When the curtain rose on Hamburg Ballet’s first appearance at the Joyce Theater the dancers were brimming with energy and ready to move. Billed as Old Friends, the title taken from the Simon and Garfunkel song, this program featured older and newer works that are themselves friends while referring also to friends and lovers we make in life. The dancers burst into action with Bach’s Orchestral Suite, No. 3 in D Major and I was reminded of why we go to live performances. We’re in search of that elusive transcendent experience that fills us with exultation. We're always hoping that the show we're about to see will be one that lifts us so far out of ourselves that we forget our selves for a while.

<i>Nocturnes</i> © Holger Badekow
Nocturnes
© Holger Badekow
This performance was not quite that but it was nearly so, at least while the company was dancing to Bach. These fine dancers took on the Overture and fairly sailed with joy. They bounced, they flew and they did it with infectious joy. There were some rough spots in the partnering but it was not enough to detract from their obvious pleasure. The Air was a pas de deux with Xue Lin and Alexandr Trusch. This duet was as notable for what it was not as for what it was. Neumeier avoided overworking the music in favor of embracing the sweep of the music. He allowed whole phrases to go by only marked with port de bras that signaled the couple’s reverence for each other. There was no hysteria of throwing around emotion without context or excessive sideways extensions of the ballerina’s legs past the 180-degree mark. Everything was rational, composed, lyrical and sublime. At one point Trusch had to move with Xue wrapped sideways around his body. It was so deeply personal and full of resonant emotion that it stood out from the rest of the ballet. I couldn’t say that these two had strong chemistry because I saw Xue dance much better with Christopher Evans in the second half. But this was sublime choreography and they did it full justice by capturing the music. Xue is an engaging and highly musical dancer whose strong understanding of Bach’s use of counterpoint made the music visible. If this had been the whole evening I would have been satisfied.

<i>Nocturnes</i> © Holger Badekow
Nocturnes
© Holger Badekow
The evening went on to include back and forth choreographic exchange between Simon and Garfunkel songs and compositions by Chopin with the first part being variations on a Chopin Prélude. Some of it was good and other parts were not. Pianist Michal Bialk was so superior that I would have enjoyed him playing Federico Mompou’s Variations sur un thème de Chopin in recital more than I enjoyed the dance that accompanied it. This dance had Anna Laudere and Karen Azatyan as the protagonists of a marriage on the rocks. There was not a story as such, only disconnected vignettes fraught with emotion that soon failed to engage me because it had no dramatic line to support it. The same couple was present after intermission when the ballet went on to more Simon and Garfunkel and a selection of Chopin Nocturnes. The Simon Garfunkel songs worked better than I would have expected. Overall, I most enjoyed the parts where Neumeier confined himself to suggesting the emotion context rather than imposing herky jerky movement to signal emotional strain. Silvia Azzoni was terrific in the Nocturne Op. posth. in C sharp minor. She was fully expressive without any awkward moments of having to simulate emotion that wasn’t there. Xue, this time paired with Christopher Evans in Op. 32, No. 1 in B major, was again radiant but this time with some real passion as this pair seemed to have genuine chemistry. The closing duet was set to Bridge Over Troubled Water, the Simon and Garfunkel classic. Neumeier set it for two men and it could have been interpreted as either friends or lovers dancing the piece. Alexandre Riabko and Ivan Urban were perfect in conveying their deep regard and affection for each other.

Hamburg Ballet is a company full of individuals who are compelling in their musicality and the joy they take in movement. They can do a lot of things very well with a deep love of dancing and strong stage presence. While this program held some elements that I found disjointed emotionally, it was inspiring in its high points. Some individual talents stood out during this performance but I had the sense that there were still more dancers who were capable of rising to the occasion given the chance.