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By Wendy Perron
What American choreographer is admired—even worshiped—in Europe, but almost ignored in the United States? You guessed it: John Neumeier. But this year, two of his most lavish story ballets—The Little Mermaid for San Francisco Ballet and Lady of the Camellias for American Ballet Theatre—came to our shores. Both ballets are steeped in tragedy, yet both were enthusiastically received. Not surprisingly, Neumeier calls 2010 “my American year.”
Even though Neumeier is plenty busy as artistic director of Hamburg Ballet in Germany (where he’s been for 37 years), he threw himself into working with these two companies. “With The Little Mermaid I taught the whole ballet in the summer of 2009 with four assistants,” he says. “It was like cooking on all the burners. I kept running around to each one and confusing everybody and changing things.” For him, changing things is essential. His aim is “to keep the choreography alive by making it the version of the moment. It’s a process of getting to the truth of those people.”
Technically, one of the challenges is his grandly swirling, tricky partnering. “With Camellias, the three pas de deux are extremely difficult. The problem is to make them look easy so that we don’t feel the women are being lifted in body, but lifted in spirit.”
Clearly, dancers enjoy working with him. “He is very patient,” says San Francisco Ballet’s Yuan Yuan Tan, who was cast as the mermaid. “He can also be very passionate and very emotional. Sometimes he feels the story so much as he’s telling it that he breaks into tears.”
How did she handle this intense role, which some critics called the role of a lifetime? “In John’s choreography,” she says, “you don’t need to act, you just feel it. It’s in the choreography. You don’t need to pretend you are in pain, but you are in pain because of the steps.”
For his part, Neumeier says he was drawn to Tan’s “incredible Eastern possibilities in her upper body,” which fit with his original idea of the mermaid.
But some of the intricate details did not come easily. “He corrected all the time my fingers,” Tan says. “I always have a finger sticking out. As a fish you cannot have a finger stick out. He always said, ‘Finger in, finger in!’ ”
In the end, the ballet was a hit. “My friends in the audience said it was like a football stadium. They’d never seen any audience get up in a standing ovation so fast.” But she hadn’t noticed; she was in tears when the curtain came down.
While American dancers and some audiences responded warmly, others tend to feel Neumeier’s work is overwrought and repetitive. “The critics have a certain thing they’re looking for,” the choreographer concludes. But this may simply be a difference in taste between Europeans and Americans, who like their art streamlined.
Neumeier treasured the rapport he had with American dancers. “How the corps de ballet of ABT, who have so little time to rehearse, would listen to my explanations, my philosophy of ballet, with what rapt attention—this made me feel at home. Just before opening night, I told the dancers, ‘I’m giving it to you, it will live through you.’ In that moment of giving the work to an American company, it was very moving for me.”
What’s on the agenda for him at Hamburg Ballet? This month they perform Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering for the first time. “I remember seeing it shortly after the premiere and thinking, ‘This is the greatest ballet of the 20th century.’ I’ve now raised a company that will be capable, I think, of doing it beautifully.” Also on the bill: a new piece of his own, a homage to Chopin.
Neumeier’s American year may yet turn out to be his American decade. He’s currently talking with the Joffrey, Houston Ballet, Tulsa Ballet, and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre about acquiring his ballets in the next few years. “Let’s say it’s a renaissance,” he quips.
In the meantime, Tan says she’ll keep working on those fingers, because SFB will perform Mermaid again in May. —Wendy Perron
ABT's Julie Kent and Roberto Bolle in Lady of the Camellias. Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy ABT.