A beautiful story now told in compelling dance: John Neumeier’s The Glass Menagerie

Opera House Hamburg
December 1, 2019

Maggie Foyer

It was a night when the stars moved into perfect alignment as John Neumeier, Alina Cojocaru and Tennessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie co-aligned. Neumeier first saw the play as a young man and later considered its choreographic potential, but it was after working with Cojocaru on the creation of Liliom he saw its potential afresh.

In Cojocaru, one of the great dance artists of our time, Neumeier has found the fragility and otherworldliness of his Laura. In her performance she verifies his trust. He also found a successful way to express Laura’s physical impairment without compromising Cojocaru’s dance expression. A heeled shoe that slips over her pointe shoe gave a convincing limp while allowing for pointe work. The ballet is a dance drama; the exterior world in commercial technicolour dance, the interior in moving choreography of linked bodies and yearning extensions.

Alina Cojocaru in John Neumeier's The Glass MenageriePhoto Kiran West
Alina Cojocaru in John Neumeier’s The Glass Menagerie
Photo Kiran West

The story is complicated. Three unhappy people, the mother, Patricia Friza, her daughter Laura and son Tom, Felix Paquet, cherish different dreams while cohabiting in a small apartment. The effective setting, designed by Neumeier, is minimal, compact and divided by screens hinting at the barriers obstructing their dreams as well as presenting a surface for Kiran West’s atmospheric projections. It is in this intimate space that the trio struggle with the grim reality of life so removed from the lives they desire.

Laura, painfully aware of her crippled leg, and always ready to retreat into her world of glass figurines and her treasured unicorn, is the most self-effacing of the characters yet it is through the prism of her broken world that we see the misery of unfulfilled lives. For Cojocaru it’s a role to treasure and she plays it to perfection. In a finely judged performance, she plays Laura with no hint of self-pity, full of love for Tom and doing her best to please Mother.

The narrator, listed as ‘Tennessee’ and astutely played by Edvin Revazov in dark wig, hovers on the sidelines in this semi-autobiographical fiction. The child Tom, who delights in sketching, is sensitively portrayed by a lively and very natural, Andrej Urban making a sharp contrast with the disillusioned adult Tom at his mindless job in the shoe factory. Paquet expresses his frustration and anguish in an emotional solo and later, matching his awakening affections, in a moving duet with Jim as he tries to capture his likeness in a portrait.

John Neumeier's The Glass MenageriePhoto Kiran West
Patricia Friza, Alina Cojocaru and Felix Paquet
in John Neumeier’s The Glass Menagerie
Photo Kiran West

Friza gives a brilliant portrayal of genteel Amanda Wingfield, who sees the world through memories of her Southern Belle days surrounded by gentleman callers. She is both a comic and deeply tragic figure and Neumeier gives her opportunities to exploit both aspects. When Jim comes to call, these qualities come to a head. Jim, convincingly acted by Christopher Evans, is the innocent who creates havoc. He is a genuine nice guy and totally overwhelmed by the complexity of the situation he lands in. Amanda, ridiculously dressed as an ingénue, is an absolute embarrassment and excruciatingly funny while Laura is thrown into absolute confusion. Cojocaru’s anguish is heart-breaking. She is at last able to express something of her own sweet self when she shows Jim her glass toys. Inevitably he breaks one, the unicorn’s horn, and leaves in confusion. She is left sitting by the candelabra and in a final tragic moment, she blows the last candle out.

Neumeier has constructed his ballet to the music of three American composers: Charles Ives, Philip Glass and Ned Rorem. Located in the cut and thrust of urban American life in the 1940s, it’s an environment that neither Tom nor Laura are equipped to deal with. Laura struggling to cope with business college and Tom with life at the shoe factory, each finding retreat into their private dreams the easier option. In these bustling scenes the company dancers take the stage presenting a high-octane world of bright lights and entertainment. There is upfront athleticism at the basketball game where Jim O’Connor is king while Malvolio’s Magic Bar offers a neat cameo for Marc Jubete in glittery suit.

Tennessee, a melancholy presence, guides the narrative but the nature of the protagonists has set the path to ultimate unhappiness. It is a desperately sad and amazingly beautiful story and Neumeier’s production has transformed it into compelling dance.