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Flash Review 1, 7-7: Trinities
Dance, Music, & Venue Make Neumeier's 'Passion' a Metaphysical Bliss

By Stephan Laurent
Copyright 2004 Stephan Laurent

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(To celebrate the 30th anniversary of John Neumeier's tenure as director, the Hamburg Ballet is presenting 16 Neumeier creations for this year's Hamburg Ballet Days. Eighth and last review.)

HAMBURG -- Stepping into any of Europe's great cathedrals is enough to inspire awe and respectful silence. Hearing in such a revered seat of worship a J.S. Bach masterpiece, performed with the sensitive exactitude that German choirs and orchestras are known for, is even more of a beatitude. Thus to have the Philharmonisches Staatsorchester and the Staatsoper Choir perform John Neumeier's "Matthaeus Passion" with the Hamburg Ballet at the Michaeliskirche as part of the Hamburg Ballet Days was close to approaching bliss, as the heavenly sounds of the greatest composer in humankind blended with yet more astounding choreography from the great master of the North. The June 16 performance I caught was the work's 151st since its premiere in the same church in 1980.

The Michaeliskirche has a distinct signature on the Hamburg skyline as seen from any of the bridges over the Elbe River. (To view some photos, click here.) The inside of this 18th-century baroque masterpiece is even more awe-inspiring -- it seats close to 2000 people, thanks in part to a sweeping, serpentine balcony overlooking the nave. Its acoustics have to rank as among the best, judging by how the echoes of the great Bach chorales were to keep reverberating that evening across the transept. Down below my central seat on the balcony, the nave area is completely occupied by a large, inverted T-shaped stage painted in black. As the 40 dancers reverently proceed from the chancel, all clad in gleaming white, while the orchestra and huge choir sit prepared to begin in the west part of the balcony, the prevailing hush in the audience becomes even more tangible. It is as if we already knew that a very special form of worship was about to begin.

Still in silence, one of the so far anonymous dancers (Lloyd Riggins) picks up a white tunic lying folded at the center of the black stage and exits down through the audience below, surrounded by two solemn figures clad in gray who are to appear again as his retinue for the remainder of the work. As the opening chorus sounds, other dancers emerge from the apex of the inverted T-shaped stage area. Flickers of Jesus's teachings ensue, such as the lame leading the blind, with the Bubenicek brothers stumbling along in a diagonal, Otto with his hand clasped over his eyes, dragged by his limping brother Jiri's outstretched grip, lurching along. Then Riggins returns, now wearing the white tunic, still backed up by the two gray men (Edvin Revazov and Sebastien Thill) and the rest of the ballet depicts his journey to the ultimate sacrifice. Every time Jesus "speaks" the two figures standing behind him place their hands over his mouth then open them with a wide, sweeping motion. This repeated grouping suggests an effective metaphor for the Holy Trinity.

Bach's 1729 "Matthaeus Passion" is not simply a retelling of the last chapters of the evangelist's book, which it does through a series of formal recitatives. It is also a commentary about the feelings of the people surrounding Jesus's long march to the Calvary, sometimes in solo arias, sometimes in the interweaving waves of the chorus. Similarly the ballet alternates between narrative moments depicting the tragic story and solos, duets, or ensembles serving as abstract meditations on the profound meaning of this increasingly solitary ordeal of "the Son of Man." The choreography has sometimes an almost pedestrian quality in its simplicity, suggesting that this is something that concerns the everyday-human. Other times Neumeier conjures up striking shape-shifting from classical vocabulary to novel, off-balance, asymmetrical lines. Some of the dancers are barefoot, some wear toe shoes, others yet are in sneakers. Their gleaming garments shimmer like milky pearls against the stark black stage in the simple but strong white lighting from "high cross" positions on the balcony.

Among the moments remaining etched in memory is Jesus's solitude in Gethsemane, when one by one his disciples fall to the ground in slow motion, asleep, leaving Riggins alone to meditate as he lays face down on the ground, his arms to his side, already in the shape of a cross. Also memorable is the betrayal of Jesus by Judas (danced with poignant humanity by Ivan Urban). Following the dry narrative of the recitative, a desperate soprano aria accompanies Urban's tortured march towards the high priests, his fists pounding himself in the chest and back and sides as remorse already gnaws at him. Later, he goes on to stand, head bowed, far upstage on a construct of erected up-ended benches suggesting his suicide by hanging, only to re-emerge now as Pontius Pilate as the crowd drags Riggins to him for judgement.

Another great instant unfolds during the denial of Petrus (Apostle Peter), surrounded by suspicious figures alternately pointing at him and at the incarcerated Jesus. Peter Dingle's solo during the subsequent alto aria flows from one remorseful, bent over shape to another as he sobs over the foul betrayal of his own master.

But perhaps the most haunting picture in the ballet occurs during the flagellation scene, when a prostrated Riggins emerges from under the blows with his tunic pulled over his head like a hood, his tormentors surrounding him in mocking and aggressive poses -- a chilling reminder of the horrors inflicted upon many Abu Ghraib prisoners just recently.

The ballet continues to progress inexorably to the crucifixion, with Riggins clinging for an interminable amount of time with just his outstretched arms, his legs dangling, to a construction of several up-ended benches. It ends after his limp body is hauled down and the white tunic is removed, carefully folded back, and placed again center stage as all dancers reverently exit through the chancel upstage, while the last words of the final chorus echo mournfully: "Wir setzen uns mit Traenen nieder... Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh'!" (In tears we leave... soft be Thy rest.)

"Mathhaeus Passion" takes its place among ballets inspired by religious subjects as a riveting journey through personal/collective drama and metaphysics. The soaring architecture of Bach's music, played to perfection by the Philharmonisches Staatsorchester under the baton of Gunter Jena, and sung radiantly by eight soloists (among whom tenor Walter Gura and soprano Sibylla Rubens deserve particular praise for the clarity of their interpretation) and the choir of the Staatsoper, filled the sweeping arches of the Michaeliskirche with its reverberating waves of complex harmonies. The 40 white-clad Hamburg Ballet dancers, led by the remarkable Lloyd Riggins (in the role that Neumeier himself used to interpret, as recently as 2002), once again moved with such physical commitment to the difficult but flowing choreography that the experience was close to being a religious ecstasy.

This performance of "Matthaeus Passion" was for me the highlight of this extraordinary festival of masterpieces by Neumeier, and the last one I could attend before having to return home. The Hamburg Ballet Days continued through June 27, featuring several more evening-length works. Among these were "Winterreise" and "The Odyssey," about which I wrote as they appeared during the regular Hamburg Ballet season. (Click here to read my review of those great works.) Among other ballets appearing at the Staatsoper for the remainder of this festival were "Illusions like Swan Lake" and "The Sleeping Beauty," Neumeier's very personal takes on two of the greatest classics of traditional ballet, as well as "Death in Venice," premiered just last December. The breadth and scope of the repertoire of this extraordinary company proves that Neumeier has placed himself, over the last 30 years as the director of the Hamburg Ballet and frequent guest choreographer the world over, as one of the most prolific and profound dance masters of this century. That all of the 16 ballets presented at the Hamburg Ballett Tage were evening-length works, at a time when most contemporary choreographers tend to cater to the short attention span of today's audiences, is itself significant enough. But above all, Neumeier's visual insights, his eclectic musical taste, and his broad contemporary vocabulary which still is firmly grounded in classical technique make him a unique figure on today's dance scene. There is no doubt that his next decade at the helm of one of the most cohesive companies I have seen will yield yet more masterpieces for our art form, in Hamburg as well as across the dance capitals of the world.


(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," "Preludes CV," "Jubilee Gala" and "Nijinsky," featured earlier in the Hamburg Ballet Days.)

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