John Neumeier and The Hamburg Ballet
at Lincoln Center, 1998
by Sybil Shearer
The Lincoln Center Festival is to be congratulated for bringing together in the summer, the work of so many different creators. I was most grateful to see The Hamburg Ballet in works I had not before experienced in their completion, and have found this again a stimulating event. The warm and enthusiastic communication between the New York audiences and this company has the Festival to thank for bringing John Neumeier's unique art to New York City at this time.
There is something very appealing about the dancers in The Hamburg Ballet. They have vigor, they have sweep. They are a homogeneous group and at the same time able to stand out as individuals. It is obvious that they have sympathetic respect for John Neumeier as a person and admire his talents as a choreographer, and very apparent that he is appreciative of them and their gifts as interpretive artists. It is this combination that seems to create the sweep, the tenderness, the fantasy of the gestures and, in his dramatic works, the inner truth of the body language which to my knowledge is unmatched anywhere else at present.
What fascinates me about John Neumeier's vision in setting into movement the Mahler Fifth Symphony is that he knows how to make movement soar and flow and sweep using human bodies, human minds and human feelings. The wind does this for water and clouds and trees, and he has somehow joined with this force. And there are moments in his works where human figures turn to stone, to marble, to earth and dissolve again into air, or thoughts, or simply colors with a background of gradually changing light which Neumeier sees and creates as the ambience for these continuities.
Those dancers and people in general who wish to be moved by an inner wind gravitate toward John Neumeier. Whereas, when thinking puts trees and animals in zoos and only people are allowed free range, mankind gravitates toward outer technology as a faster end goal.
In the slow movement of the Mahler Fifth, in the pas de deux, the stretching and tightening of the invisible bonds between the lovers was specially visible as well as inwardly bonded. This was not a technical display. It was a feat of inward concentration outwardly witnessed. It was not a picture of passionate desire but of mysterious creation, a visual hearing in an entirely new movement Concept.
The first and second movements of the Symphony blended together and seemed to be the continuing life and death pattern of the earth; the third movement the attraction of people for each other, the blendings and separatings and blendings together over time. And the fifth movement was the joyousness of celebrations which bring groups together, the herald of the possibility of our ideal future goal.
It is amazing how Neumeier is able to use human beings as elements without destroying their humanness. This to me is the art of movement, and dance at its most interesting.
Does any dream ever look like the waking life? No. Bernstein Dances was a dream, an imagination by an artist as a tribute to another artist, because John Neumeier, choreographer, was asked to remember Leonard Bernstein through using his music.
This was a physically spectacular production: first three blow-ups of Bernstein in action followed by really fabulous backdrops of photographed scenes of New York in color by Reinhart Wolf, a Hamburg photographer who was obviously inspired; acting and dancing performances by hero Lloyd Riggins, Anna Polikarpova, who can do simply everything that is asked of her in any role; Heather Jurgensen, the ideal sophisticate; Jirí Bubenícek in a fiery solo to "Wrong Note Rag," and the rest of this really fabulous company which can express the whole gamut of emotion as well as gestures, steps, movement and dancing on a universal, international level. All this plus costumes by Armani, not to mention the singing and the orchestra which made everyone on stage and in the audience happy.
Of course, every person with an imagination of his own saw a different Bernstein, because his personality through music reached many lives. Others probably saw a stereotype bounced off critics, recordings and the general "feeling good" in the presence of "New York, New York that wonderful town."
West Side Story, one of Bernstein's triumphs with Jerome Robbins, has become a classic like Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. And there are repeated versions of this original story, probably into the millions if one counted every performance.
John Neumeier has made his own version of most of the classic ballets and the Mahler Symphonies. He also created a version of West Side Story sticking as close as possible to the original in order to give the Hamburg audience a taste of America. This was done in the Opera House, presented as an opera event with singing, dancing and acting. Much of the speaking was eliminated, which did not please the author but enchanted the audience. It turned out to be one of the most popular operas of the season.
But all Neumeier's own works have come out of his own imagination as dreams do. In dreams there seems to be a logical illogic which is the usual prerogative of most good art - a discovery of the unknown as it emerges and then recedes again.
The critic Robert Gottlieb firmly points out that facts are necessary for encyclopedias. However, in the best art facts are often dissected and grow back as truths. This is expressed by each artist in a different way, and the result is generally appreciated according to the mores of the day.
So Bernstein Dances was popular ballet which has never especially appealed to me. But putting my personal taste aside, I simply object to the fact that the mores of the day interfered with what could have been, because Neumeier was in foreign territory - not America versus Europe, or New York versus Hamburg, but Bernstein versus Neumeier. They were friends in the world of theatre, and they were both devoted to the music of Mahler. But the reality as I see it is that they were like ships that pass in the night with one signal only.
Five years ago, in 1993, when the Bernstein Serenade was first choreographed for Neumeier's 20th anniversary in Hamburg, this piece was an outstanding gem. It was by itself, quite removed in style and feeling from any other work that Neumeier had created. This version seemed to be a study of three very different types of women with their partners, and a mysterious odd man out, someone not a participator, rather a watcher. This figure might have been Bernstein himself, or rather the second man inside of the public self, a self who was looking out at the world, the composer once removed from the fray. This work was a tribute to Bernstein the creator, not Bernstein the popular musical hero. In other words, it was the mood that made this piece important, not the story.
The story was told in the first half of the Bernstein Dances created in the spring of 1998. Lloyd Riggins, as Bernstein, revealed a being who was and wanted to be part of the fray. Some of this was marvelous fun as well as
touching. And it is true that through his popularity Bernstein was "President of New York" and Jerry Robbins was "Vice president" for quite a long time. But this long time was far too much to get into a single evening in the theatre. Each section should really have been just a sketch. The attitude today is, "We've seen that, we've done that". And actually we have. on the other hand, the childlike quality that is essential to the artist, and which shows itself in many guises, sometimes positive and sometimes negative, was expressed perfectly by Riggins. This is probably the clue to creativity, because it is the search to make the intangible tangible no matter in what condition of life the search exists.
And right from the beginning of the ballet, Neumeier used a figure called Eros to follow Bernstein throughout his career as the mysterious unknown insider-being which kept Bernstein creating despite his passion "just to be out there". Eros was played by Ivan Urban, a sensitive dancer, who somewhat resembled Riggins with his curly blond hair, but taller as though he were an extension or a reaching out on a creative level.
But like most artists Bernstein was also interested in "serious" music. He was a superb conductor and probably would have welcomed being himself a Mahler or a Beethoven. So a piece like Serenade cannot be classed with his popular work. It was a step up when it appeared at the end of the ballet, and it called for a change.
I was perhaps the only one in the audience who was expecting the change to be a tribute to this Bernstein, the sophisticated more contemplative artist who Neumeier had honored in his 1993 version of Serenade. In other words what I expected was the original version.
So, in my opinion, the "story" was not complete because in going beyond what is popular and pleasing to the crowd, the artist's real aim is to find and express the higher self. Therefore, to complete the story - at the end - in the last scene in the penthouse - Riggins, the childlike figure of Bernstein throughout the ballet, should have found himself as the artist - represented by Eros; should have in fact become Eros, the onlooker, watching but not participating in the fray, seeing life from another vantage point because every artist has this experience at some time in life no matter how successful or disappointing this life might be.
By not allowing the Bernstein figure to grow in this present versio n, Bernstein Dances became simply a "Revue", to quote the choreographer. This review was entertaining but at the same time a kind of memorial service, an attempt to include everything; to be properly appreciative after the fact. In the process Neumeier's usual capacity to work through intuition was distorted by this intellectuality. In the past his intellect has been just a support for his imagination.
My hope is that John Neumeier will re-think this last movement and put back his original version where the artist sees his creativity from a higher level. Then the joyousness at the very end of the ballet, which was so spontaneous and uplifting to the audiences in their roaring approval, will celebrate an eternal truth, not just a temporal one, whether they know it or not.