Thoughts about ballet and a look forward to Hamburg Ballet in Hong Kong: a conversation with John Neumeier

On February 24, Hamburg Ballet director John Neumeier celebrates his 80th birthday. David Mead recently caught up with him to talk about his three ballets being performed at the Hong Kong Arts Festival 2019, and his approach to dance.

Becoming a professional ballet dancer, let alone a choreographer, was something quite distant for the young John Neumeier. “Growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, there was not a resident ballet company at that time, or a major ballet school, although I did study dance in a small studio.”

The recalls the first ballet he saw was Coppélia by the Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo in 1951. “It was a very long programme. Coppélia in two acts, the Bluebird pas de deux, and Polvetsian Dances from Prince Igor. I loved every moment of it.”

John NeumeierPhoto Kiran West
John Neumeier
Photo Kiran West

He already had an intuition, a feeling about dance from seeing it in movies and films. “The movement in movies always fascinated me and the speaking always bored me. I think seeing that first performance was kind of a research into understanding what it was that I was drawn to. After that first performance, any time any ballet company came to Milwaukee, I saw as many performances as I could.”

Yet, as a youngster, ballet was not actually his first love, he says. That was drawing and painting. “I studied drawing, charcoal drawing, pastel drawing, watercolour, oil painting at weekends. For years the dream was between becoming some sort of artist or a dancer. In the end I became a choreographer, which is in a sense combining the two: painting with human beings in space and time.”

Neumeier has now been making dance for almost 50 years. After a spell at Stuttgart Ballet as a dancer, and where he started his choreographic development, at just 30 years old he took up the artistic directorship at Frankfurt Ballet in 1969, before moving to Hamburg in 1973. Things were a little different at the company then, he remembers. “I had a tiny office that I shared with my ballet master. I had to find a secretary from within the Opera House and then she was only a half-day person. Now, we have a building of our own with nine studios, a dormitory for our children, a school, a wonderful youth company.”

Hamburg Ballet in John Neumeier's The NutcrackerPhoto Kiran West
Hamburg Ballet in John Neumeier’s The Nutcracker
Photo Kiran West

Of the three ballets being danced at the Hong Kong Arts Festival, The Nutcracker is certainly the most familiar title. Made in 1971 in Frankfurt, it’s one of his oldest full-length works. Don’t go looking for the usual references to Christmas, though, because you won’t find them.

“The concept was that it was first of all a birthday party, but not any birthday party; that of a twelve-year old girl, Marie, who is on the verge of becoming a young woman. To this party comes a very handsome young man to whom she is attracted and who gives her the nutcracker, which makes the title of the piece.”

Having a logical, believable dramaturgy is essential for any story ballet and the big problem with The Nutcracker is always how to draw the divertissements of Act II into the narrative, says Neumeier. In his ballet, Drosselmeyer is a ballet master at the Court Theatre where Marie’s sister is a ballerina.

Hamburg Ballet in John Neumeier's The NutcrackerPhoto Kiran West
Hamburg Ballet in John Neumeier’s The Nutcracker
Photo Kiran West

“This character becomes a figure almost of Petipa himself,” Neumeier explains. “It is this ballet master, Drosselmeyer/Petipa, who gives this young girl pointe shoes, introduces her to the mystery of the theatre in a dream, takes her to a rehearsal of a ballet in what is normally the snow scene, and to a performance in which each of the divertissement is named after a ballet by Petipa and in which Drosselmeyer himself also takes part.”

In a sense, the ballet is an homage to classical ballet itself, which Neumeier believes most versions of Nutcracker basically are anyway. “In a sense, it’s also my personal homage, because if we look at it autobiographically, I was like this little girl Marie, who was fascinated by the idea of the theatre. Of course, I didn’t meet Drosselmeyer, I didn’t meet Petipa, but I did find a certain way.”

From one of Neumeier’s oldest ballets to his latest, Beethoven Project, which premiered in 2018. A very personal look at the composer, it’s a work that he says very much evolved in the studio as it went along, and even changed in nature as he continued to research and learn about the Beethoven, the man. Beethoven Project was originally a working title but as we worked on it, I seemed so very appropriate for what it is, he explains.

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

But, he insists, it always had a musical spine: “A theme that Beethoven used first as a contradanse, then used in the finale of his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, and wrote an extraordinary piano sonata with fifteen variations on that theme, and used as the finale of the Eroica symphony. So, musically, it had a kind of plan, it had a map.

He explains that he never went into the studio and thought about how to include specific incidents or people from the composer’s life but developed it from “a purely musical point of view, from a purely improvisational point of view. I remember suddenly realising that the sound of the Prometheus music is so different to that of the symphony or sonata that were written before. It had to have a special kind of visual ambience.”

There are still biographical elements in Beethoven Project, though, most notably the very striking moments when he is losing his hearing. The ballet is unusual in many ways but audiences should just look at it and be open, says Neumeier. “They should not get distracted by trying to understand too much. I think that my feeling, and the word ‘feeling’ is really important, my feeling about Beethoven flows into the choreography. I would like that feeling about him to flow back to the audience, without actually them thinking ‘this must be that moment in 18-whatever when he did this or that’. I would like the audience to be involved with the dancer who is portraying Beethoven, and not try to see necessarily in that dancer the Beethoven they have read about.”

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

Sometimes audiences think or try to think too much, Neumeier agrees. “It’s like this idea that, ‘I don’t go to the ballet because I don’t understand it’, but it’s not always a rational artform. Your rationality can be preparation for it, but the choreography, the creation, is something that happens without thinking. I don’t think you think about how I will now do a ballet about Beethoven and I know all these facts and I want to put them in the ballet. I believe you have to know facts but I believe that in the moment of creation you cannot think about them.”

In Hamburg, Neumeier’s 80th birthday is being celebrated with a gala performance of his The World of John Neumeier, which also forms the closing work of this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival. Neumeier describes the ballet as “not exactly an autobiography, but in a sense a biography through pieces of my work,” adding that it “shows how these works fit into the puzzle which is my life. It’s not a set piece. It’s a kind of organised symphonic gala.” At the Hong Kong Arts Festival 2019, The World of John Neumeier will feature highlights from Bernstein Dances, Shall We Dance?, The Nutcracker, Death in Venice, Peer Gynt, Saint Mathew Passion, Christmas Oratorio I-IV, Nijinsky, Hamlet, Lady of the Camellias, Opus 100 – for Maurice, and Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler.

Hamburg Ballet in Bernstein Dances as part of The World of John NeumeierPhoto Kiran West
Hamburg Ballet in Bernstein Dances
as part of The World of John Neumeier
Photo Kiran West

The evening does follow a line, starting with his beginning and the things that drove him towards dance, he explains. “And it was music. It was listening to Bernstein’s Candide overture. I will never forget how that made me improvise, made me dance. Also, the Hollywood movies were very important into my research into what it was that I was trying to be a part of. So, those elements are always there. Also, the scene from The Nutcracker where Marie tries to stand on pointe and it doesn’t work and Drosselmeyer/Petipa takes her into the studio. It has a lot to do with my fascination with ballet.”

That fascination is very diverse, he continues. “Nutcracker is very much in what we would call a classical style, I Got Rhythm is very much in a jazz musical style, Candide Overture is a mix of these things. There is the exploration of Nietzsche, the exploration of Shakespeare, of other forms of literature in it. Each of them, in a sense, tries to create another world, and each says something about my feelings about dance.”

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

Those feelings include not deliberately setting out to follow whatever seems to be currently in vogue. “I think I should go with my heart, with what I feel, and what shape my emotion will give to the themes that interest me. Everything I’ve ever done, in a sense, reflects some aspect, some layer of my being.”

And Neumeier’s ballets do tend to be highly expressive. While technique and athleticism are important, he describes them as “the tools that we need to say something” rather than seeing them as an end in themselves. That’s very different to a lot of sport, he says, where we see the raw technique. What they have learned, what they have trained for, is the end of what they do. But dancers train for a completely different end. We make our bodies articulate so that we can express something. This expression comes through choreography, that is again interpreted by individual dancers who each give that choreography a particular colour. In sport, she came in first, she was second, and she third. He absolutely jumped the highest, so he is number one. But in ballet, there is no number one, two or three in my opinion. Usually.”

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

‘Modern’ is another term often applied to Neumeier’s choreography, even when telling a story from the past. “I believe ballet, dance, is absolutely an art of the present tense. If we see Der Kamiliendame (Lady of the Camellias), for example, we see a sick woman, but we don’t know how she is sick. Does she have consumption? That’s how the story is, but she could be HIV positive, she could have Aids, she could have cancer. We can put it in a costume that looks more or less like 1847 but what we are really interested in is the person on stage, living now in 2018. I think every part of ballet is modern unless you actually try to make it a museum piece; unless you say ‘this is a reconstruction of something done in 1890 and isn’t that interesting.’ Which, actually, I don’t find that interesting. I have a great respect for the past, but I don’t want to seethe past on stage now, and I don’t want someone to pretend about the past because we’re not living in the past, we’re living in the present.”

It’s impossible to disagree with Neumeier when he describes Hamburg Ballet as “an institution” and “a wonderful company.” Without doubt it’s one of Europe’s finest. But it’s important that his work and the company are seen away from the city. “I think we are the German company that tours the most. I also work with other companies. I never felt that I was in prison in Hamburg. It is my laboratory. It is where I work best in creating; in finding new things. But these new things should then go out into the world, just as I should go into the world and take these things with me.” One day, maybe those travels might include London. “It’s so strange. It’s the one major city we have never been to. It’s a phenomenon,” he says.

Hamburg Ballet – John Neumeier are at the Hong Kong Arts Festival 2019 performing The Nutcracker (March 13-15), Beethoven Project (March 19-20) and The World of John Neumeier (March 23-24).
For details (including of associated talks and masterclasses) and tickets for these and other Hong Kong Arts Festival dance performances, visit