John Neumeier in Amerika
by Sybil Shearer
At dusk memories sharpen as objects start to fade. So it is that I draw John Neumeier out of the past as I see him rising on halfpoint after a brush in second in preparation for assemblé. The instep of his arched foot was so strong and supple that the series of brushes and rises from one foot to the other without leaving the floor made a ritualistic performance as his eyes pierced space. It seems in my mind like a dedication to the life ahead of him, a life of inspired thoroughness. This life started in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U. S. A. where he also went through college.
There is nothing like the romance of the theater when one is in school reading about theories of acting, playing parts that great actors have played, practicing the challenge of dance techniques, and experiencing the influence of a talented, enthusiastic teacher-director. Father John Walsh was that person in John Neumeier's undergraduate life at Marquette University. Father Walsh constructed the stage space out of an abandoned chemistry lab. He confiscated the seats from a defunct movie house. He directed the designing of the drapes and curtains, the costumes and stage decor, chose the plays and pageants rewriting and re-choreographing parts to suit the available talent, and produced out of all this a magic that permeated the performers and audience alike. These were never-to-be-forgotten days which influenced all the students, but took fool particularly in John Neumeier who has carried this idealism and vision from his school days with Father Walsh into the world.
After the premier of my first ballet Within this Thicket to the music of Bartók, Father Walsh called me and said, "I would like four hours of your time." I did not know him, but had heard good things about his work. He came, and we talked for eight hours. He liked my ballet and my dancing, and he had an idea. The idea was that he had a pupil at Marquette who was particularly talented, and he wanted him to work with me. When John Neumeier was first introduced, and danced for me in Northbrook, Illinois, I saw a talented, sensitive young man. His body was unusually limber, and as I look back this flexibility was the harbinger of what was inside him, his wide-ranging thinking and imagination, and a quite selfless giving of himself to dance. I took to him immediately, and he performed with my company and received his first mention in the press from Claudia Cassidy of the "Chicago Tribune" - ". . . a slender dark boy named John Neumeier made you watch him, without trying. I am very much afraid he is a dancer . . ."
For some time previous to John's joining the Sybil Shearer Company I had not been teaching, since I found it incompatible with choreography. I auditioned dancers most of whom did their classroom work in Chicago studios. John was studying with Bently Stone and Walter Camryn, and would travel back and forth from Milwaukee for classes in Chicago and rehearsals in Northbrook. So although I have been given credit for being his teacher, actually he learned from being in my choreography, and watching me demonstrate, and dance my own roles. He was already a good dancer. Probably the most potent lesson he learned from me was during the last rehearsal before the premier of my ballet Fables and Proverbs. He was the central figure in Time longs for Eternity in which straight lines, parallel to the horizon, where featured - arms and legs in particular. John had also a very limber spine so that his straight leg in the back in arabesque parallel to the floor could with ease be parallel to his arms which were stretched from fingers to fingers front and back- a straight line through his shoulder. The gaze in profile looked into infinity To my surprise in this last rehearsal John raised his front arm in a lyrical gesture, and looked up to his hand. I was horrified, and shouted from the back of the theater, "What kind of balletic nonsense is that?" I saw that he did not understand what the dance was all about - he was getting ready for his "performance". John had been so perfect in rehearsal I had not realized that he was in the dark as to the meaning of that gesture. Of course, he was crushed. I had never before raised my voice. I let him go home without saying another word. But the next evening I went to his dressing room, and explained to him what I wanted to say through these movements, and he saw -. I pride myself that just as Nijinsky learned from Fokine through Petrushka so John Neumeier learned from me that there is more to choreography than can be expressed through the classroom.
Then later after he said he would like to choreograph. I told him my company was too small, and could support only one choreographer, and that since he did not need to learn more about the classroom, he should go far, far away, dance, and experience movement everywhere, then a place to choreograph would present itself when he was ready And it did. Since ballet became an art separate from the spoken drama, there has been a tradition of romanticism through the centuries which bred a line of great expressionist choreographers - Noverre, Vigano, Dauberval, Coralli and Perrot - creators of the ballet Giselle - Fokine, and Tudor. John Neumeier continues this line. On the opposite side Petipa and others used stories mainly as a framework for displaying dance techniques. In this tradition which dominated the middle years of the twentieth century Balanchine excelled in making abstract ballets, which mainly featured design ideas rather than human ideas.
So when after a stretch of years in Europe John Neumeier brought his company to America, to the New
York area, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, his work was a ' wind-shift in style not completely understood. But I re
member the comment of Genevieve Oswald, so many years a watcher of dance, and a collector of memorabilia at the New York Public Library. She said, "There is Balanchine dying in a New York hospital, and in Brooklyn a new voice is rising." After this remark I must say I was a little shocked that a critic for whom I had so much respect (Arlene Croce) was blind to the fact that John Neumeier could not be lumped with other American choreographers in Europe.
It seemed to me that with the very first ballet shown here when he came back to the Chicago area and performed at Ravinia Festival, he was unique, a genuine artist not like anyone else choreographing today. Quoting from my report at the time in "Ballet Review" 1981. "Most choreographers make it easy for the audience to follow one dancer around the stage by making solos and duos with background bodies or unison bodies for simplified power. But John Neumeier knows that movement comes from the inside out, and if genuine the dancer can give himself to it with total dedication. He feels as I do that each movement is a celebration of the emergency of living, and that there are innumerable ways of making such movements."
In A Midsummer Night's Dream the contrast of bloodless fairy world with the warmth of humans brings me to the high point of the first performance, right after intermission, when the two pairs of lovers awake from their drugged sleep. As they danced, there spread over the stage and over the audience a kind of peace, a feeling that "everything is going to be all right. " The actual weather, which had been quite chilly in the vast outdoor arena, gradually warmed, and we were carried into the "happily - ever - after" weddings and all's well in Fairyland. I was recounting this to a friend who went the second night, and he said the same thing happened then too, that a warming in the atmosphere cast a mysterious spell at the same point in the ballet. I never discount these messages as accidents. . . . Later John said to me, "You saw yourself in my work," and I said, "Yes." and he said, "I did not try to copy you, but the day you thought and constructed choreography became a part of me, and I found that as I began to work you were there with me. " Because he is highly intellectual and a thinking man he could see this, and because he is a highly intuitive artist lie could feel this, and because he is highly moral he could acknowledge this. And I feel fulfilled to have progeny who understand me and what I have always wanted for dance.
My works were generally short and a distillation of the idea, concept, feeling, observation, a penetration into the moment. But John has been able to take this concept of essence and make it work on a large, not to say huge scale like the Japanese Noh theater, and he is not bound by idiosyncrasies. He can give himself to the story or idea or piece of music and plunge headlong into it, giving himself and his audience and his dancers the full value of his talent without worrying if it will offend or please or shock or set a trend or follow a trend . . . As one man said going up the aisle, "This is what we've been waiting for, isn't it? To be moved?" Glenna Syse of the "Chicago Sun Times" said, "I found the work uncommonly moving, sometimes almost terrifying, sometimes beautifully compassionate, and always consistently absorbing, because the architecture of the choreography is a mesmerizing blueprint . . . " So John Neumeier came home and we welcomed him because as John Martin said of my audience, "This is the most cultivated audience in the world," and we said, "How can you say that? What about New York?" And he said, "New York is not cultivated. It is sophisticated and that is quite another matter."
Then a few years later John came back to the Midwest for a weeks festival in Milwaukee where he was honored and inducted into the Hall of Fame in the City, and the State of Wisconsin. All my views were confirmed again. He presented four complete works including Othello, the scaring A Streetcar Named Desire, and Saint Matthew Passion each entirely different from the other. I quote from my review at that time, 1987, "In his ballet A Streetcar Named Desire John Neumeier used all his talents. Since drama is Neumeier's special gift, he naturally looks for dramatic material and with his movement language creates poetic and prose images, sometimes from the standard vocabulary but more often from his own imagination. This makes kinetic demands on his audience many of whom probably need or want recognizable steps now that we have seen so much ballet. But for anyone who reads movement 6otlz in life and on the stage, his talent is quite remarkable and revealing." These dancers are superb - Colleen Scott who gave herself completely to this demanding role of a woman going insane, Ivan Liska as Stanley, Bettina Beckmann as Stella, Johannes Kritzinger as Allan Gray, Stephen Pier as Mitch, and the entire rest of the cast. They not only dance with their whole beings, they act and take direction in a way that makes it possible for the director to speak through them. But why did we have to endure all this with them? Why was Stanley such a monster, and why was Blanche such as weakling? It seems to me, both for the same reason - they relied only on the world of the senses, one to conquer, the other to escape. Other worlds were unknown to them, art, philosophy, spiritual belief, and real love. However, I cannot imagine what John saw in this piece to make him spend so much of every body's lifeblood on it - unless he had an ulterior motive. Was it to plunge us into the depths before reaching the heights in Saint Matthew Passion? Or was it made for all those people whose prejudices and preconceived ideas, religiously or musically, kept them from viewing the Bach masterpiece? Was this his scourge in the temple? . . .
Curt Sachs, the musicologist, said, "Great art can only come from a depiction of great souls and great thoughts. " Saint Matthew Passion rose to heights of inner lyricism in all forty performers who filled and never left the stage except to encircle the audience; and especially in the dancing of John Neumeier himself as he portrayed the Christ, and Ivan Liska, the one who questioned and wondered, both in action and in stillness . . . I felt the mystery of this seeping through the performance as the choreography evoked all of life, from the folk through the hierarchies. It seemed to stretch into infinity. "It will be hard for John Neumeier ever to go beyond this marvelous work. Five years ago when he asked me to come to New York to see it he said, >This is what I have been working up to all of my life.< There is always a beyond though, and if it can be accomplished in this life, John Neumeier will have the strength for it."
In 1992 I decided I had to see The Hamburg Ballet in its own setting and I found that John had surpassed or at least equaled in the Mozart Requiem and A Cinderella Story all that I had seen before. It is a privilege to witness history, the continuation of a cultural heritage, and a vision of the future. I quote from my 1991 review, "John Neumeier is one of those few people who sees into human relationships instinctively, and can consciously use this talent to express through choreography, almost any situation in human experience from the most tragic to the highest inspiration, and the subtlest insight. He has taken gesture and spread it through the whole body depicting, character, personality, emotions, feelings, and concepts, and because almost every time this rings true, he has created a series of masterpieces . . ."
Yes, the phenomenon of John Neumeier is unique in the world of ballet. He is avant-garde in an entirely different way from anyone else. He is not rebelling, he is not straining for recognition, lie is not taking up a cause, or joining a school, or throwing out the past. He is simple; through his own integrity and insight, pointing a way to the future.