The highlight of Hamburg Ballet’s first visit to Japan in seven years was The World of John Neumeier Gala. An evening-long programme, it followed the life and career of Neumeier with some of his major works performed seamlessly, accompanied by his own narration. It was specially arranged for the Japan tour, and made for a full programme, not just a showcase of pas de deux, the norm of galas. Many of the works were presented with a full cast, corps de ballet and narrative, and the evening underlines Neumeier's artistic journey with Lloyd Riggins acting as his alter ego.

© Kiyonori Hasegawa
© Kiyonori Hasegawa

We begin with Neumeier on stage talking about his childhood, when he loved to dance in his native Wisconsin. Riggins replaces Neumeier, appears as his avatar and joins other dancers in the jazzy Candid Overture from Bernstein Dances, a favorite number he loved as a child. This is followed by I Got Rhythm in which he recalls the energetic steps of Gene Kelly, and where Silvia Azzoni and Alexandre Riabko dressed in tuxedos and silk hats perform a playful duet.

Neumeier speaks of his first experience of ballet class and his adoration for classical dance is expressed in his Nutcracker, when Marie (Emilie Mazon) wears her first pointe shoes. The sheer joy of Marie’s first dance, and her pas de deux with Gunther (also known as Pavlova and Cecchetti, danced delicately by Helene Bouchet and Riggins) are Neumeier’s great hommage to classical ballet tradition.

Death in Venice where Riggins also acted as Aschenbach a choreographer searching for his muse is a testament to Neumeier's creativity. Through the choreography, he brings myths to life – one of them was Peer Gynt. Alina Cojocaru, performing here, etherealy embodied Peer Gynt’s eternal love Solveig.

Dance is, for Neumeier, not just entertainment or a showcase of technique, but a reflection of the human soul, its depth of spirit and men's relationship with God. Two of his religious works, Saint Matthew Passion and the festive Christmas Oratorio feature in the programme. Seeing a part of Saint Matthew Passion with dozens of dancers on stage was an overwhelming experience, and the drama within The Denial of St. Peter, with Riggins as Christ and Dario Franconi as St Peter made the audience completely forget that this was a gala performance.

Fascinated by Dance History and the great dancers of the past, Neumeier is well known for his collection of Nijinsky’s art works, in whom he found great inspirtation. In Nijinsky, the madness of Stanislav (his brother) and the terrors of World War I were powerfully presented by Aleix Martinez, with Patricia Friza as Nijinska, and Riabko reprised his signature role of Nijinsky (here a man trapped in his own world) with Bouchet as his wife Romola tenderly caring for him. A heart-wrenching scene.

The only guest of this tour, Alina Cojocaru was a delicate Marguerite in Lady of the Camellias, one of Neumeier’s works that shows dance is the ideal way to express many aspects of love. The ephemeral feeling in this floating, tender second act pas de deux leaves a lasting memory and Alexandr Trusch’s Armand well matched Cojocaru’s warmth, the two producing magical partnering.

Neumeier recalls friends he met in the dance world. Some of them are gone but their inspiration lives on. Opus 100 Fur Maurice was a piece created as a birthday gift to Maurice Béjart. Here, Ivan Urban and Riabko were dancing together like youths, smiling and showing mutual respect so touchingly, accompanied by Simon and Garfunkel’s songs Old Friends and Bridge over Troubled Water.

“My world is dance and I was always proud to be a part of it”. Dance is a hard profession and needs unconditional commitment. But Neumeier does not feel he has sacrificed anything nor felt dance was a burden. It was a labor of love. He spoke of remembering, every day, the title of the final movement in Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler “What Love Tells Me.”.

The duet by the radiant Azzoni and Carsten Jung was stunning. Every movement created by Azzoni while she was lifted by Jung were beautiful shapes, the work was a celebration of eternal love. The corps de ballet rushed in, male dancers lifting ballerinas, bringing pure bliss and high spirits. Neumeier walks on stage among the dancers, lifts his hands to pay tribute to the Muse. The footsteps of Azzoni crossing the stage alone caused emotions to overflow, and embodied the spirit of Neumeier, his dedication to and love of dance and the human world. It was an once in a lifetime evening that will remain in the audience’s hearts for a very long time. We are blessed to be in the same era as this enormous artist. 

*****