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Friday, March 22, 2019, 12:05
Master of bold moves
By Rob Garratt
Friday, March 22, 2019, 12:05 By Rob Garratt

Dance legend John Neumeier returns to Hong Kong Arts Festival with a bouquet of shows, including an unconventional stage adaptation of Beethoven’s music. Rob Garratt has the details.

John Neumeier closes this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival with a retrospective celebrating his long career as dancer, choreographer and founder of the Hamburg Ballet. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The Hamburg Ballet’s headline Hong Kong Arts Festival (HKAF) run ends this weekend with the festival finale, The World of John Neumeier. This 150-minute personal retrospective sees the newly 80-year-old figurehead, former dancer and founder of the ballet company, appear onstage to talk through some of the most memorable moments of his career, interspersed by segments from seminal works including The Lady of the Camellias, Death in Venice, Peer Gynt and Nijinsky

If the concept has something of a greatest hits feel to it, Neumeier denies his “danced autobiography” — which premiered in Italy in 2010 — is anything like a victory lap.

“Turning 80 years old, I do not feel any limitations in my work as a choreographer and artistic director,” he says. “There are many ideas for future creations, and my daily life of creative work continues as usual.”

The prolific visionary

Neumeier’s “daily life” has been nothing if not creative. Born in Wisconsin in the US, he moved to Europe in the early 1960s to study with the Russian heavyweight Vera Volkova and at London’s Royal Ballet School. He then served as a soloist with the Stuttgart Ballet before being appointed director of the Frankfurt Ballet in 1969 and then founding the Hamburg Ballet in 1973, which he continues to lead 46 years later. Over the past five decades, the American has created more than 160 ballets, earning a reputation for being one of the most visionary — and hardest working — dance directors on the planet. 


Fittingly, Neumeier’s Hong Kong run — a three-show spectacle staged by a touring company of 130 people — started with the Hamburg Ballet’s revival of the auteur’s breakout work, older even than the company itself. First staged in Frankfurt in 1971, Neumeier’s revelatory retelling of The Nutcracker continues to shine 48 years later, sporting an arrestingly modern approach which even worms hip-hop moves onto the stage. 

Much of the genius lies in Neumeier’s central conceit. While still framed around Tchaikovsky’s classic score — performed compellingly by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra — Neumeier strips away anything festive from the piece, instead authoring a ballet about nothing but ballet itself. Instead of Christmas, he framed it around the central character of Marie, a girl given her first pair of pointe shoes on her 12th birthday by the ballet master Drosselmeyer — a danced homage to Marius Petipa, the legendary choreographer who shaped the style of imperial Russia’s classical forms.

Daria Romanova, a 26-year-old Russian clinical psychologist who previously sat through “at least” five Nutcrackers, was in the audience on March 14. “John Neumeier’s production was absolutely new and fresh — outstanding, brilliantly danced and magnificently made — and for those who know the original Nutcracker, Neumeier’s version is far more interesting,” she said.

In Hong Kong, the lead was entrancingly played by Romania’s Alina Cojocaru, whose fluid footwork navigated Marie’s journey from dorkish wannabe to the knockout virtuoso presented in the final act’s performance-within-a-performance.

It turns out Neumeier’s iconoclastic rewrite of the repertoire’s best-loved gem was based on purely practical considerations.

The Nutcracker was one of the few productions that could be performed without extra orchestra rehearsals,” he explains. “When I examined the existing stage decoration, I felt it was not suitable at all — and subsequently banished every single item. Eventually, the empty stage became the starting point of my own concept: The dream world of Marie would be located within the theater itself.”


Off-beat Beethoven

Music is also at the heart of Neumeier’s third HKAF production and one of his newest creations, Beethoven Project. A coup for the festival, it marked the work’s first performance since its hometown premiere in June 2018, which was viewed by HKAF program director Grace Lang.

“Dancer Aleix Martinez characterizes the role of Beethoven with deep emotions, facing social circumstances which could be cold-blooded and painful,” she said of the Spanish lead, also employed in Hong Kong. “Beethoven Project brings out humanity in different levels of spectra, leaving one to ponder further, and wonder in awe.”

While Neumeier has become known for his daring choreography based on the music of Mahler, the new show represents an unlikely embrace of Beethoven, inspired by the looming 250th anniversary of the master’s birth in 2020.

“When listening to Beethoven’s symphonies with its rather strict form, I felt some distance — initially,” says Neumeier. “However, the expressiveness of his chamber music initiated my intensive consideration of this composer’s works.”

Neumeier explains he became fascinated by a simple musical tune Beethoven lifted from an English country dance, transporting it first to the Viennese ballroom, then working it into the finale of The Creatures of Prometheus ballet, next fueling a series of piano variations and finally appearing as the climatic theme of the groundbreaking third symphony, Eroica, which features prominently in Neumeier’s new ballet.

The 150-minute score draws liberally from Beethoven’s oeuvre, cutting and pasting pieces of orchestral and chamber music alike, reassembled in a seamless suite which purists might argue pays little respect to the artist’s original intent. 

HK Phil Chief Executive Michael MacLeod argues a precedent exists in earlier stage works, such as Michel Fokine’s 1909 ballet Les Sylphides, which reassembled unconnected Chopin pieces, newly orchestrated by Alexander Glazunov. “Even if this Beethoven Project offends a few purists, it may be an inspired way of introducing Beethoven’s music to a new wave of enthusiasts,” he says.

“The most important motivation for my creations is the direct emotional impulse to move when listening to music,” added Neumeier.

If you go

Hamburg Ballet — The World of John Neumeier

Presented by Hong Kong Arts Festival

Dates: March 23, 7:30 pm; March 24, 2:30 pm

Venue: Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre, 10 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui


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