||Johann Sebastian Bach
A sketch: Skizzen zur Matthäus-Passion
The Hamburg Ballet, Hauptkirche St. Michaelis
Hamburg, November 13, 1980
The Hamburg Ballet, Hamburg, June 25, 1981
Jean Jacques Defago
Jean Yves Esquerre
Jean Christophe Maillot
Pascal Le Royer
1982 Berlin, Lausanne, Luxemburg 1983 New York, Mannheim, Paris, Venice 1984 Chicago (Ravinia Festival), Frankfurt, Montreal, Salzburg, Toronto 1985 Bergen, Helsinki, New York, Paris, Salzburg, Stuttgart 1986 Hiroshima, Tokyo 1987 Berlin (East), Brussels, Copenhagen 1988 Amsterdam, Milwaukee 1990 Gütersloh 1992 Dresden 1996 Montpelier 2002 Baden-Baden 2003 Hong Kong 2004 Dortmund 2005 Baden-Baden, Frankfurt 2007 Oberammergau 2009 Bonn 2012 Leverkusen, Essen
"I am both Christian and a Dancer"
By John Neumeier
John Sebastian Bach's Matthew Passion has deeply moved me. Bach's musical incarnation of the Passion in both its general and personal aspects created the need in me to find a choreographic equivalent. I am both Christ and a dancer. My whole life, all my thought and feeling are the dance, and choreography is my real language. That is why I have attempted to express my own religious convictions and experiences in choreographic terms and to organize them in artistic form.
Bach links narration of the story we all know so well with his own immediately personal creed and thus demonstrates to us his own experience of human suffering and life in an utterly untraditional and contemporary way. Bach's Passion is both dramatic and epic, figurative and abstract at the same time. it combines emotionally charged descriptions, which we can perceive with our senses, with abstract musical statements which transcend the immediately tangible. The numerical symbolism hidden in the Passion reinforces this work's character as an act of worship. It might sound presumptuous but its stratified construction and its particular tonal quality makes this music to my mind absolutely ideal for dancing. The means of description and expression employed by Bach bring this music very close to the dance. Like Bach's music, dance is also something concrete, physical, and at the same time the dance offers a means of escape from the grip of time and history to achieve inner reflection and a psychic state: a ritual whose purpose is to approach the mystery of metaphysics, of the supernatural.
The need for a metaphysical content in dance has survived right up to the present day whereas the ability to describe and create metaphysical experience has been lost in Europe in recent centuries, during which dance has developed into ballet as an art form in its own right. In modern choreography we attempt to make these defects good by borrowing from alien religions and cultures. A ballet which can come to terms with other forms of belief and types of dance does not appear to us to be very audacious. On the other hand, describing ones own beliefs in dance terms and taking refuge in parallel artistic and religious expressions such as John Sebastian Bach's Matthew Passion, is considered sacrilegious. But it is not the function of art and also of the art of dancing to communicate metaphysical messages? Or is this an un-Christian idea? Is ballet, the Western dance form, really as profane as all that? Has it retained no trace of its liturgical core?
A few days before ending my work on the Matthew Passion, I came across an article by Gerhard Zacharias, the psychoanalyst and specialist in religion and dance, in which he outlined his dream of resuscitating the Christian liturgy in classical dance form: "If we examine the social symbolism of classical dance, the creation and development of canons of gesture and deportment can be considered deep intrusion of supernatural powers transcending consciousness in the conscious awareness of Western man. The symbolism of classical dancing shares its specific characteristics with the liturgy and this fact reveals the ancient origin of dance and the liturgy. Since Christian liturgy has now lost much of its impact, classical ballet perhaps remains the only symbolic, gesticulatory phenomenon in the West in which a paradoxical unity of conscious and unconscious circumstance is still realized. What is liturgy unless it is the Anamnesis, the representation of primeval, divine action? But, simultaneously, liturgy is a hidden participation in events in the superhuman and subhuman worlds. It is at the same time an equally hidden participation in the millennium, an intrusion of the future in the here and now. The gesture is not an instrument used in the liturgy, on the contrary the liturgy takes place as a gesture whose essence it is. Any renewal of liturgical mystery, which may have become ossified and moribund, will thus involve a renewal of liturgical gesture. The classical dance offers a treasure-house of living symbolic gesture. That the spirit of classical ballet may bring about a reawakening of the liturgical mystery seems to me to be a possibility.
Now, this is what Zacharias had to say 25 years ago in his study "The Symbolism of Classical Dance". I was surprised at the quite unexpected way in which his theoretical philosophical ideas coincided with my own reflections based on both practical considerations and the results of my attempts to find choreographical solutions.
Working on the Matthew Passion was to conduct a search for a religious significance and for a suitable choreographic form for Bach's musical statement. I was not after a dramatic depiction or illustration of events at Easter; what I was looking for was a way of reproducing biblical events with all their religious and human impact, in a way corresponding to the multi-faceted approach embodied in Bach's composition. Like music, choreography can exist at various levels and it lives thanks to the simultaneous confrontation of different elements of expression: the almost naive, simple narration of the "plot" combines with the symbolism of the language of gesture of an almost liturgical character; extremely "artistic" passages based on classical or modern dance techniques alternate with situations in which, at least to my mind, "raw" emotion finds its physical expression and also moments of improvisation and quite personal reactions on the part of individual dancers can have their place.
The purpose of performing the Matthew Passion "Sketches" in St. Michael's church in Hamburg and holding ballet workshops in the Opera House in advance of the complete version of the Passion, was to ascertain if this approach was viable. Both of these could be considered a touchstone. This is why we chose extracts from the Passion which were central to the action as well as samples of the various different forms of composition employed by Bach. We had attempted to find some typical passages whose choreographic solutions would contain the key to transposing the entire work into dance form. The "Sketches" were not a finished work; they were rather a way of learning to speak sentences which did not contain complete verses. As these were fragments, their choreography lacked the dramatic tension, the balance between various levels of movement. However, these performances did bring the certainty that I had to continue along the path I had started. In fact, these performance implied an obligation, a duty to pursue this path to the end; I could then no longer choose not to do the Matthew Passion.
The next question was whether the church was the only possible venue. Could the choreography be recovered from a liturgical environment and brought back to the secular realm? Another question was whether the theater would give the work a dimension other than that which it had in the church and whether, on the contrary, the sacred premises had not changed the choreography and lent it a meaning which it did not have on the ballet stage? Finally, would dance, deprived of the effects of a sacred time and place, nonetheless be capable of mediating spiritual events which still concern us and which should be present in all of us daily. Despite its spiritual character, Bach's Passion is today played outside the church in concert halls. The church, liturgy and art are no longer an inseparable whole for us today as they were in earlier cultures. Consequently, I had to bring the Matthew Passion back on to the stage in order to discover whether the language of dance alone, without the support of the church environment, was capable of carrying the evangelical message and Bach's music as well.
The biggest problem in re-transplanting this work into the theater is the question of musical reproduction, since for space reasons, the optimum arrangement of the choir, orchestra and solo singers is impossible in the theater. At a live performance then, the quality of the music was bound to suffer. This is why we decided to do without a live performance and use a tape recording instead. In order to retain at least musical and choreographic unity, which in this case implied the unity of all those who had taken part so far in the ballet we decided to use a recording made at a live performance in St. Michaelis.
The human unity was perhaps my most significant and overwhelming experience in working on the Matthew Passion. Choreography is not something which can be completely perform inside the head of a single individual. A choreographic idea has to be carried out by a dancer and the dancer's physical presence transforms the original idea. I first had see someone dance the material I had worked up before I could shape it further choreographically. The extraordinary task of choreographing this work, involved a further confrontation: I was completely dependent on the dancer's total accessibility, their individual efforts and active cooperation.
The long process of rehearsal altered our previous method of working. The dancers no longer had to play parts. They first of all had to be themselves. During rehearsals and even now, during the final version, they enjoy some improvisational latitude; they slip into one part for a moment or become the instrument of a choreographically developed idea for a movement and then again, they are entitled to have their own individual reactions to the action taking place on the stage.
The 41 dancers are all in equal measure actors as well as onlookers and witnesses; this is just as important to the conception as to the form of this piece. The dancers more or less play themselves and at the same time, embody the words of Peter, of Judas and Matthew themselves. In this way they build a bridge to the men and women who have also come to hear, to see and in turn to witness the Matthew Passion.
Since I have been engaged in practicing choreography, I have never known a period in which I enjoyed such harmony with the dancers, a period of learning from one another, of instinctive comprehension of the work, of positive cooperation and concentration, as I have enjoyed throughout the creation of the Matthew Passion. Even if this ballet had never got beyond rehearsals and had never been performed, its creation would remain the most profound experience of my working life so far.
"For four hours, broken by a single intermission, dance follows dance in deep reverence. One comes to feel that this is a community of people who have decided to enact the Passion as in a medieval mystery play. Each dancer expresses grief, doubt, questioning, or aggression so personally that each seems to have chosen his or her own role."
Mary Whitney, Dance Magazine