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About the Change

John Neumeier...
Director, Hamburg Ballet

by Kevin Ng

Holger Badekow ©

Hamburg Ballet Reviews

Hamburg Ballet website

Since taking over as the Director and Chief Choreographer of the Hamburg Ballet in 1973 when he was only 31, John Neumeier has single-handedly built up a large repertory of ballets for his company.

Neumeier is an amazingly creative choreographer, and premieres about two new ballets every season. His ballets are extremely diverse in style and range. Neumeier is one of the few living choreographers today who has a flair for creating full-length dramatic ballets. His narrative ballets have tackled plays by Shakespeare ("Romeo and Juliet" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream"), Dumas ("The Lady of the Camellias") and Ibsen ("Peer Gynt"). He has also created many pure dance ballets set to music by Mahler ("Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler") and J.S. Bach ("St. Matthew Passion") as well as Bernstein ("Bernstein Dances").

Neumeier has worked with many companies in the world including the Paris Opera Ballet for whom he created "Sylvia", the Royal Danish Ballet which this season mounted his ballet "Odyssey", and the Kirov Ballet which mounted a full evening of three of his ballets in 2001 including a creation "Sounds of Empty Pages". His most recent masterpiece "Nijinsky" (2000) created for the Hamburg Ballet was acclaimed during the company's tours to Paris and Asia this season, and can be seen again in St. Petersburg in July, as well as in America next year.

Neumeier's proudest achievement is to have established a unique identity for the Hamburg Ballet which has over the years become a perfect instrument for his choreographic style. His latest work is "Preludes CV" which was just premiered on the first night of the Hamburg Ballet-Days festival in June. Next season the company will celebrate the 30th anniversary of his directorship.


Kevin Ng: Mr. Neumeier, you are one of the few living choreographers today who have a flair for creating good full-length story ballets. Why can you do it so easily?

John Neumeier: Well, I don't do it easily. For me, my idea of a ballet has always been an evening in the theatre. When I started even to do an evening with three different ballets, it was still to construct an evening, because I don't think of it as being like a buffet where you take something you feel like. An evening in the theatre should have a complete sense, and this needs us to join the evening under one theme which can be a literary theme or a musical theme, or it can be a symphonic work. The creation of works for a large company has always been important to me, otherwise large companies make no sense to me. I don't think we can train young people living in a world threatened by war in order to dance the fairy tales of the 19th century. I don't think this makes any sense at all, because the training of a dancer is a very big and expensive undertaking. And if we are going to have these big companies, I think they have to be productive.

If we are only going to have choreographers doing works for only five, seven, or eight people, then we should have a company of only ten dancers, as it's much easier. And to have a company in order to dance works which were danced in the 19th century, it's interesting. After all I'm very interested in history myself, but it certainly isn't the most important need for a dance artist today.

KN: You create both dramatic ballets as well as pure dance ballets. But would you say that your instincts as a choreographer have more to do with the narrative than with dance rhythm?

JN: All these are elements contributing to the drama of dance; for me there can be no abstract dance. For me even a work like "Spring and Fall" or "Now and Then" (which Neumeier restaged for the Kirov in 2001) takes its drama from the tension in the music. And so I don't think of it as necessarily drama, perhaps the dancers don't have names like Romeo and Juliet. But for me dance is always something which demonstrates the relationships, the contacts, contrasts, and tension between people.

KN: Do you need to be very familiar with a subject before you feel comfortable creating a ballet? You are an expert in Nijinsky for instance, which might explain your desire to create the ballet in 2000.

JN: Well, I think it varies. Some subjects need a lot of research, some subjects depend more on the music. I've tried to work more instinctively. But whatever preparation I do in terms of research, this is only a preparation. There is a phase in the work which is definitely a preparatory phase which is not important in the actual moment of creation, because I don't create a work as I would cook a stew or bake a cake, in which cse you have a book which tells you what to do. This is because I learn that I have to take off from what I did research before.

KN: Balanchine once said that there are no mothers-in-law in ballet. You obviously disagree with that?

JN: No, I don't disagree with that, and I think this is the reason why I use systems of playing with time, e.g. the introduction of Manon Lescaut and Des Grieux into my ballet "The Lady of the Camellias" in order to give the main characters a double dimension. This is because you cannot speak in dance except in the present tense; there is no step which can say what somebody did yesterday or what I will do tomorrow. So you have to find ways of dealing with this, and I think that Balanchine is of course right in saying this, because there are certain things which you cannot express. Dance is not there to submit, to give us information like a newspaper; it is there to speak of other levels. So I think what he means is that the specific fact is very difficult to express in dance, and I completely agree with that.

KN: Were you the least influenced by Ashton's "Marguerite and Armand" when creating your "Lady of the Camellias"?

JN: Actually, interestingly enough I danced on the same night of the premiere of "Marguerite and Armand" because I was in the Royal Ballet School then. I don't remember anything about it, except that I was fascinated with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. I saw the ballet again recently. No, it has nothing to do with each other, not at all.

KN: You have restaged your own versions of the Petipa classics like "Swan Lake" and "The Sleeping Beauty". Do you think that the classics should be restaged for each new generation? Do you think that the Kirov's current approach of historical reconstruction is correct?

JN: Whatever you do, you should do it according to your tradition. The Kirov has their tradition, the Royal Ballet has their tradition about how to deal with the classics. I think the most important thing is that they are alive, in the case of whatever version, whatever text - whether I am speaking Shakespeare or the text from a Japanese Noh play. The only important thing is that in that moment when I see that character, I can believe in its existence. If I can believe that this Aurora exists and can be touched by her destiny that she's going to die, then it's successful. I don't think that the text itself is that important.


John Neumeier
Photograph by Holger Badekow ©

But for a company like the Hamburg Ballet which is basically a creative company, with respect to its tradition it's very important to realise new versions, in order to stress certain levels of that context, to tell the story more clearly, as I've done with each of the Tchaikovsky ballets by putting them also in a historical perspective. Respecting that part of the work which is truly classic, I don't think is everything of each of the Petipa classics, because we cannot really research it to the beginning and find out what it was. A lot of what is done in St. Petersburg is the question of choice, and the question of taste of that person who is choosing, because we don't really know. Stepanov notation is very incomplete, there is for instance no notation of the arms.

KN: So why have you acquired Makarova's production of "La Bayadere" instead of staging your own version?

JN: In this case it was a question of life. I wanted the company to hve the life of one of the greatest artists of the 20th century in relation to the classical repertory, to be taught and coached in this particular language by someone who is exactly what I believe a great dancer should be - someone who made those classics alive at the time when they were done, as Natalia Makarova did. And I appreciate very much her enormous talent not only as a dancer but as a coach, her way of being able to continue to give what she's learnt and experienced in her career.

KN: Why don't you also acquire some pure dance ballets by other choreographers, since your main interest is in the story ballets? I noticed that the Hamburg Ballet's repertory consists of about 90% of your ballets

JN: But we have several works by Mats Ek, and last season we did a creation by Christopher Wheeldon. We have a work by Jiri Kylian. I think it's very interesting because the company reacts very well to other choreographers. But we are basically a creative company, and if we did more works by others, then we could be any company like the Stuttgart Ballet where there are many choreographers. As a very active choreographer, why should I go somewhere else to do the works that I wanted to do, when my company is mainly here to work with me? That's the reason why they joined the Hamburg Ballet.

KN: Your whole company is attuned to your style. Do you have any muses, like Balanchine had Suzanne Farrell? Who are your muses now?

JN: They change all the time, it depends on when I decide to do a work. When I did "The Seagull", e.g., generally the muse will develop more within the work. I think that Heather Jurgensen, for whom I created the role of Nina, was very important in establishing my direction. And so for me, because of my democratic feelings towards the company, I don't want to favour one person. For me, the ensemble is the star of the company, and I like very much to become interested in different people.


Ivan Urban in John Neumeier's The Seagull
Photograph by Holger Badekow ©

In the beginning Jiri Bubenicek was Nijinsky, but since then Alexandre Riabko has done this role, and I find him extraordinary also in this role. So I am not a person like John Cranko who had Marcia Haydee and was shaped into that image. That has always been against my concept. My concept is to have an ensemble with different colours, and to let myself as creator be fascinated by different colours at different times.

KN: Do you change your ballets over time due to changes in the dancers' techniques or body types?

JN: Yes, I revise constantly. That's again the question of 'living', because I believe that dance is a living art, and I am a living choreographer. So I have to see each performance critically, and I do enjoy that - to be able to change, and continue to develop. But there are different works which develop in different ways. "St. Matthew Passion", e.g., is probably one of those works which have changed the least. It has particular sections wich are improvisatory, in terms of how the dancers react. Of course these are always changing, but the actual choreographic text in this particular work has almost stayed exact since the beginning.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" has changed a lot, and is constantly evolving. When it was originally danced, it had a slightly different shape. I mean the basic thing was there, and the choreography has stayed the same, but the values have changed - the length, cutting pieces and putting them into different places.

KN: Would you say that your choreography has been better received in Europe than in the US?

JN: I think it's been seen more in Europe. It's a question of diet. If you are used to a certain diet, it's sometimes a shock just to be eating rice and sushi. But after a time, if you begin to realise what it's like, then you enjoy it more. And each time my company went on tour to America, we have been very successful with what we have done.

I've not worked that much in America, I've done pieces which have different degrees of success. But I think it's really a question of what you know. I think the Americans particularly are very stuck in what they like to see, and it's a very rigid diet. And if you are not part of that diet, then it's a shock for them. But I believe, since I am an American, that this is a question of acquiring a taste for something, because I think that my works are certainly much more complex than the general works in America. And I think that this complexity will take a little more time to understand and to be open to. But we've always had very good experience in our tours to America, and we'll be going back next year with "Nijinsky".

KN: You've worked with many companies like the Paris Opera Ballet, the Kirov, and the Royal Danish Ballet. Do you find that sometimes these companies may dance your works better than your own company? Do you find it refreshing to work with other companies?

JN: I would say at certain moments. But I have to think that in the end we dance the repertory better, otherwise I wouldn't go through the trouble of keeping the ensemble. It's much easier to be a guest everywhere. But I think that certain companies have special qualities, and I enjoy very much working with the Paris Opera Ballet.

KN: What about the Kirov?

JN: It's extremely difficult from the organisational point of view. It's very hard but inspiring work with the dancers, particularly at the soloist level, because it was they whom I touched the most in terms of trying to educate them in a new movement style and in a new movement concept - that dance is not just a fairy tale, that dance has to do with something about you and your world, that it's a form of expression or expressing the emotions and the fears that you might have. And this was very touching to see how they could react to that idea.

KN: The Hamburg Ballet will tour St. Petersburg this summer as part of the celebrations of the city's tri-centenary,

JN: Yes, we will be going to St. Petersburg at the end of the season, and we'll perform "Nijinsky", "The Seagull", and "The Lady of the Camellias".

KN: Are you going to set up a trust to preserve for future generations the large output of your ballets?

JN: A very difficult question, I would say. I haven't figured it out exactly.

KN: Which choreographers from the past do you particularly admire?

JN: Probably when one went back, it would be Anthony Tudor, and then it would be Jerome Robbins. And then it would certainly be John Cranko - he inspired me in a certain way, though not as much as people would like to think.

KN: Do you think that there's a desperate shortage of good classical choreograhers in the world at present?

JN: It's hard to say, and I never like to give a quick answer without thinking. I am so tied up with working myself that maybe I don't have the time to research this question.

KN: Have you been trying to groom a young in-house choreographer?

JN: We haven't taken a particular one. We give every two years the Dom Perignon competition for young choreographers, and we'll have one this year. And of course the dancers are encouraged to take part in the competition. In each of the two last competitions, two or three of our dancers have been in the finals or have won a critic's prize. So, in that way, yes, but not a particular one.

KN: Which young dancers in your company should we watch out for?

JN: For instance Alexandre Riabko, who dances Nijinsky in the second cast. There is Helene Bouchet, who is a silver medal winner in Varna. There is also Arsen Megrabian who was a gold medal winner in Varna. There's a whole group of young dancers.

KN: Do you think that dancers are getting better and better, both technically and artistically?

JN: Yes, I like to think that in all countries the level of education for dancers is higher than it had been. And the dancers are more free in their use of other choreographic language. For example, it was very interesting for me to work with La Scala for the first time this winter. I was quite surprised that they, who are basically a classical company, also have this possibility to move in a different way. This overlapping of the different types of technique is becoming very universal.

KN: Is emploi still important to you, e.g. danseur noble, demi-caractere?

JN: The traditional levels I don't really find very important. It's interesting that when Makarova came, she could find the people in our ensemble that she wanted to do the purely classical work; and that was very good. However we don't divide dancers in that way, because modern choreography, whether it's my own or Jiri Kylian's, has to do with a modern movement capacity and possibility. This is very important in forming the value of the dancer. How much of the repertory can that dancer really do well? It's an important question.

KN: Is it very hard for you to keep creating two new ballets every season?

JN: It varies. Last season I did two, but this season not. The hardest part is more the question of the responsibility to the company - I believe it's important to do works for a big company. Any composer will like to compose a big symphony, then a chamber work, and then a piece for solo piano. But this is sometimes difficult in the company, because I feel the responsibility to the whole company. And I would like to keep the whole company fed, occupied, and continue to develop them. This is a certain stress, but I've been very fortunate. I've been very blessed in that I like to work very much. It's very fulfilling for me, and I've been able so far to maintain this high level of work capacity, though we don't know what will happen in future.

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