Hamburg Ballet at BAM February 2007
Posted 07 February 2007 - 02:16 PM
Posted 11 February 2007 - 06:54 PM
I went on the first night, Wednesday, and there was apparently a good deal of enthusiasm among the audience. At least there was a standing ovation, though that sort of thing is so commonplace in NY these days that I don't take it to mean much. I stood too during the calls, but mainly because I couldn't see the stage for the people standing in front of me, and because I wanted to stretch my legs.
The most basic facts of the Thomas Mann story from 1911 were preserved, with the obvious exception that Aschenbach was transformed into a choreographer rather than a writer. This made good enough sense in the context of a ballet, and at the start we see a creatively frustrated Aschenbach struggling to create his masterpiece on the life of Frederick the Great of Prussia, suitably accompanied by Bach's Musical Offering. I assume this is partly intended tongue in cheek - a repressed creator trying to work with impossibly unballetic material. (In the Visconti movie Aschenbach became a composer, as there is reason to believe Mann modeled Aschenbach on Mahler, and the adagietto from Mahler's 5th symphony threads its way throughout his very lush movie version.)
In other aspects Neumeier also follows the Mann original - the extremely disciplined Aschenbach, frustrated with work and in need of change, journeys from the cold North to the sultry climate of Venice, falls in love with an exquisite young man, and dies there while Venice is undergoing a cholera epidemic.
But other than that, a lot changes between novella and ballet, and I'm not sure it's for the better. In fact I'm pretty sure it's not, and re-reading the novella a few days ago just confirmed my impression. Neumeier subtitles his ballet "a free adaptation," which of course is his prerogative, but to the degree that he departs from Mann, is he producing something of comparable richness, or has he diminished the resonance of the story?
Take first the crucial matter of age. In Mann, Aschenbach is described as elderly, graying, and at least 50 but probably much older; Tadzio is about 14 - a well-bred, beautiful but delicate boy with grey eyes and honey-colored ringlets, just old enough to be incipiently sexual but not much beyond a child. Visconti came close to capturing Tadzio in the teenage boy he cast for his movie, though even there the actor looked a bit too old. Mann himself admitted the novella concerned "a case of pederasty." After nearly 100 years, it is more disturbing to imagine a 65-year old man infatuated with a 14-year old boy than a 40-year-old interested in a well-built athlete of about 20. And yet the latter is what Neumeier gives us. The age disparity in Mann is essential to both Aschenbach's idealization of Tadzio as an incarnation of youthful, ambiguously innocent beauty and the feelings of degradation and danger he experiences in vain pursuit of this exquisite creature. The environment of Venice, at once sensuous and debased, both a fairy-tale and a nightmarish vision of a city in the grips of a covered-up plague, is the symbolic representation of Aschenbach's internal struggle and his ultimate capitulation to sensual depravity. The barber scene in Mann, where Aschenbach attempts to regain his appearance as a young man, has little meaning if Aschenbach looks (as does Lloyd Riggins, born in 1969) little older than 40. With Neumeier, the cholera epidemic so essential in Mann feels just tacked onto the action, with black-hooded figures hauling the occasional dead body slowly across the stage, but having no relation to Aschenbach's internal ferment. Instead of the richness of characterization and allusion found throughout the novella, we get little more in the ballet than a closeted gay man falling for a healthy young hunk in a red Speedo, struggling with coming out, and then dying for no good reason after their final pas de deux.
Equally important, in the novella Aschenbach and Tadzio never meet or exchange words, although there is the occasional suggestion of an unspoken rapport between the two. In Mann we are never given the boy's point-of-view or allowed into his consciousness. He is after all more symbol than actual character. Yet in the ballet the younger and older man toss a soccer ball a few times, and dance a couple of pas de deux, thus largely vitiating the terror Mann's Aschenbach feels of being discovered and descending into an abyss of uncontrolled passion for an unattainable object. Dunning even interprets the Tadzio of the ballet as initiating the older man into sexual love: "Edvin Revazov's Tadzio is a wonder, a perfect mix of luminous innocence and easy, unthinking sensuality. He is the child leading the father, with reassuring, bashful kindness, into a tumultuous new world." So what we're getting in Neumeier is the kid who's been around the block a few times deflowering the older virgin. Anything farther from the spirit of Mann's Tadzio cannot be imagined.
Neumeier's Death In Venice is a largely sexual reading of a novella whose homosexual overtones are so strong that some readers have been as impelled to deny them as fiercely as other readers have denied the homosexual longings in Shakespeare's sonnets. But like the sonnets, the original work is much more than that. Neumeier's ballet of sexual self-discovery and frankness is moving and beautiful in its own way, but it lacks the disturbing richness of the original, with its quasi-Platonic meditations on the relations between art, beauty, discipline, and depravity.
Other things I found odd - the use of two identically costumed dancers to portray the sinister figure (red-headed in Mann) who pops up a half-dozen times in the story, as a gondolier, an entertainer, and more. Yes, I know the Hamburg company had identical twins at one time, but the casting still begs the question. I don't understand the need for the intrusive figure of the pianist either. Using Bach to represent discipline and Wagner for eroticism is plausible, but why have such sensuous music as the Tristan Prelude and Liebestod banged on the piano (rather insensitively by one Elizabeth Cooper), when we hear orchestrated versions of the Tannhäuser Bacchanale and the Bach Ricercare?
Even the program booklet had its oddities, though I much appreciated the fact that all the musical choices were listed in detail, a practice I wish NYCB would follow. (The Wagner selections included music from the two operas listed above as well as some lesser-known non-operatic pieces.) But the Who's Who section provided detailed biographies of all principals and soloists in the Hamburg Ballet, several of whom did not appear at BAM, while not even mentioning anyone from the corps including young Mr. Revazov, who had the second major part in the ballet we saw. Not very fair especially to this interesting dancer, and just another strange element of a very strange night.
Posted 11 February 2007 - 07:01 PM
Posted 11 February 2007 - 08:04 PM
I hadn't read the Mann book in many decades and I liked seeing the dance version with a vague remembrance of the story
The thing which I liked very much was the use of the piano which was on the corner of the stage and the pianist did much of the music and at times the dancers would interact with her... so she was both the music for the dance and like a piano in a rehearsal studio she was IN the ballet as a pianist... strange sort of homage to the music which ballet is built on. The juxtaposition of Bach and Wagner... again the contrast between old and young...dream and reality.
There was a mirror used from a ballet studio and references to water of course in the sets since it took place in Venice.. yet another aspect of Aschenbach reflection on his condition... how we try to see ourselves as others see us.
At one point Aschenbach also leaves the stage and enters the orchestra aisle...playing the part of a choreographer looking at his stage.
There was a lot going on between the dance, the sets, and the story... between the story and the thoughts of Aschenbach... and his reality.
I would like to see it again because I felt that there was so much going on and it demanded several viewings to take it all in.
If you have a chance to see it...don't miss it.
Posted 11 February 2007 - 08:27 PM
I remember attending an ABT performance at City Center during which the people in front of me attempted to match the dancers listed in the program with the headshots of the principals printed in the playbill. Boy, were they disappointed when they found that role X was not being performed by a principal dancer. Never mind the actual performance. I'm afraid for some people the rank matters most.
SanderO, I know that Neumeier's Death in Venice has been shown on German television (because I've seen pirated clips ). But I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for the DVD. DVDs of German companies are very rare birds.
Posted 11 February 2007 - 09:42 PM
Wonderful appreciation, Klavier. Many thanks!
Posted 12 February 2007 - 05:00 AM
Re soloists vs. principals: I sometimes find the principals (not so much at ABT, but at least at NYCB) not nearly as interesting as the soloists or corps members.
Re program notes: I'm aware of those stapled notes. But they look pretty unprofessional for a company of this calibre, and I doubt all audience members know to pick them up.
Posted 12 February 2007 - 07:56 AM
"Take first the crucial matter of age. In Mann, Aschenbach is described as elderly, graying, and at least 50 but probably much older; Tadzio is about 14 - a well-bred, beautiful but delicate boy with grey eyes and honey-colored ringlets, just old enough to be incipiently sexual but not much beyond a child. Visconti came close to capturing Tadzio in the teenage boy he cast for his movie, though even there the actor looked a bit too old. Mann himself admitted the novella concerned "a case of pederasty." After nearly 100 years, it is more disturbing to imagine a 65-year old man infatuated with a 14-year old boy than a 40-year-old interested in a well-built athlete of about 20. And yet the latter is what Neumeier gives us."
To put myself in the surprising position of defending Neumeier's choices, I think that in the ballet world, the difference between 20 and 40 is huge; so in translating Aschenbach into a choreographer, perhaps the choice makes sense. Jennifer Dunning was right on the mark, however, in wondering how this could possibly be the first infatuation since the ballet's choreographer, unlike the novella's Aschenbach, is surrounded by lithe beautiful bodies from day one.
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