The World of John Neumeier: a window on the man and his choreography

Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre
March 23, 2019
(as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival 2019)

David Mead

After considering the creative genius of Beethoven earlier in the week, Hamburg Ballet’s final work at this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival threw the spotlight on that of another: the company’s artistic director of 45 years, John Neumeier.

“My world is dance,” says Neumeier at the very beginning of an evening, narrated by himself (the first time he had ever done the whole show live; in previous performances, his voice had always been part-recorded). The World of John Neumeier opens a window of his life and career, illustrating his beliefs about ballet.

In one sense it is a gala, but this is not a night for showcase pas de deux, for multiple pirouettes or expansive leaps. As Neumeier explains, dance is an art that reflects the entire human being, in all aspects. “Dance is never merely entertainment; it is not a sport nor simply a demonstration of strength or virtuosity. Dance is an art that reflects man’s soul.” As the evening shows, Neumeier does not have any particular movement style, but that sums up his philosophy perfectly as he digs deeply into his music and characters.

The Nutcracker from The World of John NeumeierPhoto Kiran West
The Nutcracker from The World of John Neumeier
Photo Kiran West

It starts at the beginning with the choreographer talking about his childhood and his love of dance in the movies. Cue top hats and tails, and lots of snappy footwork in ‘Candide Overture’ from Bernstein Dances, a favourite as a youngster, followed by I Got Rhythm in which he recalls the great Gene Kelly, and in which Madoka Sugai and Alexandr Trusch performed a playful duet.

Thereon, the excerpts also flow seamlessly into one another, Neumeier and his on stage alter-ego Lloyd Riggins providing links as necessary. The choreographer’s first experiences of, and love for, ballet are expressed in his The Nutcracker, where his discovery of classical dance is mirrored by that of Marie (Emilie Mazoń). Here we see her wear pointe shoes for the first time, and then dance a pas de deux of sheer joy with Gunther (Marc Jubete).

Moving on, Neumeier acknowledges that the very act of creation can become the theme of a ballet, as it did in Death in Venice, where the main character, Aschenbach, was depicted as a choreographer searching for his muse.

Hamburg Ballet in Death in Venice as part of The World of John NeumeierPhoto Kiran West
Hamburg Ballet in Death in Venice as part of The World of John Neumeier
Photo Kiran West

Pas de deux often fail to spark out of context. That was sadly the case here, where even the sublime talents of Alina Cojocaru failed light things up. The reunion scene from Peer Gynt where Cojocaru’s young Solveig finds Edvin Revazov’s Peer in the mountains, felt especially flat. Cojocaru may have been brimming with genuineness in the Act II pas de deux from Lady of the Camelias (with Trusch as Armand), but again it struggled for depth. Little better was the scene from Hamlet where Hamlet (Edvin Revazov) bids farewell to Ophelia (Anna Laudere) prior to his departing for Wittenberg, a realisation of a scene that Shakespeare suggests but does not put into words.

Highlights sometimes come in unexpected places, though, and the one pas de deux that did deliver in every way possible was the all-male affair that makes up the short Opus 100 – For Maurice, Neumeier’s 70th birthday present to Maurice Béjart, which was danced in full. Alexandre Riabko and Ivan Urban were perfectly at ease in each other’s company as they glided their way through the touching dance. The music, Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Old Friends’ and ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, works a treat too.

Hamburg Ballet in Die Kameliendame (Lady of the Camellias) from The World of John Neumeier(dancers pictured: guest performer Alina Cojocaru with Alexandr Trusch)Photo Kiran West
Alina Cojocaru and Alexandr Trusch in Lady of the Camellias
from The World of John Neumeier
Photo Kiran West

When it comes to depth of spirit, it’s hard to beat Neumeier’s religious works. With the stage filled with dancers, the excerpt from his St Matthew Passion reduced the Culture Centre to absolute silence. The drama of the The Denial of St Peter, with Riggins as Christ and, is quite devastating. Christmas Oratorio I-VI is almost as good, the energy of the dancers sending everyone off to the interval in a good mood.

No evening about Neumeier would be complete without reference to Nijinsky. The choreographer-director being well-known for his fascination with dance history and his collection of Nijinsky’s art works. In the signature role in Nijinsky, one of Neumeier’s signature ballets, Riabko showed eloquently a man trapped in his own world, where thoughts and memories conspire to produce hallucinations. The madness of his brother Stanislav and the devastating carnage of the First World War were powerfully presented by Aleix Martínez and the ensemble.

Ivan Urban and Alexander Riabko in Opus 100 - For Maurice,part of The World of John NeumeierPhoto Kiran West
Ivan Urban and Alexander Riabko in Opus 100 – For Maurice,
part of The World of John Neumeier
Photo Kiran West

“My world is dance and I was always proud to be a part of it,” says Neumeier, remembering Mahler’s title for the final movement of his SymphonyNo.3, ‘What love tells me’.

And it was Neumeier’s Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler that provided a stunning conclusion to the evening. A duet by Sylvia Azzoni and Revazov produced beautiful shape after beautiful shape. But even better was to come when the corps rushed in. With the stage full of red-clad dancers, the men lifted the women high. In white, Neumeier walks among them in tribute, reaching out to Azzoni, the unattainable ideal, perhaps, as she slowly walks across the front of the stage.

It was a fine way to end to the evening and a compilation that says everything there is to say about John Neumeier, his choreography, and his dedication to his art and the people in it.