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Hamburg Ballet in New York


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My friends have had very mixed reactions to this. Some liked it a lot, and others dismissed it. But both "sides" said the audience seemed very enthusiastic -- lots of applause, standing ovation, at least opening night.

Whether you liked it or not, please weigh in! Neumeier is an important choreographer. With Forsythe, he's a star in Europe, considered a leading choreographer. I think we need to pay attention to him -- what did you think?

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Neumeier's Nijinsky is intense enough to stun small animals at a distance ... perhaps our New York friends are still recovering? :)

Seriously, I agree with you that we need to take these companies and directors seriously. It's eye-opening to me how different in expression, ideas, and execution they are compared to American companies, and will show us many worthwhile things that we won't see (or at least haven't yet seen) with our native companies. I can't even begin to imagine an American company trying to fund a staging of a 2+-hour, complicated, intellectually- and emotionally-demanding ballet that doesn't hide its darker undercurrents and subtexts behind a pretty or innocuous facade.


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No, American companies don't have the funding and state support that many European companies have, that's true. I find many of Neumeier's ballets -- and ballets of this type -- all about notions and ideas that are most impressive when you read them but don't match up to what goes on on stage, and those who aren't impressed by Neumeier's work generally cite the paucity of choreographic content as the reason. I haven't seen this one yet -- we get it next week. I have liked some of his work, so I'm keeping an open mind. But just because someone says a work is about "ideas" and "the dark side of the human mind" doesn't do much for me. I don't consider that, by itself, to be intellectual. (and I think those who look at classical ballet and see only a "pretty or innocuous facade" aren't looking beyond the costumes :) I'm interested in the bones -- the steps, phrasing and structure of a ballet, in the same way I would be when listening to a concerto or reading a novel. If a book has a good plot but has no character development, or has cliched or unimaginative writing, I don't think very highly of it.

I still want to read what New Yorkers thought of this one -- come on, guys! You went to Eifman.......

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Here are the New York reviews we've found so far:

rom yesterday's Links thread:

Vaslav Nijinsky, ballet's most legendary superstar, is the subject of more than one ballet. But none has the vision, passion and detail that John Neumeier has poured into "Nijinsky," the two-act dramatic spectacular he presented with the Hamburg Ballet over the weekend.

It is a pity that this engagement, with outstanding casts on both Friday and Saturday nights, ended yesterday at City Center, but there is time to catch "Nijinsky" this week at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

It is not a perfect work, but its flaws are swept away by the phantasmagoria, with just the right music, that soars onstage into highly potent imagery.

The ballet "Nijinsky" is a grand, theatrical collage featuring a wealth of dramatic incidents, attractive performers, and high production values including delicately abstracted, period costumes and sets designed by Neumeier himself, with music by Chopin, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Shostakovich. Dancing at the head of a stylish and beautifully rehearsed company are Jirí Bubenícek, who maintains his withdrawn, internal focus as Nijinsky without ever fading in intensity; and Anna Polikarpova, a deliciously subtle dancer-actress who plays Nijinsky's scheming wife, Romola.

People versed in Nijinsky lore will enjoy this ballet most. The uninitiated may be confused, but Neumeier's presentation is so engaging that it will surely prompt them to investigate further, which may be Neumeier's greatest gift to his idol.

From the Associated Press:

'Nijinsky' Painful Portrait of Genius

There is much that is different and exciting in "Nijinsky," John Neumeier's 2000 creation for the Hamburg Ballet. The ballet is filled with potent and arresting references from the troubled life of this superstar dancer, who was certified insane shortly after that final solo and spent three more decades in sanatoriums before he died.

And that is the ballet's problem, too; it presupposes a knowledge of Nijinsky's life and works. Anyone not familiar with his story or with the characters he danced - the harlequin, the spirit of the rose, the golden slave, the faun - might have a very difficult time understanding the production.

The dancing, though, is first rate, and the choreography is absorbing, although there might be too many fits and twitches, too much frantic rolling around on the floor for some tastes. On Saturday night, in the second of three performances at the City Center, Ukrainian dancer Alexandre Riabko was impressive in his technique and affecting in his acting, providing a moving portrait of a man's descent into insanity.

Gia Kourlas in DanceView Times: (with several photos)

Clichés of Madness

The attempt to shrink a man’s life into more than two hours of stream-of-consciousness movement is bewildering and not the only tragedy to be found in Neumeier’s endless ballet; it’s reminds me of the way Boris Eifman arranges the scenes in his cluttered dances. Ballet steps do not constitute a ballet, and Neumeier, like Eifman, has little flair in ordering steps into a dance or offering the viewer a coherent storyline (scenes are either overly simplistic or complex and confused). The staging, when all the characters appear, lacks clarity, and during more intimate pas de deux, is bereft of movement invention and climax. In every solo, pas de deux or group dance, Neumeier only communicates that his ability lies in the delusion of the false ending—when the real one finally arrives, well, you just don’t care.

Music, played on City Center’s atrocious sound system is a blaring mess; arranged by Neumeier, it shifts, with little ease, from Chopin to movements from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11in G-minor, Op. 103. The chosen selections didn’t help to glue the action onstage, and an often-overwhelming excess of characters only helped to muddle the effort. A real control freak, an approach I normally admire given all the failed collaborations of late, Neumeier himself presides over the ballet’s sets and costumes, which are loosely based on original sketches by Leon Bakst and Alexandre Benois. Again, it all seems a bit cheap.

As Nijinsky, Bubenícek is both a cartoon character whose insanity is indicated in clichéd images—he rubs his chest in agony, he droops to the floor after a failed pirouette and he greets images of his past roles, all portrayed by other dancers, with the delight of a retarded child. Urban’s Diaghilev is dashing and blond, in later scenes, he dons a tuxedo jacket and pants but no shirt (as with many of the male characters, Neumeier proves he is fond of the bare chest) and is more contemporary looking than Nijinsky himself. His cocky attitude conjures Cooper’s seductive Von Rotbart but his pimp act looks like a big put-on. Polikarpova’s Romola (most of the female roles in this ballet seem an afterthought) borders on tawdry; with her over-processed blond hair and heavy makeup, she was less the woman who came between Diaghilev and Nijinsky than the sort of lady you typically encounter at the bar at the Russian Samovar on a Saturday night. Twenty-one going on 90.

Eric Taub reviews Hamburg Ballet's "Nijinsky" for Ballet.co's magazine:


The ballet begins with a realistic-looking re-enactment of Nijinsky's final performance in 1919, a solo, with the modest title "Marriage with God," at a hotel near the sanitarium where he was confined for treatment of his increasingly unmanageable schizophrenia. As Nijinsky starts dancing, he's joined by dancers representing members of his family, his most famous roles, and, of course, Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballets Russes, who became Nijinsky's lover as he managed Nijinsky's ever-swelling fame. We see surrealistic depictions of various moments in Nijinsky's life, sometimes refracted through the lens of his signature characters, for instance, his love for Diaghilev is depicted by the Spectre of the Rose, with Diaghilev as the dreamer in the chair, rather than Karsavina (who also makes some cameo appearances), or when his wife-to-be, Romola, infamously seduces him on a steamship trip to South America. As she does so, she watches, not Nijinsky, but his embodiment as the Faun from L'Apres-Midi d'Une Faune. Later (much later), the denizens of his asylum/World-War-One-soldiers (it's all the same, isn't it?) are led by none other than Petrouchka. The Golden Slave from Scheherezade and Harlequin from Carneval also wander in and out of the action (for want of a better word).
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To clarify, by intellectual, I mean one has to think to make the structural connections, and to understand why they're there, much like any other great art form. The dark human baggage stuff (or indeed any other message) is something that the structure conveys and allows us to grasp, again like any other great art form.

Too often, the great classical ballets (I'm glad you got my implication) are staged and presented just as pretty, shallow spectacles. It's one reason why I appreciate many of Balanchine's works, because they often distill the great classical canon down to their essence.


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I know what you're saying, Andre (lousy classical ballet is lousy art, and it is) but I'd still like to examine the pieces. When do you think a production of Swan Lake, Giselle or Sleeping Beauty (to pull examples out of a hat) is shallow? What are you reacting to? When do you find a production of the same successful?

Without having seen this, it isn't fair to lump Eifman and and Neumeier in the same box, but to use Eifman as an example, the great divide is between those who value expressive and theatrical effects above structural ones and those who place structure and form first. What I read about Nijinsky suggests that it's a ballet that expressionists will admire and structuralists won't. The Neumeier I've seen to this point I haven't liked, and found structurally confused, so I ended up passing on it.

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I can't even begin to imagine an American company trying to fund a staging of a 2+-hour, complicated, intellectually- and emotionally-demanding ballet that doesn't hide its darker undercurrents and subtexts behind a pretty or innocuous facade.

I guess that because Balanchine was able to do the same in 40 minutes or less in such works as Davidsbundlertanze, Agon, Episodes, Liebeslieder Walzer (pretty perhaps, but not innocuous), Four Temperaments, Symphony in Three Movements, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, etc.

Or was this a reference to story ballets only?

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Wecome to the divide, Hockeyfan.

Ask a large portion of the Paris audience what they thought when they saw Liebeslieder in December. More than one compared it to waltzing in Vienna on New Year's day. If you're looking for effects first, Liebeslieder is going to feel unsatisfactory. If you're looking for form, Tchaikovsky, Red Giselle, or Ivan the Terrible will set your teeth on edge.

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One of the things about a lot of Balanchine and most of the classical story ballets is that you can see as little as you want in them, because there is little thrashing and hair-pulling and indicating to tell you how to think about them. Not that I have anything against thrashing and hair-pulling per se, as long it's not in figure skating :) It's very hard to sustain that intensity or interest for several hours, and to me it tends to look period, if not dated, pretty rapidly. I enjoyed Red Giselle quite a lot, and found a lot of the partnering pretty interesting and most of the dancing top-notch.

Looking at Vienna Waltzes, more literally "walzing in Vienna on New Year's Day", you can see the evolution of the waltz in music, from Johann Strauss to Lehar to Richard Strauss, but also the psychic layers of turn-of-the-century Vienna, from the innocence of the young couple in the opening, to the feined innocence of the thespians, to the dandies and trollops of the demimonde on the border of the Vienna woods, to the jaded Merry Widow, to the neurotic woman alone in the Rosenkavalier waltzes. Or you can see a bunch of pretty dancers in a bunch of pretty costumes.

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Robert Greskovic reviews "Nijinsky" in today's Wall Street Journal (available only to paid subscribers):

New York -- `Nijinsky," the two-act ballet choreographed in 2000 by the

inexplicably acclaimed John Neumeier for his Hamburg Ballet, starts off

with visual promise. The production's first scene confronts the audience as it enters: The house curtain is already raised, showing the stage transformed into what looks like one end of a hotel ballroom; it has two levels of clean and crisp architecture, both bright, cold and white. Eventually some dancers enter, costumed to suggest 1919, the year given in the choreographer's program notes. And as the first few characters enter the scene and mill about, the theatrical authority begins to fade.


Mr. Neumeier explains that his ballet "begins with a realistic re-creation" of an event in the life of his eponymous character's much documented tragic career. Specifically the scene recalls a solo dance performance arranged by the already legendary Nijinsky after a considerable hiatus in his performing career. The phony-baloney carryings on, however, of Hamburg's chit-chatting and haughty-acting dancers, who bear scant resemblance to the real men and women who would have gathered to see the great Nijinsky once again take the stage, rings hopelessly false.


The segment climaxes with the grandiose first entrance of Mr. Neumeier's multiple Nijinsky-figures -- the central one wrapped in what looks like a cross between a down comforter and a kimono. From here on it's all downhill: The setting gets increasingly spare, often to trite effect, as the action gets fractured, jumbled and fraught with artificial emotion.

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Hockeyfan, I like your point about Balanchine's work not usually hitting you over the head with its meaning, so that it can be interpreted on many levels. If I want to look at Vienna Waltzes (or Liebeslieder) and see pretty waltzing and nothing more, that's fine. But there's a lot more there to be noticed, and I think that's a lot of what Balanchine meant about educating his audience, to actually see and analyze what's going on before them. (Or Tudor, or Ashton, for that matter.)

I would perhaps have enjoyed Nijinsky more (well, at all) if there had been something below, or beyond, the surface, but there wasn't, and the whole ballet was little more than an animated program note, with little depth, and less subtlety.

When Neumeier re-enacted Le Spectre de la Rose, with Diaghilev as the "girl" in the chair, I had some hopes that Neumeier might be about to ascend to the rarified heights of kitsch which Bejart and Eifman scale so easily (Oh, how I wanted that "chorus" of guys in tuxes to start tap-dancing!), but, alas, it was not to be.

I also wished I'd seen Bejart's Nijinksy, Clown of God. From what little I've read, it must've been a real barn-burner.

Can anyone compare and contrast?

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I can't answer your question very precisely about how a performance of Sleeping Beauty, etc. isn't shallow --- otherwise I'd be staging them! Examples of dance I've seen that isn't shallow include those that show me some aspect of the music I hadn't heard or thought about before. For example, Balanchine is great to me because he made me better understand Agon, an otherwise prickly piece of music which I now listen to by itself for pleasure. I was really struck by Bourne's Swan Lake because it dug into all these dark crevices of Tchaikovsky's score (played at notated speed, no less) and showed me something new in the music. It doesn't just have to about the music, but both pieces had an interesting point of view and could communicate it.

As for structuralism and expressionism, classifying works as one or the other strikes me in the same way that comments on other surface features like sets and costumes, or technical dance steps do --- it's not necessarily a useful thing to talk about unless you can tie it in something deeper (there's that word again!) in the work.


Some messages are delivered in 40 minutes, while others require 2 hours. Is Mahler's 9th symphony any less profound than one of Bach's piano sonatas?


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Andre, re structuralism and expressionism -- I don't think these are artificial distinctions at all, but very basic ones, and pertinent to our discussions here. The point, I think, is recognizing the nature of a work so that one understands the choreographer's point of view, where s/he's coming from, and can judge a work within that context. Definitely, one doesn't have to consider any of this to enjoy a performance, but they're helpful terms in trying to discuss or analyze a work of art.

Re "Nijinsky" -- which I just saw tonight, I wasn't uninterested. As I wrote on the "half price tickets available" thread, I'd recommend it. It's very different from our usual fare, Neumeier is an important choreographer, highly regarded in Europe, and I think his work should be seen. I'm not sorry I went, and I'm going back. That said -- and much more, I'm afraid, as I'm going to write about this -- I was disappointed. Neumeier obviously knows a lot about Nijinsky, and those ballets. There are movements and phrases from a huge chunk of the Ballet Russe repertory woven into the fabric of the piece, and there are moments from Nijinsky's life -- like the scene where he's standing on a chair, screaming the counts at the dancers as he did at the premiere of Sacre, when the boos overtook the music. But despite this, I found the depiction of him as a person very superficial. The images of madness were stage madness, generic twitching movements that have been used over and over in other works.

Re hockeyfan and Manhattnik's comments -- a little distillation would have helped, I think, especially in the second act, where Neumeier has to stretch his ideas to fill the music's length.

Manhattnik, I haven't seen Bejart's Nijinsky ballet, but a colleague of mine has and I've asked him to write about that. I'm curious about that, too. From what I've read, I think Bejart's would have been more theatrical, more flamboyant. This one opens like a tanzteater piece, and there were moments (when they started yelling at the end) where I thought of tanzteater too. Bejart was more free form. Perhaps more imaginative? I think. I'd also be curious if anyone here ever saw Bejart's Nijinsky work.

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Re. Structuralism vs. expressionism. I'm not sure I agree that they are fundamental pillars upon which to discuss work. I can't think of an appropriate dance example for now, so I will revert to musical examples. The first movement of Mahler's 3rd symphony is a gigantic sonata form, classically disciplined except perhaps distended in proportions. Yet, when most people hear this work, they don't hear intro, development, coda, etc., they hear the expressionistic effects: the big, stentorian trombone solo, the shrieking winds, the cruel trumpet, chirping birds, marches, and other impressions excerpted from real life. Is the work structural in nature or expressionistic? Both in fact, and it's usefully seen as both depending on what you're trying to get out of it, so I'm not sure such a binary distinction is a good way to describe this work.

I was going to make a leap and compare Neumeier's Nijinsky to a prototypical Mahlerian work, but the hole I'm digging may be getting too deep already! :sweating: :wink:

But I'm glad you found Nijinsky interesting. The dancers are quite fabulous.


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Some messages are delivered in 40 minutes, while others require 2 hours.  Is Mahler's 9th symphony any less profound than one of Bach's piano sonatas?


(Sorry to have taken so long to respond to a good fight -- the friend I stayed with is last week is "cookie-phobic," and I couldn't sign in until I got home.)

My comment about length was in response to your comment about how unlikely it would be for an American company to fund a intellectually and emotionally challenging piece. My point is that there are Balanchine (and Tudor) works that reflect emotionally and intellectually charged messages -- including madness, repression, the viciousness of family dynamics -- and are staged across America, at a much shorter length (and lower cost).

Dance, on the whole, has a smaller palate to work from than music, by virtue of being performed on a large stage. The pianissimo of a single instrument can be heard clearly in the back row of Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera; small movement that might reflect the music cannot. There are entire parts of Mahler's 9th Symphony -- slow, structural development, extremely soft dynamics -- that come across as dead in a dance piece. From what I've seen of Neumeier's older choreography to Mahler, I would say that his choreography doesn't come close to matching the emotional and intellectual challenges of Mahler's music, regardless of his subject.

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