34th Hamburg Ballet Days
Hamburg Ballet John Neumeier
Hamburg State Opera
June 11-13, 2008
by Horst Koegler
copyright @2008 by Horast Koegler
They have become a sort of ritual, the Hamburg Ballet Days, held every year at the end of June, beginning of July, to close the opera and ballet season at the Hamburg State Opera, a house with a capacity of 1674. During the fortnight, the Hamburg Ballet John Neumeier – as it is officially called – presents a survey of the works it has performed during the season plus a couple of specially invited guests and the Nijinsky Gala on the last night, with most of the performances completely sold out. Held this year for the 34th time, they have become a phenomenon, not matched by any other of our big opera-ballet companies in Germany, Austria or Switzerland.
Neumeier has become the longest reigning ballet director (in fact he is Ballett-Intendant, a position including general manager, artistic director, chief choreographer and director of the attached school) of any company on the continent. Now 66 years old, he thus competes with Bournonville in Copenhagen, Petipa in St. Petersburg and Balanchine in New York (even Noverre, Viganò and the Taglionis did not stay for a such a long duration with a single company). At that age Bournonville had just staged “Livjaegerne paa Amager” at the Royal Court Theatre, while Petipa had created another “Giselle” version for the (still) Bolshoi Theatre of St. Petersburg, with Balanchine premiering his “Who Cares?” in New York – with all three of them looking forward to further creations during the late stage of their career – which Neumeier certainly does at his Hamburg residence.
I went for the last three nights, starting with the third performance of the Richard Strauss double-bill on July 11, premiered on June 29. This consisted of a revised version of Neumeier´s “Joseph´s Legend”, which he had originally created for the Vienna State Opera in 1977, with Kevin Haigen (then 22 years old, today Hamburg´s First Ballet Master) and Judith Jamison as the protagonists, designed by Ernst Fuchs, head of the school of Vienna´s phantastic realists. Now it was combined with Richard Strauss´s “Verklungene Feste”, his orchestral arrangement of clavecin-pieces by François Couperin of 1941 vintage, specially choreographed by Neumeier for this occasion – both works interpreted competently by the Hamburg Philharmonic, conducted by Christoph Eberle.
Thirty years ago Neumeier´s Vienna “Joseph´s Legend” was considered a sensation, less because of the music by Richard Strauss, which was voted as rather plushy (as it was at its first performance by the Ballets Russes of Dighilev in Paris 1914, with choreography by Fokine for Massine, aged 18, as Joseph), but because of the casting with the still very young Haigen and the sophisticated Jamison, looking like a black goddess from Ancient Egypt. All in all the gorgeous Vienna production, later revived with different casts for Munich and Hamburg, survived as an example of ´Gesamtkunstwerk´, which Richard Wagner had always dreamt about, and to which Neumeier´s choreography in its unabashed eroticism, capitalizing on the white-black contrast of its protagonists, contributed substantially. As it does in its newly published DVD studio recording with the original cast from the 70s by Deutsche Grammophon.
For Hamburg 2008, Neumeier has somewhat slimmed the dramaturgy of the libretto, which deals with the naïve shepherd boy Joseph at the decadent oriental court of Potiphar, whose wife is bored and tries to seduce him, which he resists with the help of a god-sent Angel, who leads him in an apotheosis to his Divine Providence. But the hour long action has still too much padding and the more sparsely decorated set and the new costumes by the Swiss fashion designer Albert Kremler do not make this pompous and overloaded biblical allegory more palatable to modern tastes. One wishes that Neumeier would concentrate on the ´Symphonic Fragment´, which Strauss drew from the original version, dealing with the erotic conflicts between Potiphar (who undoubtedly feels as much attracted by the boy as does his wife), his emancipated and cunning Wife and the quickly learning Joseph - for it is in these entanglements, into which Neumeier has poured all his choreographic experience and ingenuity, making them look like pieces of choreographic jewellery, designed by Fabergé for his private erotic cabinet. While the premiere was danced by Alexandre Riabko, and Kusha Alexi, with Amilcar Moret Gonzales as Potiphar and Edvin Revazov as Angel, in my performance Thiago Bordin, Hamburg´s favourite Romeo from Brazil, was the irresistible and highly sexy Joseph, while Joelle Boulogne displayed all her feminine charms as Potiphar´s Wife, with Carsten Jung as her leering husband and Ivan Urban as the Angel as an incarnation of inviolable divinity. I very much doubt, that this “Joseph´s Legend” would be as enthusiastically received by American audiences as it was on that night by Neumeier´s Hamburg customers.
After which Neumeier´s new “Verklungene Feste” – which he prefers to be translated as “The Party´s Over” - effected a rather sobering experience. It is one of Neumeier´s preferred party-ballets – a category he has already dealt with in his rather American inspired “Bernstein Serenade” of 1995, and in his Chopin-tinted “Nocturnes” of 2005. They provide him with the frame of different people coming together sharing their experiences and exploring their shifting relationships. As Strauss´s Divertimento dates from 1940/41 and, as an arrangement of Couperin pieces, has a distinct French flavour, Neumeier suggests slightly a French background: Paris during German occupation, where young people meet to celebrate some event, maybe after just having passed their exams. Anyway on the huge table in the background food and drinks are invitingly stapled and served by waiters. The general atmosphere is still carefree and joyous as the five couples, elegantly dressed by Albert Kriemler as the times allow, arrive and converse. They make jokes, flirt with each other, have fun, while others are more melanchy, preferring to cultivate their solitary whims, bouncing into others of rather uninhibited tempers – still: all sorts of personal characters are assembled, and Neumeier has portrayed them making use of their individual talents. Together they add up to a formidable collective of sympathetic youths in the prime of their life: Catherine Dumont and Carsten Jung, Carolina Aguero and Yohan Stegli, Anna Laudere and Edvin Revazov, Lucia Solari nd Sébastien Thill, Florencia Chinellato and Amilcar Moret Gonzales, joined occasionally by passers by, five couples of group dancers and four eleves. There are 18 musical numbers, individually titled by Couperin like ´La Visionnaire ´Les Fauvettes plaintives´or ´Les Ombres errantes´, illustrated by Couperin like character miniatures, which Neumeier handles by sensitively following their musical flow and rhythm, without trying to literally translate them into moving pictures. So the ballet is free from all direct mime references, but immensely rich in all sorts of dances.
However the carefree and playful atmosphere gets slowly undermined by a feeling of unrest and an approaching catastrophe – after all war is raging over Europe, and soon we see the blond Jung exchanging his trendy dinner-suit against a field-grey uniform, the tables are cleared and the walls closed, all the others wear now uniforms and suddenly a dead body is discovered on the parquet, stared at by the guests who are lining up in front of the wall, facing its bare bricks like waiting to any moment being executed: reality has caught up with their daydreams of a civilized and peaceful world. A shudder accompanies the dying sounds of Couperin/Strauss´s concluding Allemande: “The Party´s Over”. It´s a ballet which looks like an act of homage to Antony Tudor, master of the undercurrents of contemporary life – a ballet which allows the Hamburg dancers to bare their souls and reveal their human essentials. Very moving and for me one of Neumeier´s best.
Came on the following night the 7th performance of Neumeier´s “Weihnachtsoratorium”, premiered in Vienna on December 23 of last year. In the line of his former Bach-inspired “Matthäus-Passion” and “Magnificat” it follows the story of the bible, telling the announcement and the birth of Christ, with A Man (Lloyd Riggins), The Mother (Joelle Boulogne), Her Husband (Peter Dingle), A Shepherd (Carsten Jung) and The Angel (Silvia Azzoni and Thiago Bordin) portrayed as chontemporary characters of refugees, who pause on their flight to celebrate X-mas under a small X-mas tree - one of he few properties they have been able to save. It´s a rather stirring piece and Neumeier tells it straightforwardly in simple scenes like from a series of woodcut pictures, performed by the Hamburg soloists, augmented through their colleagues from the corps in the mass scenes, like members of a congregation, closely bound through their mutual belief. And yet it looked very strange and distant at that occasion and what had appeared entirely appropriate at the time of its Vienna premiere now seemed rather illtimed – as if Bach´s Christmas Oratory had been changed into a “Midsummer Night´s Oratory”. Even given that Bach has himself often used his compositions in very different guises, I must admit that I left the performance totally perplexed.
Not so on the next night, when I felt rather exhausted after the five hours plus performance of the Nijinsky Gala XXXIV, entitled “Wordless Dramas”. Split up in three parts, starting with the aforementioned “Nocturnes” like a visitng card of the company´s virtue of chambersize understatement, it exploded in the finale into the glittering fireworks of “Diamonds” from Balanchine´s “Jewels”, at this occasion jubilantly led by Agnès Letestu from the Paris Opéra, elegantly partnered by her Hamburg cavalier Carsten Jung and presented by the Hamburg company like the crowning diadem from their box of precious stones. In between we had been bombarded by excerpts from many Neumeier ballets (including his “Death in Venice” with the infectious Marijn Rademaker from Stuttgart as Tadzio, and Hamburg´s own Silvia Azzoni in her touchingly innocent and vulnerable performance of “The Little Mermaid”) plus some Cranko “Legende” with Lucia Lacarra and Marion Dino from Munich, and “Onegin”, with Hamburg´s own Barbora Kohoutkova and Jiri Jelinek from Stuttgart) , Olga Sizych and Sergej Kusmin from the Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet (who had before appeared in the company´s guest performances of the Bourmeister “Swan Lake” - not considered a truly viable export product any longer) now with Wainonen´s spectacular “Flame of Paris” pas de deux, the “Distant Cries” pas de deux from Edwaard Lang, danced by Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith from the San Francisco Balllet, and Laetitia Pujol and Manuel Legris from the Paris Opéra elegantly rendering their excerpts from Neumeier´s Paris “Sylvia”.
But the highlight was undoubtedly the performance of Béjart´s “Les Chairs” as an act of homage to the choreographer, whom Neumeier considers a great personal friend, who died last December. This had originally been premiered in Rio de Janeiro in 1980, but Béjart revised it completely for its Brussels premiere in 1984, when he cast its two roles with Marcia Haydée and Neumeier – and gave it to them as his personal gift. Based upon Eugene Ionescos´s “Les Chaises” of 1951, it deals with an elderly married couple, who live in a dream world, between empty chairs, where they hold a reception for imaginary guests, talking and talking about long passed days, until they finally walk off to the pastures of their immortal dreams. They appear like Tristan and Isolde on the evening of their days who are living from rememberances of their past (conjured up by piano reminiscences from Wagner´s “Tristan und Isolde”). It is a deeply touching piece – and even more so because there was a general feeling that it was Neumeier´s final performance as a dancer – who here has to talk so much as if to qualify for his next career as an actor. Alas, without Haydée this duo for two seemed somewhat unbalanced, as Joelle Boulogne danced her role properly, but one without making one forget the generation gap which separates Neumeier and his Principal Soloist.
However there was something more, though it did not happen on the stage of the opera-house, and that was the publication of a DVD box, containing three discs of together 530 minutes of duration. Under the title “John Neumeier´s Ballett-Werkstatt” it presents a collection of his matinées from the seventies and early eighties, where he lectured on the basics of ballet, starting with the demonstration of the build-up of daily classes, and from there progressing to the finer details of choreography and how a ballet grows from its very first rehearsels to its finished product, with lots of excerpts from bis rich repertory, performed by many dancers from his early Hamburg days, including Lynne Charles, Marianne Kruuse, Beatrice Cordua and Gigi Hyatt through Kevin Haigen, François Klaus, Ivan Liska and Max Midinet – an excellent account of his educational efforts to teach the audience how to look at a ballet and how it takes shape.
But there is another publication which carries an even greater weight – and this quite literally, as it is a tome of about 8 pounds (4 Kilogramm), 576 pages, dozens of pictures, both black-white and coloured, called “John Neumeier – In Bewegung” (J.N. – In Motion), published by Collection Rolf Heyne in Munich 2008, ISBN 978-3-89910-403-5, at the price of € 135 (today´s equivalent of about US $ 210). Neumeier calls it à fragmentary autobiography´, but it is much more: a chronicle of all the important Hamburg ballet events from the start of the 1973/74 season through 2004/5, plus a vast collection of notices, diary-entries, reports of rehearsels, remembrances of meetings with important people from all over the world, letters, descriptions of his ballets, critiques, discussions, esthetic considerations, speeches and thanksgiving addresses for the many international prizes he has received. All in all then this a book “All About Neumeier”, the like of which has never existed before. One wishes that the great masters of the past, Noverre, Viganò, Bournonville, the Taglionis, Petipa, Fokine, Balanchine and Ashton had seen their life´s work so meticulously (and lovingly) chronicled like in this luxurious volume whch is so much more than the usual coffe-table book.. (Both publications, the DVD Box and the Neumeier book, can be ordered via the Online Shop of the Hamburg Ballet (www.hamburgballett.de).