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Ballet by John Neumeier

Winter Journey

Music: Hans Zender, Franz Schubert
Choreography and Staging: John Neumeier
Set and Costumes: Yannis Kokkos

Hamburg Ballet, Hamburg, December 16, 2001

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Immediate and Urgent

"Winter Journey" had been planned for the December premiere of 2001 a long time before the shock of September 11th. The feeling resulting from this incredible disaster has confused and altered our lives, giving Schubert's music an immediate and urgent new meaning. The song cycle reflects the present insecurity, the loss of trust, the tension which we now sense so strongly. A feeling as if one would be aware of a sickness but could only feel and monitor symptoms, not yet certain how serious the final diagnoses might be or how long the disease may last. "Winter Journey" expresses a form of extreme exile – an exile from oneself in a strange – familiar world.

It was my intention from the beginning – as it was for Hans Zender – to bring "Winter Journey" as close as possible to us today. Therefore, the original idea, which I discussed with my designer Yannis Kokkos, to follow the inspiration of the painter Caspar David Friedrich seemed, in the end, wrong. This artist, a contemporary of Schubert, used incredibly beautiful, magic images of nature, surrounding and reflecting the serene meditation of the people painted. As obvious as it may have seemed from one point of view to use Caspar David Friedrich's inspiration, it would, on the other hand, have emphasized the period of its composition – the Biedermeier aspect of the music. For me, Schubert's song cycle is the music of today.

Searching for contemporary images, which the Schubert-Zender work suggests, Yannis Kokkos and I discovered another artist, Christian Boltanski. Boltanski's seemingly abstract installations suggest in a very contemporary way the warmth of forgotten humanity. Rows of boxes or series of photographs document the absence of people they represent. Our backdrop, with portraits of our own dancers, themselves as children or their parents, define the image of a "House" – important in the "Winter Journey" poems.

For me, the central character of "Winter Journey" was never a single dancer. Today the image of the wanderer has many faces: perhaps a sophisticated woman, a modern James Dean, a displaced hippy or a small Japanese boy with glasses.

Music dictates to me the visual images which result in choreography. It's often not a question of what I could 'imagine' choreographing to a particular music, but what the music tells me at the moment I begin to move. Schubert-Zender's "Winter Journey" demands a stark, a simple, a clear form of movement – a movement of immediate recognizable reality.

In choreography the complete vision, the movement world created is most important. I am less and less interested in planning a ballet before I begin. For me choreography must be an adventure. Particularly in an episodic work like "Winter Journey", I like to confront myself with situations. What happens, for example, when a mysterious, dreaming man in a black trench coat with an umbrella meets a small Japanese boy wearing glasses and a pullover much too large for him. To follow the emotional reality of this situation investigating the dramatic possibilities of this simple human situation is for me the truly interesting part of the adventure.

John Neumeier