The Hamburg Ballet in New York
by Sybil Shearer
John Neumeier's Hamburg Ballet dances to Mahler and Bernstein
when it appears at Lincoln Center Festival 98
from July 14 through 18
For twenty-five years, Milwaukee-born John Neumeier has dominated the Hamburg dance scene in the same way that St. Petersburg-born George Balanchine dominated the dance scene of New York City. Each worked as a foreigner in a land that suited his style, although he was neither born nor brought up there. New York City is a place of bright sun glinting off hard surfaces. Its tempo is fast, its atmosphere sharp. There is no mist and no wind like the one on the prairies near where Neumeier was born, or off the North Sea in Europe where he instinctively found his place. In New York City, Balanchine stripped dance to its essentials, to the reality of good design through the medium of fine dancers trained in the classic style. New York City is cool. Hamburg is warm. It is a city full of trees, beautiful parks, waterways, and bridges. Each man was suited to the environment where destiny had placed him, and each survived and flourished.
New York City, which has not seen Hamburg Ballet perform Neumeier's choreography in thirteen years, will have an opportunity to appreciate his virtuosity this month when the company appears at Lincoln Center Festival 98, dancing to Mahler (All Our Yesterdays) and Bernstein (Bernstein Dances). All Our Yesterdays will include ten songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, as well as Mahler Fifth Symphony. Bernstein's instrumental, vocal, and orchestral pieces provide the score for the evening-length Bernstein Dances, set against a backdrop of Reinsert Wolf photographs of New York City, with costumes by Giorgio Armani. "Serenade", its finale, is set in a Manhattan penthouse and features three couples in evening dress and a mysterious odd man out. This sophisticated marvel is one of Neumeier's best works.
Primarily a choreographer of dramas, Neumeier possesses a phenomenal command of lyricism. In his "abstract" piece, Mahler Fifth Symphony, the sweep of bodies across and around the stage, born out of hidden thoughts and ideas that generate these flowing, rhythmic patterns, is also drama. It is the ideals of a society-man in relation to the forces of nature, men in relation to women. I have never seen lifts like these before anywhere - the men seem to soar into space through the women without actually leaving the ground. They become one being, not just a strong man lifting an agile woman. This is a large crowd movement; not individuals, rather trends or directions.
Although he preserves the basic tenets of dance, where movement speaks in relation to music, Neumeier is not limited to standard concepts of tradition, classic danse d'école steps and gestures, or the usual avant-garde multimedia. He choreographs in his own movement style, but with classically trained dancers who can also act, who can embody meaning and emotional impact in a lyrical manner. Because they can think beyond themselves, his dancers are superb instruments. His works, often full evening, three-act affairs, are large movement dramas and quite wonderful theater.
Some critics have compared Neumeier's work to operas or to symphonies, to plays and even to films-especially after seeing close-ups in a video of a live performance. (significantly, the spoken word is not missed because the action is so completely felt and thought out in creation and then projected in performance.) In Neumeier's opinion, however, his work is closest to poetry, "through rhythm, saying something in a direct way but not in a chronological descriptive way, rather ways that would multiply the dimensions of the story." The traditional and the avant-garde, the two opposing forces in dance, both work in his choreography - his range carries him from a Nutcracker to a whole new interpretation of Stravinsky's Sacre.
I met Neumeier in 1960 when he was at Marquette University, studying with Father John Walsh, who ran the theater department where dance was also taught. Father Walsh, who had seen my first ballet, Within This Thicket, had called me and said, "May I have four hours of your time?'' He proved so fascinating, however, that we spent eight hours together. "I have a pupil who I would like to have work with you." he said. "Will you look at him?" I said I would. and he introduced me to eighteen-year-old Neumeier. I could see right away that he was a talented and unusual person, mature for his age but very modest. He had been training at the Stone Camryn School of Ballet in Chicago and was a very good dancer. I was not teaching anymore. I simply put him in my second ballet, Fables and Proverbs, to premiere in an upcoming performance in Chicago. Among the first press notices it earned him was one from Claudia Cassidy, the feared critic 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."
Later he was called to the army, and when he returned in 1962 he said, "I would like to choreograph." My company was too small for two choreographers, so I told him he should go far away, see the world, learn as much as he could about movement - create out of his ideas in his own way. This was a huge, vague order, but he knew what I meant, and he did it, in his own way, with spectacular results.
First he went to London and then to Stuttgart, where John Cranko was director and choreographer. After an unfortunate accident put Neumeier on the sidelines as a dancer for a while in 1966, he choreographed a piece for the Noverre Society, a local experimental group. It was a success, and more works followed to enter the Stuttgart repertory. In 1969 the Opera Theater of Frankfurt called him. Very pleased, Neumeier thought that he was going to he asked for choreography. But when he arrived in Frankfurt. he was greeted with, "We want a young director, with a talent for choreography, to run our company." He was shocked, even frightened, at such an offer and asked, "May I bring several dancers with me with whom I have worked?" The answer was yes. The transition went smoothly because Neumeier was not only a choreographer with daring ideas, but also a good director who could communicate with his dancers. He understood movement as a language and could tell his dancers not only how they could achieve the best performance physically but also what he wanted them to convey to the audience.
After four years in Frankfurt, Neumeier v as approached by August Everding of the Hamburg State Opera, a much larger organization, with an offer of a similar position in Hamburg. Neumeier said, "Yes, but only if I can bring my own company with me." Everding said, "We already have a company." So Neumeier declined. The answer came back, "All right. We shall take your company, too."
Telling this story, Neumeier opens his eyes vide and says, "It was a terrible scandal. They fired sixteen of their dancers!'' This was a shocking beginning in a larger city and a larger theater. As a human being he felt distressed by this drastic move, but as an artist, he knew that having a company of dancers he had trained was a huge blessing.
This year marks Neumeier's twenty-fifth anniversary in Hamburg. During this time he
has choreographed a series of masterpieces and created a devoted audience which whom he communicates in much the same way that he does with his dancers: He gives Sunday
morning demonstrations to the public in the opera house to explain how he works and what he is working on. Hamburg has responded by building him an enormous, beautiful school, Ballettzentrum Hamburg - John Neumeier, with nine large studios and a floor for boarders from other countries. The school performances are included in the annual spring festival, starting with exercises in unison for the little ones then a variety of pieces choreographed by the teachers, and one work at the end by Neumeier for the most advanced pupils. The Nijinsky Gala, which concludes these festivals, regularly attracts the greatest stars in ballet from Europe, the United States, and Canada; it has become a gathering of friends.
Neumeier has extended his influence beyond Hamburg by choreographing for or setting his works on ballet companies all over Europe, including those of Paris, Copenhagen, Vienna, Stockholm, Stuttgart, and Helsinki. However, the special talent that has built a company, a repertory, a school, and a wide following is appreciated in Europe but not readily duplicated elsewhere. Consequently, many Europeans are still influenced by the New York City avant-garde.
Hamburg Ballet has traveled all over Europe, the Orient (four times to Japan), South America (three times), and Canada. It has also performed in Chicago and Milwaukee but only twice in New York City-in 1983 and 1985, both times at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Those first performances in Brooklyn seemed to cause a terrific shock, especially to audiences convinced that the right way to do everything was the Balanchine way. Balanchine was ill at the time, never to recover. Some people were extremely moved by Neumeier and even thought that he would be Balanchine's successor; others believed that dramatic ballet would rise again, that Tudor was being remembered. But those who were used to one-act ballets and to the "cool" dance scene avant-garde as well as danse d'école felt that Neumeier's works seemed too full, too long, too overpowering.
The fact is that the New York City audience has no idea of the full range of Neumeier's talents. It saw his 1976 Hamlet-Connotations, set to Copland, when it was staged by American Ballet Theatre for Mikhail Baryshnikov, but not his 1986 Hamlet, set to Tippett and made on Lloyd Riggins (Hamlet), Anna Polikarpova (Ophelia), and Laura Cazzaniga (Queen Gertrude). This is really Queen Gertrude's story. Her struggle with the king's twin brother (Gamal Gouda), the fright, the terror, the anger, and the tenderness of the pas de deus tell more than words can express. And Neumeier's Odyssey (1996) with Ivan Liska as Odysseus and Ivan Urban as his son, is the gripping story of every man who is searching for his father. New York City has also not seen A Cinderella Story (1992), a whole new tale of family life touchingly magical; Mozart Requiem, premiered at the 1991 Salzburg Festival; Peer Gynt ( 1989), with music by Schnittke; Zwischenräume (1994), set to Mahler's Ninth Symphony; the lyrical short pieces Spring and Fall (1991), set to Dvorák; and many, many more -104 in all.
The week of July 14 to 18 at the New York: State Theater is therefore a rare opportunity for audiences to experience the work of one of our finest dance artists today, and to make up their own minds about Neumeier without having to travel across the ocean. Of course, it is always a fuller experience to see an artist in his own setting, but I have no doubt that the integrity of this company will be intact because of the spirit in which it operates whenever it performs.
Dancer and choreographer Sybil Shearer, founder of Sybil Shearer Company in 1959 and the Morrison-Shearer Foundation and Museum in 1989, writes about dance from Chicago.