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[ENG] Of Men, and Music and Dance ─ Looking into the Soul of John Neumeier

Bernstein Dances from The World of John Neumeier; Choreographer: John Neumeier; Photo: Kiran West

“My world is dance,” said the Hamburg Ballet director and choreographer at the beginning of The World of John Neumeier. If you were looking for a regular style gala, for 32 fouettés, for virtuoso pas de deux, you would search in vain, however. As he later explained, for him "dance is never mere entertainment…an art that reflects man's soul, his spiritual depth." If Neumeier has such a thing as a personal style, it is summed up in that statement rather than in movement or steps or structure.

Moderated by Neumeier himself with Lloyd Riggins acting as his alter ego, the evening underlined the choreographer's artistic journey. What struck very obviously was just how varied his output was. It started with his childhood fascination with dance and the snappy, upbeat Bernstein Dances and Shall We Dance. In The Nutcracker, Marie's journey and love for classical ballet reflected Neumeier's own.

One of the more powerful moments of the evening came with Nijinsky. Alexandre Riabko conjured up a sad figure but in one sense still a proud man, whose thoughts and memories merged into hallucinations. The depiction of the carnage of World War I was incredibly powerful too.

Lady of the Camellias from The World of John Neumeier; Choreographer: John Neumeier; Dancers (from top): Alina Cojocaru, Alexandr Trusch; Photo: Kiran West

Pas de deux don't always work out of context, and they mostly didn't here. Even Alina Cojocaru and Alexandr Trusch in Lady of the Camellias couldn't produce much spark. Highlights sometimes came in unexpected places, though, and Neumeier's Opus 100 - For Maurice, a male duet made for Maurice Béjart's 70th birthday, was a gem. To Simon and Garfunkel's “Old Friends” and “Bridge over Troubled Waters” it was a dance full of affection. Ribako and Ivan Urban were perfect.

Man's soul was laid bare in two of Neumeier's works to religious music, St Matthew Passion and Christmas Oratorio, the first in particular giving the evening some needed drama in The Denial of St. Peter, with Riggins as Christ. Neumeier has never shied away from majestic scores, and the evening closed with the equally moving Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler, the choreographer walking among the red-clad cast as if to remind us one last time, “I did this”.

There was more symphonic music earlier in the week in Hamburg Ballet's second program of the festival, Neumeier's Beethoven Project. Made with an eye on the 250th anniversary of the composer's birth in 2020, it was performed mainly around his piano works, Variations and Fugue in E-flat major, Op 35, “Eroica Variations” and Symphony No 3 in E-flat major, Op 55, “Eroica”. Deeply layered, it was an always engaging ode to the man and his music.

Neumeier first immersed himself in the man and his world in what was very much a personal response to Beethoven's emotional situations and genius. There were fragments of narrative but the sense was more of someone dipping in and out of a much-loved book, pausing to muse over the pages of most interest.

Somewhat unkempt in appearance (a description frequently applied to Beethoven), Aleix Martínez was remarkable as the composer. He made the audience believe, dealing effortlessly with Neumeier's modern take on classicism. His whole body screamed joy, despair or failure to understand what was happening, as when he lost his hearing. As his moods swung, the only thing that was predictable was his unpredictability.

The ballet was enigmatic, Neumeier refusing to name other characters. Most overt were references to the composer's failure to love and marry. Veiled brides were always just out of reach. The slow movement of the “Ghost” trio saw a beautiful duet for Patricia Friza and Martínez, presumably a nod to the “immortal beloved”, Antonie Brentano, to whom Beethoven once set out his feelings in letters. Despite each gesture, touch and look being loaded with emotional meaning, it was all rather platonic, as was their real-life relationship.

Beethoven’s one and only ballet score, The Creatures of Prometheus, Op 43, was introduced humorously as a ballet within a ballet. Tall with flowing locks, Edvin Revazov was a perfect Apollo. The pas de deux with his Terpsichore, Anna Laudere, was delicate and full of exquisite lifts.

The Creatures of Prometheus, Op 43 from Beethoven Project; Choreographer: John Neumeier; Dancers (from left): Anna Laudere, Edvin Revazov, Photo: Kiran West

Act III was all about the music as Neumeier explored the composer's Symphony No 3 in E-flat major, Op 55, “Eroica”. Wisely, he didn’t try to compete with the music by flooding the stage with dancers but restricted himself to illustrating it with small groups or just a few couples. The finale was positively euphoric. With the whole cast behind him, Martínez, now in modern T-shirt and blue jeans, extended his arms wide and smiled broadly; and so, I would swear did the audience.


David Mead

a British choreographer and writer working largely in the UK and Taiwan. He is editor of and writes for a number of other international publications including regularly for Dancing Times (UK). David has also contributed to several books, most recently Ballet: The Definitive Illustrated History (2018).

Beethoven Project, The World of John Neumeier

Choreographers: Beethoven Project: John Neumeier; The World of John Neumeier: John Neumeier

Performances: Beethoven Project: 20 March 19:30 Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre; The World of John Neumeier: 23 March 19:30 Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre

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