The mind and music of a genius: Hamburg Ballet in John Neumeier’s Beethoven Project

Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre
March 20, 2019
(as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival 2019)

David Mead

For a choreographer noted for his storytelling, John Neumeier’s Beethoven Project is something just that little bit different. Neumeier is less interested in telling Beethoven’s story than in exploring his world and his music. He dips in and out of the composer’s life, taking the audience on a fascinating journey. It’s not unlike someone thumbing through a much-loved book, pausing at those pages, digging more deeply into those scenes, that interest him.

As he captures the trials, tribulations and triumphs of the man and his genius, Neumeier delivers a ballet of opposites: of beautiful aesthetics and lines but also of contemporary harder edges; of the joys of life and of its pains; of harmony and disharmony.

Act I at least, is a ballet that is something of a collage. It does indeed feel like a project. The opening fifteen minutes alone has so much invention. Apart from the contributions of Aleix Martínez as the composer, who stamps his mark on ballet from the beginning, there are some remarkably creative duets, including all-male) and trios. The detail in the dance is astounding. Indeed, a second viewing reaps considerable rewards.

Martínez is short and appears slightly unkempt (a description often applied to Beethoven). He not only looks the part but has an incredibly expressive body and face. Whether it’s joy or despair or the need for love, he speaks with his whole body.

Aleix Martinez in Beethoven projectPhoto Kiran West
Aleix Martinez in Beethoven project
Photo Kiran West

Elsewhere, precise meaning is often enigmatic, especially as other characters are not named. The audience is left to decipher the many references, not least the clearly well-heeled Edwin Revazov, who is wheeled on like a statue in transit. Is he a representation of the great and good in society, a patron perhaps, or something else entirely?

Relationships are to the fore although Beethoven’s loves always remained just out of reach, his failure to marry being marked by veiled brides who occasionally appear. Some of those loves were his piano students, others were of noble birth or already married. To the fore in the ballet is Patricia Friza, a woman in red who dances tenderly with Martínez. She could be merely symbolic but It’s difficult not to read this as a reference to Antonie Brentano, the ‘immortal beloved’ to whom Beethoven bared his soul in a three-part letter. So far as we know, she was the only woman to ever return his affection but even this relationship was platonic by modern standards. A second woman could be a nod towards another close confidante, Countess Marie von Erdödy, for whom Beethoven wrote and dedicated two piano trios; or even Johanna von Honrath, a girl he adored in his youth.

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

Neumeier does show us a marriage of a different sort, however: with music, and especially the on-stage piano. Martinez curls around one of its legs, as if seeking comfort, and later almost dives right into it. But this relationship was to be strained by the onset of deafness, marked by the sudden introduction of electronic sound, and then by total silence, Martínez sits forlornly as the on-stage pianist departs. It is desperately affecting. To the rescue come the corps, in white, who seem as if the notes from the musical page come to life as they stop him running away.

The end of Act I takes us to excerpts from The Creatures of Prometheus, Beethoven’s only ballet, which is presented as a ballet within a ballet, even to the point of having it announced by a dancer with a microphone. At its heart is a sublime pas de deux for Revazov and Anna Laudere as Apollo and Terpsichore.

Act II feels like a different ballet (indeed, it could easily be performed as a stand-alone work). Now it’s all about the music, although Neumeier links everything back to the first half by having Martínez appear from time to time.

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

Back in the 1930s there was quite a debate among critics and musicians about the suitability of symphonic music for ballet, it being the subject of a particularly strident series of letters in The Sunday Times in 1938. In Act II, to Beethoven’s Symphony No.3, Neumeier largely takes a very different approach to the likes of Massine in his 1933 ballet, Choreartium. Not for him vast harmonic groupings or physical grandeur to match the music, but dance that illustrates it in more subtle ways.

The first movement is danced at a fast tempo with great spirit. Unusual is a dance for the male corps which flows easily and is full of energy and teeming imagination. In the second movement adagio, Revazov and Laudere return for a second pas de deux, this one reflected beautifully in a glass panel. The slow and deeply sensual dance, which features a lot of folding in and staring out carries with it a sense of sorrow, of loss and of longing for something or someone that is unattainable.

The third movement is bright, white and decidedly upbeat. Neumeier’s choreography surfs on the score’s ebbs and flows. It’s playful and sunny; dance with a smile on its face that’s as broad as that on Martinez’s as Beethoven. Even better is to come, though, as a grand symphonic finale brings the whole cast together in joyous celebration.