Twenty Years at the Helm in Hamburg:
John Neumeier's Expatriate Gains
by Horst Koegler

The American-born choreographer and director celebrates his twentieth anniversary with Hamburg Ballet this summer.

In a question-and-answer column published in Germany's prestigious newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine, Hamburg Ballet's artistic director John Neumeier specified some of his preferences: Where would he like to live? "Where I'm working." Who is his favorite legendary hero? "King Arthur." and who in history? "Jesus Christ." And in the present? "Mother Teresa." And in fiction? "Jeanne d'Arc, Juliet, Marguerite Gautier." Who are his favorite painters? "Piero della Francesca, Matisse, and many others." Composers? "Mahler, Bach, Chopin, and many others." What is his favorite activity? "To work." And what would he like to be? "What I am!"

At fifty-one, the American who hails from Milwaukee but who became a Hamburger can look back on what he has achieved with some pride. In one way or another he has dealt with most of his favorite themes and subjects in his more than 200 ballets (of which more than twenty are evening-length works) - only Mother Teresa and Jeanne d'Arc are missing. But had those questions been put to him at a different time, he would, perhaps, have mentioned other names-those whom he was dealing with at the moment. A workaholic, Neumeier immerses himself in his work to the exclusion of anything else.

To meet John Neumeier is to meet a gentleman of good breeding-well behaved, polite, cultivated, well read, and as fluently articulate in his charmingly accented German as in his native English. Never would one guess on seeing him that his father was a Great Lakes captain of German descent and his mother a Pole. Rather, one imagines him to be of some noble Roman stock, with a head modeled so perfectly it could be placed in a gallery of Roman busts alongside the Hadrians and Trajans of antiquity.

This summer Neumeier celebrates his twentieth anniversary as artistic director of Hamburg Ballet. He came to Germany exactly ten years earlier-from Chicago, where he had studied with Bentley Stone and Walter Camryn and with Sybil Shearer, via London's Royal Ballet School and Copenhagen, where he had gone to get some extra polish from Vera Volkova. Still a fledgling dancer, he became a member of John Cranko's young Stuttgart company, and it was Cranko who soon sensed Neumeier's choreographic talent and encouraged him to try himself at one of the Noverre Society's matinees, Stuttgart's famous platform for aspiring young choreographers.

Actually, young Neumeier had already proved to be a boy of many trades, studying theater history, participating in actors' workshops, painting, and taking classes first in tap dance, then in acrobatics, and only later on in ballet and modern dance. His dance interest had been fostered by films starring Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, and his first paid appearance on any stage was in a summer stock production of West Side Story. He was also an insatiable reader.

His six years in Stuttgart proved to be the crucial formative period of his life. In Germany ballet companies are part of multifaceted theater institutions, which means that as a dancer one works closely with actors and opera singers. This experience enhanced Neumeier's genuine interest in the dramatic context of all the theater arts-an unusually broad viewpoint for someone who grew up within the closed circuit of the American dance community. And it may also explain why Neumeier has become such a success with German audiences, who, while respecting the Balanchine school of twentieth-century ballet, definitely prefer solid dramatic content-and most of all ballets of evening-length dimensions.

An elegant dancer of perfect proportions with a beautifully molded line, young Neumeier seemed destined to grow into a genuine danseur noble, a cavalier from head to toe. However, more and more his interest shifted to choreography and design-and this tendency was supported by Cranko, who let him create no fewer than five ballets between 1966 and 1968 and also used him as a costume designer for some of his own ballets. Soon talent scouts from abroad became aware of the young man's budding gifts. He got invitations to create works for Harkness Ballet and Scottish Ballet and in 1969 was appointed artistic director of Frankfurt Ballet, where he again worked in the context of a municipal theater organization that included drama and opera companies.

It was during his three and a half seasons in Frankfurt that Neumeier's dramatic concept of theater dance gradually crystallized. It soon became clear that he somehow disliked multi-billed programs of individual works. Instead, he favored integrated programs of works that had a common denominator or an all-embracing theme. In this way he was able to present evening-length programs consisting of two or three different ballets.

One of his first Frankfurt programs was called "Invisible Frontiers" and consisted of three individual ballets: Frontier, Fence, and Rondo. In another program he contrasted winter and summer via The Fairy's Kiss and Daphnis and Chloe. Birth and death figured prominently in his matching of Don Juan (Gluck and Tomás Luis de Victoria) and Le Sacre. Thus he considerably widened the dramaturgy of the evening-length ballet beyond the confines set by Petipa and his twentieth-century followers. That Neumeier had in addition his very own ideas of what an evening-length classic should look like today became instantly clear when he first tackled The Nutcracker and Romeo and Juliet; he viewed both these familiar stories from a more contemporary angle (though never, for the sake of topicality, distorting them-for that he is really too much of a conservative).

With Ray Barra (Cranko's first Stuttgart Romeo and Onegin) as ballet master, Neumeier built up a company of promising young dancers completely devoted to him because they were aware of his very individual sort of creativity. Some of them-including Marianne Kruuse, Beatrice Cordua, Persephone Samaropoulo, Truman Finney, Max Midinet, and Fred Howald followed him to Hamburg, where he was invited in 1973 to take over the ailing ballet company of the opera house. When it became known that Neumeier wanted to dismiss sixteen dancers of the company, there was a cry of outrage, and even before he had set foot in the city the whole of Hamburg and especially the dancers' union was up in arms against the newcomer from Frankfurt. But that lasted only until the first of his workshop matinees lecture demonstrations built around a theme, but really more like performances which have since become a trademark of his Hamburg activities. These are offered mostly as an introduction to new works-in-progress but also as a forum on how to view ballet performances in general and as a platform for budding young choreographers. The workshops take place in the opera house auditorium, with its 1,675 seats, and are inevitably sold out. On that morning of September 9, 1973, Neumeier managed to convert an audience that had come to boo him into a crowd that fed from his hand. He and Hamburg fell in love with each other an affair that since then has only deepened.

In Hamburg, at the age of thirty one, Neumeier started to branch out after his apprentice years in Stuttgart and Frankfurt on at least four tracks: building a repertoire, a company, a school, and an audience (a fifth track was reserved for his work with other companies notably Stuttgart Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet, and Paris Opera Ballet.)

An overall view of the repertoire Neumeier has created for his Hamburg company (as well as for others) shows that he simultaneously pursues very different aims. There are, to begin with, his complete reworkings of the Tchaikovsky trilogy of classics, which retain only some quotations from the traditional choreographies of Petipa and Ivanov. Next there are his Shakespeare-inspired ballets, such as Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet Connotations (a later development was his evening-length Amleth for the Royal Danish Ballet), A Midsummer Night's Dream, Othello, and Mozart and Themes from "As You Like It". One may even include in this category his Cinderella Story, which offers some King Lear references; his Artus Saga, too, aspires to Shakespearean dimensions. Then there is a large contingent of ballets set to music by Gustav Mahler, including his First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Tenth Symphonies, plus some of his lieder cycles. Next are the extreme poles of his repertoire: on the one side his Americana, including his stagings of West Side Story and On the Town, plus some other Bernstein-based pieces (Songfest and Age of Anxiety) and his Stuttgart created Streetcar Named Desire; on the other side are his works set to sacred music St. Matthew Passion, Magnificat, and Requiem (Mozart). Relatively few are his concert ballets, of which his Now and Then, only recently created for National Ballet of Canada to Maurice Ravel's Concerto in G for Piano and Orchestra, is a brilliant example.

But these are, of course, only the broadest of categories, and Neumeier created many individual ballets that fall outside their confines-his astonishingly successful Legend of Joseph (to the music of Richard Strauss, for Vienna, 1977); his immensely popular Lady of the Camellias and the somewhat less popular Medea, both for Stuttgart; his biographical Meyerbeer-Schumann and Vaslav (Nijinsky, that is); Window on Mozart; and his enormously scaled Peer Gynt.

In building his Hamburg company Neumeier relied mostly-apart from those dancers he brought with him from Frankfurt on young talents, fresh from the schools or international competitions, whom he carefully nurtured and developed. François Klaus, on whom Neumeier constructed his imposing body of Mahler ballets, was for many years a pillar of male strength (Klaus is today artistic director of Bern Ballet). Another principal dancer of marked individuality, easily adapting himself to such contrasting roles as Armand (Lady of the Camellias), Mozart, and Peer Gynt, was and is Ivan Liska (the husband of Colleen Scott, also a longtime principal of Hamburg Ballet). And then there was Kevin Haigen, Neumeier's ideal Joseph and also the very boyish Prince of his Sleeping Beauty. One of Neumeier's most valuable assets during the building years of the Hamburg company was undoubtedly Midinet, an extremely strong character dancer who excelled as Drosselmeier, Jago, and Christ, to mention just a few of his dozens of unforgettable interpretations. Today his male contingent is headed by the highly sensual Egyptian Gamal Gouda, the elegant Jean Laban, the distinctly Nordic Anders Hellström, but, alas, no longer by the warmly winning Canadian Jeffrey Kirk, who died in May 1992.

During the first decade the roster of female principals included, in addition to the Frankfurt-imported dancers, the versatile Magali Messac, Zhandra Rodriguez (briefly, before she had her own, Caracas-based company), the tempestuous Lynne Charles, and François Klaus's wife Robyn White. It was only later, however, that female principals of marked individuality emerged among them the noble Stefanie Arndt, the multifaceted Anna Grabka, the elegant and sensitively lyrical Bettina Beckmann, and, the most popular of Hamburg ballerinas, Gigi Hyatt, of German-American descent, a lovely dancer with a whimsical air all her own.

Convinced that a company is only as good as the source from which it draws its fresh recruits, Neumeier put special emphasis on building a solid school. This project required more time than he had originally planned, so it was not until 1978 that the Ballet School of the Hamburg State Opera opened its doors under the combined direction of Neumeier and Peter Appel. That, however, was only the beginning. By continually hectoring the local authorities and establishing a Friends of the Ballet School pressure group, Neumeier finally managed to persuade the city to convert an existing high school building into a well equipped, modern ballet school. The Ballettzentrum Hamburg - John Neumeier opened in September 1989 and has developed into a beehive of dance activity, with the professionals of the company and the students of the school mixing quite naturally. Already the gains of the exchange between the company and the school are obvious, with both institutions profiting from their working on the same premises.

Hamburg Ballet's sold out performances its workshop matinees, and the annual Ballet Days in the summer, with gala performances by prominent guest artists, show to what degree Hamburg has become a ballet city and how highly its citizens regard Neumeier. Consequently, in 1986 the city offered him a ten years contract. No other German general manager of an opera house has an agreement of comparable length.

For a person so much admired by such a huge audience (though not by all the critics - there is at least one very prominent German journalist who refuses to attend any Neumeier performances, arguing that his ballets are bloodless and formulaic, conceptual concoctions rather than legitimate ballets), Neumeier is a very reticent man. Spontaneously communicative in his public appearances, he is completely withdrawn as a private person; his life outside of the theater seems to be confined exclusively to his books and the precious antiques that he has brought home from his travels around the world. But then he says himself that "dance is the most important thing in my life-it does not only mean work but represents for me the most intensive way of life." He refuses to define his personal style but has nothing against being termed what he calls "a liberal classicist." Dance for him ranks as "a very humane art, with man as its center." It is his intention "to move [audiences] through movement." For him dance must communicate but it is mostly stories that cannot be told with words that dance is able to tell. He thoroughly mistrusts dance as an instrument to project any political message: "I cannot dance a newspaper, but I can reflect some condition of the soul in dance." He is intimately motivated by music, and it was the music of Bach, not the intention to preach the Gospel, that inspired him to choreograph St. Matthew Passion. ("I am not a missionary," he says.) The music motivates even those passages danced in complete silence, because silence is for him "a bridge between sounds."

Having achieved so much, does John Neumeier consider himself a happy man? "Well, there are only moments of satisfaction. It is impossible to achieve everything that one wants to achieve. But human beings are responsible for the time that they are given."' And yet we, the audience, can look back on his twenty' years in Hamburg with satisfaction. For it is through him and his compatriots of the dance profession that America has paid back to Europe, and especially to Germany, part of what it received as its share in the heritage of the European ballet tradition.

Horst Koegler
Author of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Ballet,
is a Dance Magazine correspondent based in Stuttgart.

 


 
 
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