young dancers of the Hamburg Ballettschule dug with clean technique and admirable energy into the crisp lines and intricate formations. These are extremely well-trained young artists with a great deal of maturity already evident. Much of the credit for this impressive display of technique and style goes to Haigen, of course. But Marianne Kruuse, the director of the Hamburg Ballet School (and for many years Neumeier's principal muse as a soloist in the company) must also be credited. The world's great schools better watch out -- SAB, POB, RB, RDB, whatever your letters are -- here comes the HB School, and soon the world's companies will be full of its graduates.

Maurice Bejart, another legendary and prolific choreographer, moved his Ballet of the Twentieth Century from Brussels to Switzerland in 1987 and with it its "Mudra" School. The company was re-named "Bejart Ballet Lausanne" and the school changed its title to "Rudra." Two young men from that school performed at the Jubilee Gala, in a piece entitled "Vivalcita" set to music by Glazunov and Vivaldi. The athletic Oscar Chacon opened the piece with a fireworks of ballet tricks, followed by the more subtle, sinuous contemporary moves of Tadayoshi Kokeguchi. In the end, the fusion of the two genres -- ballet and modern -- was complete. This was the premiere of this engaging, very Bejart-like little piece, which, from the program's laconic listing, is the result of improvisation work undertaken in the school's modern classes under Myra Woodruff.

No gala such as this one could be complete without representation from Marius Petipa's work. The Maryinsky Theater of St. Petersburg (formerly known as the Kirov) sent two of its soloists to participate in the Gala: Daria Pavlenko and Daniil Korsuntev performed the Grand Pas from Act III of "Sleeping Beauty." Both were extremely clean and displayed the signature arm fluidity resulting from their Vaganova training. Yet some of Petipa's most interesting choreographic experiments in the duet had been taken out and substituted with "safer" moves, as for instance the diagonal of pirouettes diving into a one-arm catch in fish position replaced by a simple pirouette finishing in arabesque and a boring promenade. This was a bit like eating a sweet fruit with no seeds in it -- nice but disappointing.

Jiri Kylian has been for many decades another dominant force in the evolution of dance in Europe. NDT III was founded in 1991 to provide mature dancers not ready to hang up their slippers the opportunity to continue performing, and Kylian has been a major contributor to its repertoire. The June 15 gala featured his 2001 "Happy Birthday," a hilarious romp for five dancers clad in heavy wigs and 18th-century garments sitting at a table. After the performers broke into a chorus ("Happy Birthday, dear John"), most of the action happened on the screen hanging behind them, as one after the other of the pompous figures discretely tiptoed off the stage to reappear in the film. The music had been chosen from some of Mozart's wittiest and fastest-moving pieces, and the film had been sped up, yet the dancing stayed completely musical. In a duet that had the audience roaring with laughter, Sabine Kupferberg and Gerard Lemaitre (two of the pillars of NDT III) bounced on a bed in fast-motion, vainly trying to embrace each other as they kept tumbling like trampoline artists. Another witty moment showed the company's director, Egon Madsen, fencing on screen with a shadow (also in fast motion) while blinking repetitively as the cadence of each musical phrase fell. Even though not much happened onstage the pace of the piece was breathtaking and the nonsensical contrast between the pompous "live" dancers with their loaded glances at each other and the accelerated romp happening on screen with their "liberated" selves was absolutely hilarious.

John Cranko's repertoire continues to dominate the Stuttgart Ballet even 30 years after the untimely departure of the great British choreographer. It is worth remembering here that both Kylian and Neumeier were dancers in Cranko's company, and it was he who offered them their first choreographic opportunities. The Stuttgart Ballet presented the entire third act of Cranko's "Onegin," a ballet rendition of Tchaikovsky's opera "Eugene Onegin." The first scene featured an opulent ballroom with countless bejeweled guests waltzing graciously, where the three central characters (Tatiana, her husband Prince Gremin, and Onegin himself) gradually emerge as the main protagonists. In the second scene, set in Tatiana's parlor, Onegin finds himself rebuffed in his belated advances, even as he had many years ago spurned her when Tatiana impulsively threw herself on his mercy. Sue Jin Kang was a fluid, mature, convincing Tatiana, partnered strongly by Jiri Jelinek as Onegin.

The gala closed with one of Bournonville's most beloved ballets, the "Pas de Six and Tarentella" from Act III of "Napoli," performed with satisfying ballon and Bournonvillian soft epaulements by 11 soloists from the Royal Danish Ballet.

Interestingly enough, none of the choreographers featured in the program were natives of the country whose companies hosted them. Balanchine was Russian-born and yet became the "father of American Ballet." Bournonville was French-trained. Cranko came from England to Germany. Petipa traveled from Paris to St. Petersburg. Bejart went from France to Belgium and then Switzerland. And the Milwaukee-born John Neumeier is celebrating 30 years of successes in Hamburg. This historical pattern reflects perhaps not simply the "gypsy" soul of dancers and choreographers or the fact that often you have to leave home to be appreciated. It also proves that sometimes an infusion of blood from beyond one's own borders is needed to move culture a culture forward.

(Also available on the Dance Insider are Stephan Laurent's Flash Reviews of John Neumeier's "Bernstein Dances," "Peer Gynt," "Romeo and Juliet," "The Seagull" and "Preludes CV," featured earlier in the Hamburg Ballet Days.)

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