An ode to a genius: John Neumeier’s The Beethoven Project

Opera House, Hamburg
November 8, 2018

David Mead

Hamburg Ballet director John Neumeier has never shied away from choreographing to powerful and majestic scores. He had already made a couple of shorter pieces to the music of Ludwig van Beethoven but had long thought about a full-length work; and what better time than now, in the lead up to the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth in 2020.

The Beethoven Project was originally a working title but Neumeier determined to stick with it as it encapsulates perfectly his new ballet and the way that it emerged. Especially inspired by the composer’s piano works, it is mainly based on the Eroica Variations and Symphony No. 3. Neumeier immerses himself in Beethoven’s world. As he digs into the inner man, he shifts the work away from being a ballet biography to more his personal response to the composer’s personal and private life, his emotional situations, his genius and, most of all, his music.

The ballet is sometimes enigmatic. Genius is hard to understand, although the programme notes help a lot, especially the extracts from Neumeier’s diary, and you can’t help but admire the creativity of both of he and his subject. Even so, those unfamiliar with Beethoven’s story are likely to often find themselves asking ‘Who? What? Why?’

Aleix Martinez in Beethoven projectPhoto Kiran West
Aleix Martínez in The Beethoven Project
Photo Kiran West

Relationships and feelings are writ large, especially in the first half. That’s perfectly reasonable given that Beethoven admitted that he always had a picture or story in mind when he composed, whether from real life or literature. You can’t take the composer out of his music, as one might say. Beethoven never revealed those influences or inspirations, though, which leaves everyone guessing at his intent.

Act I is dominated by an on-stage grand piano with Michal Bialk at the keyboard. Aleix Martínez as Beethoven appears tiny beside it. His opening solo has a childlike quality, something that returns intermittently. He curls his body around one of its legs, clinging on like a child might its mother. He even crawls under it like a toddler might. Yet the instrument can also be read as a jailer, or something he is ‘chained’ to. Something from which there is no escape.

Martínez captures the composer perfectly. He not only has an agile body that deals effortlessly with the demands of the sometimes quirky choreography, but also a marvellously expressive face that. In an instant, it can light up with delight. Small details mean a lot. Martínez makes them seem so big it’s impossible to miss them.

Edvin Revazov and Anna Laudere in Beethoven projectPhoto Kiran West
Edvin Revazov and Anna Laudere in The Beethoven Project
Photo Kiran West

As the ballet unfolds, Martínez and Neumeier present Beethoven as a complex figure; frustrated and irascible. He’s always looking for a way to express himself, his feelings especially, but always struggles to do so. Neumeier presents him swinging sharply between playful and serious, between outgoing and withdrawn. Freedom, smiles and joyfulness emerge in an instant from darker moments. The only thing that’s predictable about the wild genius is his unpredictability. Hard to understand, society avoids him.

There are references to Beethoven’s failure to love and marry, at one point veiled brides floating across the stage like ghosts.. Yet women had a huge influence on his life and work, including Johanna von Honrath, a girl he adored in his youth, to Countess Marie von Erdödy to the ‘immortal beloved’, almost certainly Antonie Brentano, to whom he set out his feelings in a three-part letter.

The slow movement of Beethoven’s ‘Ghost’ trio sees a desperately beautiful and multi-layered duet for Martínez and Patricia Friza, in a red dress, in which she sometimes seems to be a muse but sometimes more as a mother comforting a distressed child. Each gesture, touch and look is loaded with emotional meaning, he often reaching out for something always just out of his grasp.

Aleix Martinez and Patricia Friza in John Neumeier's Beethoven ProjectPhoto Kiran West
Aleix Martinez and Patricia Friza
in John Neumeier’s The Beethoven Project
Photo Kiran West

One striking moment of detail sees Beethoven’s onset of deafness announced by a startling interruption to his music by a loud roar and whine, electronic noise filling the theatre. By coincidence, Neumeier suffered a middle ear infection during the making of the ballet, which complicated his hearing of the music.

The first act ends with Beethoven’s one and only ballet score, Creatures of Prometheus, introduced in the manner of a ballet within a ballet. Tall and with his flowing locks, Edvin Revazov is a perfect Apollo. The pas de deux with his Terpsichore, Anna Laudere, is delicate and full of exquisite lifts. As always, contrast is close by, as behind them more dancers burn in hell.

Act II is choreographically more architectural as Neumeier explores the composer’s Symphony No. 3, Eroica. It has an unusual opening, Martínez climbing out of the orchestra pit. As the audience cheer his arrival, he grins broadly.

The dance follows the music being more epic in scope, Neumeier painting some super pictures with the ensemble, although Beethoven as a character continues to wander through proceedings. It starts with a bang, the fiery opening matched by Mayo Arii and Karen Azatyan. The grandeur of the second movement, the Funeral March, is partnered by Laudere and Revazov, this time in a dance more tearful in nature.

There’s a complete change in mood for the bright and bouncy third movement. The dance is sunny, colourful, upbeat and fun. The finale is positively euphoric with all in festive white, all that is except Martínez, who is now in everyday T-shirt and blue jeans. It ends with him with arms extended wide; a grand conclusion to an unusual, not always easy, but most fascinating ballet.