Moments of destiny

Hamburg Ballett John Neumeier - October 8 and 9, 2016

It’s the final days of June 1973. John Neumeier is spending the first night in his new home in Hamburg, where he is engaged in a soul-searching dilemma. A brilliant summer, it is true, lies ahead of him. The Bayreuth Festival is staging a revival of the spectacular production of Tannhäuser by Götz Friedrich, the festival’s first East German director; the previous summer Neumeier had choreographed a modern bacchanal for the mountain of Venus scene. Then with August Everding and Herbert von Karajan, he will be working on the premiere of Carl Orff’s most recent opera at the Salzburg Festival. Rudolf Nureyev is eager to dance in a Neumeier ballet, and the American Ballet Theater is requesting a choreography – the fledgling Hamburg ballet director is thirty-one years young, and the doors of the world are open to him. Everyone wants him. Except Hamburg.

The local press has been waging a campaign against the new director ever since opera director August Everding – a newcomer himself – brought him to Hamburg from Frankfurt. The background: before taking up the post, Neumeier dismissed sixteen dancers and demoted five soloists. Nearly half of the company’s forty-seven members are affected. The newspapers have been discussing the matter for weeks; even dance journalist Kurt Peters, the respected founder of the German Dance Archive, writes a malicious letter, urging Neumeier to kindly remain in Frankfurt and refrain from bestowing his “personal touch” on the Hamburg Ballet.

Frankfurt had just let go of its ballet director, celebrating him with tears of farewell. The three-and-a-half years in Frankfurt were a brief but successful period. With The Nutcracker and Le Sacre, Neumeier had created important large-scale works that continue to accompany him to this day – including at his guest performances in Baden-Baden. But first and foremost, Frankfurt was the place where the great storyteller’s very first narrative ballet was born: Romeo and Juliet. He had taken on his first position as director there in mid-season; only twenty-eight at the time, he became Germany’s youngest ballet director.

Now he finds himself in Hamburg, trying to figure out how, in this volatile atmosphere, he can best begin his work. Neumeier is hoping to build his own ensemble with its own unmistakable character. He can count on August Everding’s support: the charismatic man of the theater had seen one of Neumeier’s first ballet performances in Frankfurt and was immediately won over by his vision. Earlier in Stuttgart, Neumeier had learned how vitally important a ballet-loving opera director can be for a man in his position. Some of his dancers, with whom he has close personal ties, had already accompanied him from Stuttgart to Frankfurt. Now he is bringing them to the Hanseatic City as well, where they will not only serve as the choreographer’s muses, but later bear the torch of his life’s work as teachers and ballet masters. One of them is Marianne Kruuse, his first Juliet, who would later contribute to the development of his ballet school; others include his first Romeo, Truman Finney, and Max Midinet, his first Mercutio. How would the edgy Hamburg audience greet the new dancers at the season opening in September?

Suddenly, in these final days of June, devastating news for the ballet world arrives from Stuttgart: John Cranko has died, far too young, on his flight back from the U.S. Cranko’s Stuttgart Ballet Miracle was returning from yet another triumphant march through North America. His company arrives at the Stuttgart airport in tears – all of them colleagues and friends Neumeier had danced with up until a few years ago. It was Cranko’s prima ballerina Marcia Haydée who had discovered Neumeier in 1963, when he was a student at London’s Royal Ballet School, immediately recommending him to her director. So a provincial German city, of all places, is where the 21-year-old American from Milwaukee, the son of a Great Lakes captain and artist of many talents, would give his first performance on stage.  At the time Stuttgart was known as “Mercedez Benz Town” and the winter Bayreuth; the ballet miracle had just borne its first tender fruits – with Cranko’s new production of Romeo and Juliet.

The ballet director who had made every effort to encourage Neumeier’s first experiments of his own, the choreographer whose brief era in Stuttgart was responsible for inspiring a revival of classical dance in Germany, had now been torn from this life while flying over the Atlantic. The news comes as an extraordinary shock for Stuttgart – what will become of the young company? Voices from the press are soon calling for John Neumeier. And what a superb ensemble he would find here: open-minded dancers with acting talent who are by now world famous, including the great tragedian Marcia Haydée, for whom Neumeier would create the Lady of the Camellias just a few years later. Not to mention a ballet-hungry audience who already holds him and his works in high esteem.

It’s likely he did think about simply walking out on Hamburg and its caustic newspaper critics, about going to Stuttgart where the people there wanted him. But Neumeier remains true to his promise to Everding. He wants, above all, to create his own company completely according to his own vision. He remains in Hamburg, in the new and unfamiliar apartment, and starting in mid-August, sets to work in the post-war opera house with its admittedly utilitarian architecture. On September 9, 1973 he appears before the public who doesn’t want him, explaining to them his plans and the way he works. His directorship in Hamburg begins with a ballet workshop. Even at the time, Neumeier is a gifted speaker and explainer of dance, though on this occasion he is so nervous that he forgets his text. But his charisma shines, and the Hamburg audience is captivated – in spite of everything, it is a story of love at first sight.

The ballet workshop has long since become a tradition that Neumeier has continued without interruption, including at his guest performances in Baden-Baden. At this first workshop he presents a premiere, the pas de deux Désir to piano pieces by Alexander Scriabin. “Ballet like Chekhov,” writes critic Hartmut Regitz about the work. Up until now, Hamburg had been the greatest Balanchine stronghold outside of New York. But with Neumeier, profound and sensitive dance takes the place of abstract Neoclassicism. Neumeier’s first narrative ballet, Romeo and Juliet (a work that had featured in Frankfurt), is premiered in Hamburg in January 1974. The choreographer knows Prokofiev’s score inside out. As a young artist in Stuttgart, he had danced Count Paris (Romeo’s rival) alongside Haydée, also playing the role of Friar Laurence. Even at that time, the young dancer found the Russian and Western productions of the work to be too formulaic, too “ballet-like,” and was already thinking about how to make the tragic lovers more human. He decides to forget all ballet traditions and starts reading Shakespeare assiduously. His Romeo should be more spontaneous; he wants to get away from the ballet clichés and return to the psychology of the two youthful lovers.

Many things are already specified in Prokofiev’s magnificent score; with the directness of its emotions, the music dictates exactly what happens on stage. But Neumeier is always finding new nuances and different facets to emphasize – particularly in the part of Juliet, who doesn’t scuttle onstage in pointe shoes as a prima ballerina. Instead, we get to know her as the impetuous 14-year-old girl of Shakespeare’s drama. She clowns around in the bath with her cousins, barefoot and wearing nothing but a towel. In her first meeting with Romeo, she collides with him forcefully; later on her balcony, she literally grows dizzy with emotion. She is a young, playful, dreamy girl, even a bit scatterbrained. Love is what finally makes her grow up in the space of a few hours.

Neumeier attaches great importance to her natural way of moving; in contrast, Juliet’s mother, and later all the characters attending the ball, move in a very formalized manner, conscious of their status. When we meet Romeo, he is a worldly and sophisticated young man. But the aristocrat also has another side, befriending a group of entertainers – something entirely new that Neumeier brings into the storyline and that stands outside Veronese society’s obsession with status. We also encounter the juggler motif, which will appear in many of Neumeier’s subsequent works.

At the time, the highly abstracted stage design and colorful Renaissance costumes were still the work of Filippo Sanjust. Not until a year later does Jürgen Rose create a new scenography, with magnificent colors, for the performance at the Royal Danish Ballet, which the choreographer brings to Hamburg in 1981. His Romeos, however, are plagued with bad luck: in Hamburg in 1973, Truman Finney is unable to perform. Neumeier, who had already been the understudy in Frankfurt, dances the part of Romeo himself. For the new version in 1981, Jean-Christophe Maillot is scheduled to give his debut as the lover. But right before the premiere he is so seriously injured that he is compelled to abandon his rising career as a soloist soon afterward. Today he is a world-famous choreographer: as Monte Carlo’s ballet director, the title of his first narrative ballet was Roméo et Juliette, and just last year he presented LAC, his version of Swan Lake, with the Ballets de Monte Carlo to great acclaim. John Neumeier, however, whom the Hamburg audience didn’t take a liking to at first, is now a beloved and revered citizen of honor in the Hanseatic City.

What an extraordinary oeuvre he has bestowed on Hamburg over the last forty-three years, and how much of this could be seen at the Hamburg Ballet’s annual residencies at the Festival Hall! First and foremost, of course, are his many narrative ballets, his Shakespeare and literary adaptations, his sensitive new interpretations of the great ballet classics. But Neumeier also created symphonic ballets, choreographing the complete Mahler symphonies, dance oratorios, and large-scale religious ballets. He loves the tradition of his homeland and has staged musicals and ballet revues. But above all, he loves Vaslav Nijinsky – the legendary dancer makes appearances in several of his ballets, and Neumeier’s foundation owns the largest collection of Nijinsky memorabilia worldwide. All these facets of his work can be seen at the World of John Neumeier Gala, which has been newly arranged for the Baden-Baden audience – it is something like an autobiography in dance, an overview of his unique life’s work. Since today John Neumeier is directing the company of his own that had been his greatest wish as a thirty-year-old – longer than any great choreographer before him in the history of ballet.

Angela Reinhardt

Photo: Steven Haberland