Neumeier: the presiding spirit of Hamburg

THE remains of Vaslav Nijinsky lie within the Montmartre cemetery in Paris. But the essence of the great dancer continues to breathe within the walls of a villa in Hamburg.

The owner, John Neumeier, is literally surrounded by Nijinsky, or, as he puts it, by the “manifestations of a man I’ve learned truly to love – more and more deeply through the years”.

Over many decades, the choreographer and artistic director of Hamburg Ballet has cornered the international market in artworks depicting the dancer. But his Nijinsky treasures represent only one aspect of a unique collection encompassing three centuries of dance history.

On the walls, shelves, display cabinets, filing cabinets and tables, from the basement to the private rooms on the top level, the collection includes bronzes, sculptures, oil paintings, water colours, lithographs, photographs, press cuttings and Meissen porcelain figurines. Here too are shoes that once belonged to Anna Pavlova, Rudolf Nureyev, Marie Taglioni and Fanny Elssler, and walls devoted to Isadora Duncan, Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. Among precious documents is the menu for Nijinsky’s wedding.

The legends of the past are Neumeier’s muses, inspiring a body of work that includes more than 140 ballets, almost all created for the Hamburg Ballet where he has held for reins as artistic director for 39 years.

The Hamburg Ballet is Neumeier and no one knows or wants to discuss what might happen when he retires. An honorary doctor and professor, Neumeier is the presiding cultural spirit of Hamburg, a city-state that’s perhaps best known for its musical history – Brahms, Mahler, Telemann – than it was for dance. Until he arrived.

Neumeier works from two venues: the Hamburg Ballet Centre, a 20-minute drive from the centre of town, and the State Opera Theatre (Staatsoper), in Gustav-Mahler-Platz, where Australian conductor Simone Young was appointed artistic director in 2005. Young is also the opera’s intendant (general manager) and music director of the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra.

With Neumeier, she will lead the touring parties of the opera, orchestra and ballet to Brisbane in August and September, when the companies will appear at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre as part of its state government-backed five-year program to bring international performing arts to the city.

The ballet will perform two works by Neumeier, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (choreographed in 1977) and Nijinsky (2000), the latter opening with the dancer’s last public appearance in St Moritz, then depicting his life in flashbacks as he dances with a cavalcade of Ballets Russes characters, real and imagined.

The Hamburg Ballet Centre houses nine dance studios, but the engine room is Neumeier’s office and that engine was idling until he sat behind a spacious and tidy desk and picked up a coffee mug labelled The Boss. He spoke in paragraphs rather than snippety sentences, and shifted focus only to look through the windows at the threatening clouds. The next day he was flying to San Francisco and then to China, so his thoughts may have been drifting skywards.

Born in the US but resident in Germany since the 60s, Neumeier still speaks with a soft American accent but I imagine his voice could easily flick from warm to wintry if things were not going just the right way.

At 69 he remains a workaholic, forever researching the dramatic frameworks for his ballets, many of which are based on great works of literature, from Homer’s Odyssey to Chekhov’s The Seagull, on at least five Shakespeare plays, on 20th century plays (A Streetcar Named Desire), on Americana (he has staged West Side Story and On the Town), on the music of Bach, Mozart and Handel, and especially Mahler.

Neumeier has choreographed 14 ballets to Mahler with only the second and eighth symphonies remaining and he has completely re-worked the Tchaikovsky trilogy of ballets – Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and Nutcracker

Every year, he stages a five-hour gala in Hamburg dedicated to Nijinsky, the lover of Diaghilev and the erotic star of the Ballets Russes – that is until the dancer married. Nijinsky’s subsequent descent into madness is documented in his diary and is also frighteningly evident in the colour drawings he began in 1917, after he stopped dancing. Nijinsky told his wife, Romola de Pulszky, that the childlike, obsessive, staring eyes in the drawings represented the faces of soldiers. Neumeier owns 90 of the drawings (it is estimated there could be more than 150 in existence), and about 1000 other items related to Nijinsky and the Ballets Russes.

In one of his essays, Neumeier wrote that “Nijinsky was clearly not a superficial star performer but a whole man, a tortured soul, wounded by the horrors of war and by man’s inhumanity to man. His diary manifests this intense human concern and reflects his deep spirituality. Reading his own words moved me deeply, moved him closer to me. I deeply respect and admire Nijinsky’s courage.”

Neumeier’s dance collection will eventually become a public museum but is, for now, open only to academics and Neumeier’s guests, so I was lucky to be given a tour by the curator, Hans-Michael Schaefer.

We began in a two-roomed library, lined on all walls with shelves of dance books, then moved on to a basement office holding filing cabinets of photographs and correspondence, then into a Pavlova enclave, a wall dedicated to Duncan, cabinets of porcelain figurines of Ballet Russes dancers in poses from Prince Igor, Pavillon d’Armide, Petrouchka and Jeux, a newly acquired bronze head of Nureyev, artworks by Cocteau and Bakst, and a telegram sent by Nijinsky from the Savoy Hotel boasting of the successful Ballets Russes London season of 1911.

Finally, on the top level, a plaster cast of Nijinsky’s naked figure stands by a breakfast table, while the walls are lined with black-framed Nijinsky drawings. The swirling, dancing shapes of the artworks are studded with black and red eyes that stare at the viewer. “I know what an eye is,” Nijinsky wrote. “An eye is a theatre. The brain is the audience.”

Neumeier’s museum-home, the glass-walled Staatsoper and the Hamburg Ballet Centre are the three architectural pillars of his domain. They, in turn, house four layers of the Hamburg Ballet enterprise — the Neumeier Foundation, set up in 2006 to preserve the collection, along with the company’s scores, notebooks, diaries and films; the company itself, funded by the city-state of Hamburg; the Hamburg Ballet School, established in 1978; and recently, a second company of younger dancers, funded by the federal government in Berlin.

“People think Hamburg is always throwing everything at me,” Neumeier says, “but it’s not true. It took an awful lot of fight to achieve. I mean this building is really wonderful but of course it took years of threats and saying ‘OK I can’t work here any longer’. Hamburg is not particularly artistic. It’s a city of bankers, a city of wealth, but of discreet wealth. I think it has really taken fight [to raise money and government support].”

Nevertheless, the annual budget for the opera and ballet is a very healthy E64 million ($79m), and of that they receive two thirds from the city-state.

A few days later, Young says Hamburg has always been a mecca of culture. “The opera here is the oldest non-royal company in Europe,” she says. “It was always a case of Hamburg performing for its citizens and being supported by its citizens. It was never a dukedom or a kingdom, but always a merchant’s city and the merchants were focused on creating an environment for themselves and making Hamburg an attractive place to visit as well.”

But there’s no denying Neumeier has fought for his empire. “Maybe I’m the longest-serving ballet director because it’s taken so long to get where I’m trying to go. Nothing was really fast,” says Neumeier, as he snaps his fingers. (He’s actually the second-longest serving artistic director in the world, after Alicia Alonso in Cuba.)

His dance empire is multinational with an American principal ballet master, Kevin Haigen, an Australian principal conductor, Simon Hewett, and a company of about 60 dancers from many countries, including one from Australia, but only five Germans.

Dancers tend to stay with the company for a long time. Ukrainian principal Alexandre Riabko, for example, has been a member of the company for 15 years. Along with fellow principal Thiago Bordin (11 years with the company), he is likely to dance the role of Nijinsky in Australia.

Neumeier began our interview with what sounds like his manifesto: “We have this building, the company, school, and now a second company but if you took everything away, and tried to peel away all these layers, what would be left in the end would be myself as a creator, myself as a choreographer.

“I’m a collector because I feel through understanding the relationships of people who stood behind me, I see the same problems, the same challenges we face now. It fascinates me and I like to have these people, these images around me, but I feel it’s extremely important to create new things. I believe ballet only lives if it looks towards the future and is based on creation.

“What is always interesting to me is the possibility of the human being as the centre of dance, not the dancer as a great technician. I’ve always tried to explain the difference between mannerism and truth, even in dealing with the classics.”

In the words of his early Canadian-American mentor, modern dance maverick Sylvia Shearer, Neumeier “needs classically trained dancers who can act, who can embody meaning and emotional impact in a lyrical manner”. As a teenager, he took classes from Shearer in Chicago. Her dance-theatre ideas remain clear in Neumeier’s ballets and form one of the elements on which he has built his work.

Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he was the son of a Great Lakes captain of German ancestry and a mother of Polish ancestry. But Neumeier was an all-American boy. His parents spoke only English, as “learning foreign languages at the time was considered un-American”.

When he was four, he watched his first movie musical and was smitten. His movie hero wasn’t Fred Astaire who was “almost abstract for me as a person”, but Gene Kelly, “who was more like a man that I would know, dancing down the street. He was a person who danced and not a dancer who was a person, and this for me is the most important thing in my work.”

Neumeier took classes in tap, acrobatics and eventually ballet and began to devour books at the local library, among them, The Tragedy of Nijinsky, a book his teacher told him was very unsuitable for a boy of about 10. He later attended Marquette University, a Jesuit-run institution, in Wisconsin, where his subjects were English literature and theatre studies. “It was the time of the Actors Studio and the American interpretation of the Stanislavsky method which I brought completely into dance,” he says.

So he became the Lee Strasberg of the choreographic world? “Yes, and I still am. That stress of vision hasn’t changed. My education was so eclectic, theatre, painting, dancing.”

But with the discipline of a single-minded man, and the financial parachute of a scholarship, he decided to train intensively for a year at the Royal Ballet School in London. “My mother said ‘I don’t care how long you stay, but you have to be home for Christmas’.” And was he? “Of course not.”

At the end of the year, the artistic director of the Royal Ballet, Ninette de Valois, said she would “talk to George” about finding him a job in New York. “George” was George Balanchine, the founder of New York City Ballet, but Neumeier was scooped up instead by two stars of Stuttgart Ballet, Marcia Haydee and Ray Barra, who were watching class one day in London. So began Neumeier’s German decades.

“There was something about the European atmosphere. I was crazy about the Italian painters of the Renaissance, I nearly memorised Bernard Berenson’s book Italian Painters of the Renaissance. And I just thought, well Stuttgart is closer to Florence than New York, so I think I’m going to stay for a while.

“When I was in Stuttgart, I again started to create works and in creating, in a sense, freed myself as a dancer from trying to be competing with the great classical dancers of the time”.

Stuttgart Ballet was led by John Cranko, whose Romeo and Juliet is a seminal work of many companies around the world. While Neumeier danced in that ballet, “I began to conceive my own Romeo and Juliet”.

In his subsequent career, Cranko’s influence was less important to Neumeier than the works of Antony Tudor and Agnes de Mille, two choreographers whose ballets are centred in the human world rather than that of pantomime, romance, myth and magic.

Neumeier accepted the artistic directorship of Frankfurt Ballet when he was only 27 as “I wanted to explore this world of human dance. I always imagined that a ballet company could be like a very great actors’ company where we had very different types of people, where we would not cast the same person as Juliet and Lady Macbeth which we did in the 60s, when it didn’t matter what the ballerina’s qualities were. What mattered were her position and her technique.”

Four years later he moved to Hamburg Ballet, which at the time “seemed to be sunk in sheer mediocrity”, according to German dance writer and author Horst Koegler. Initially vilified for his early firing of 16 dancers, Neumeier soon became Hamburg’s darling, launching workshop sessions in which he spoke to audiences of his ideas and dreams while his dancers demonstrated his work. Audience reach is Neumeier’s speciality. His Hamburg workshops have attracted more than 300,000 people and are now available on DVD.

Neumeier’s brand of dance theatre is not universally loved, and even regarded with superior disdain by some London critics, but it’s clear from watching a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Hamburg, and the many curtain calls after, that local audiences adore the man and his work. The ballet is danced to a musical scheme of three layers – Mendelssohn’s music for the aristocratic world, Ligeti’s music played electronically from offstage for the fairy scenes, and the circus sounds of the hurdy gurdy for the comic acting troupe, known as the Mechanicals.

During this season, guest artist Alina Cojocaru, a Royal Ballet principal artist, played the dual role of Hippolyta and Titania and will do so again in Brisbane. She has become Neumeier’s latest muse: he describes her as “the method dancer of all time. She is really a choreographer’s dancer.”

As Neumeier approaches his 40th year in Hamburg, the future is hard to ignore. Asked who might succeed him and how his works will be protected for future generations, he replies enigmatically “these are the unanswered questions. There are people who have worked with me, who are with me, who understand what I am trying to do.”

Among them is Haigen. He created the role of Puck in Dream, was a principal with the company, has had vast experience in other companies, and then returned to the Hamburg Ballet staff in 1991. Haigen, however, says he doubts he will succeed Neumeier and believes “it should be someone younger”.

Rather than concern himself with matters of succession, Haigen, now in his mid-50s, still finds Neumeier’s domain artistically fulfilling as a place where dancers can try to live the roles they dance, rather than preen and compete.

“With John, it’s not about showing off or how long you can balance,” Haigen says. “As dancers we don’t need to amaze the eye. We need to touch the soul.”

This article first appeared in The Australian on 25 February, 2012

Hamburg Ballet performs Nijinsky, August 26-28, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, August 30 to September 5, in Brisbane.

Simone Young conducts the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra and Hamburg State Opera in concert performances of Das Rheingold on August 23 and 25 and conducts Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 on August 24.

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John Neumeier at home, with Nijinsky drawings in the background, photo © dpa

John Neumeier at home, with Nijinsky drawings in the background, photo © dpa

Nijinksky ballet, choreographed by John Neumeier, photo © Holger Badekow

Nijinksky ballet, choreographed by John Neumeier, photo © Holger Badekow

Nijinsky ballet, photo © Holger Badekow

Nijinsky ballet, photo © Holger Badekow

Hamburg Ballet Centre interior , photo, Valerie Lawson

Hamburg Ballet Centre interior, photo, Valerie Lawson

Vaslav Nijinsky. Bows und Segments: Lines, 1918/19. Crayon and pencil on paper. Foundation John Neumeier. © Tamara & Kinga Nijinsky

Vaslav Nijinsky. Bows und Segments: Lines, 1918/19. Crayon and pencil on paper. Foundation John Neumeier. © Tamara & Kinga Nijinsky