Hamburg Ballet

June 16, 2002

Hamburg Ballet staged The Seagull.
Courtesy Hamburg Ballet

Hamburg Ballet

Hamburg State Opera
Hamburg, Germany

June 16, 2002

Reviewed by Horst Koegler

Two years ago, after having securely established his company’s Russian repertoire base with The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty, Hamburg Ballet Director John Neumeier extended it with his full-length biopic Nijinsky, considered by many as his chef d’oeuvre. To open the 2002 Hamburg Ballet Days, he further ventured into Russian culture by approaching Anton Chekhov’s 1896 comedy The Seagull.

Choreographers have found literary inspiration in Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky, but have carefully avoided Chekhov. In fact, Maya Plisetskaya had to turn into a choreographer herself when she wanted to dance Nina, the protagonist in The Seagull, for which her husband Rodion Shchedrin had composed a score, but which did not survive its 1980 Bolshoi debut in Moscow. One can only guess how much she would have liked to dance the role in Neumeier’s version, which fully exploits the abilities of American dancer Heather Jurgensen. The ballet catapults her into the starring sphere where John Cranko’s Tatiana (in Onegin) and Ashton’s Natalia Petrovna (in A Month in the Country) lead their solitary existences.

Although it’s a comedy, Chekhov’s play is filled with frustrated longings. At its center is the aspiring young actress, Nina, the object of desire for Kostja, a young dramatist who dreams of creating bold new theater. But Nina yields to the seduction of the older playwright Trigorin, whose lover Arkadina is Kostja’s mother and a famous actress of the Russian court-theater. A dream sequence involving an amateur performance of the play The Seagull frames the artistic and erotic entanglements at Arkadina’s summer estate.

By carefully shifting the action from the theater world to the dance world, Neumeier has created a superb ballet about Russian artists at the turn of the nineteenth century, with references to Russian ballet and its people in Czarist times. The older generation, represented by the prima ballerina Arkadina and the choreographer Trigorin, look back nostalgically to the times of Petipa’s undisputed reign, while Kostja and Nina dream of the radical reforms that Fokine and his contemporaries were trying to bring about.

Thus its story unfolds on various levels. Trigorin’s choreography for his ballet The Death of the Seagull references Swan Lake, with Arakadina as the seagull princess and himself in the role of a hunter. Neumeier also envisions the future of the Soviet ballet during the famous “Theatre October” era of the 1920s, dominated by Kasyan Goleizovsky and his contemporaries. While Nina never makes it as a ballerina, she gets stranded as a dancer in a Moscow nightclub, which Neumeier uses to stage a glittering revue à la Radio City Music Hall, or maybe the “Moscow Follies.”

The piece begins while the audience enters the auditorium. A square platform in the middle of the nearly empty stage serves as the stage for the theater performance, and some spare decorative parts function as background?Neumeier designed the decor and the superb costumes. Kostja folds and carries around a paper seagull?a leitmotif of the performance?until the end, when, shattered by the futility of his dreams, he tears it to pieces, throwing them into the air and retreating underneath the platform as if it were his tomb.

Neumeier created a special seagull port de bras, clearly derived from Swan Lake, with one arm held in a straight line high above the head while the other arm, also held in a straight line, moves in the opposite direction or to the side, with the head poking forward like a seagull in flight. It serves as the central motion motif, which Neumeier exploits in the more classical sections, like the performance of Trigorin’s ballet or when Kostja coaches Nina in his modern “dream” ballet.

For these dream ballet sequences, Neumeier has designed fabulous costumes, inspired by Malevich’s constructivist paintings and the costumes by Alexandra Exter, one of the most famous Russian theater designers of the 1920s. Never before has Neumeier worked on such a stylistically broad palette of movements. They seem to evolve directly from the music: mostly from Shostakovich’s symphonies, with the revue scenes borrowed from his operetta Moscow Cheryomushki and an occasional quotation from Tchaikovsky and Scriabin, plus a large, hard-driving percussion piece by Evelyn Glennie for Kostja’s central dream ballet. There were beautifully played by the Hamburg Philharmonic under the sensitive baton of Markus Lehtinen.

The music defines the elegiac mood of the ballet, culminating in the brilliant pas de deux not only for the four protagonists, but also for the secondary characters, with each pas beautifully profiled according to the individuality of the characters. The Seagull, incredibly beautiful to look at, offers the richest tapestry of Neumeier’s choreographic output so far.

He has shaped the characters like a sculptor, fitting them to the individuality of the dancers. As Nina, Heather Jurgensen starts out exuberantly youthful and optimistic, darting about the stage like an infant seagull testing her flying power, only to become battered by the blows of fate. She is one’s dream of a ballerina. Anna Polikarpova, as Arkadina, demonstrates her old school, prima-ballerina-assoluta authority like a Matilda Kchessinskaya and Sarah Bernhardt rolled into one. As Kostja, Ivan Urban plays a vulnerable daydreamer, an immensely likable chap whom one wishes to protect from the exigencies of life. He is the extreme opposite of Trigorin, the sophisticated seducer, who (as performed by Otto Bubenícek) oozes virile charm with almost demonic cynicism.

In fact, all the dancers perform their roles with the utmost sincerity and wonderful naturalness?the corps de ballet is persuasive as a flock of Petipa-schooled seagulls, creatures of Goleizovsky’s futurist dreams, or sexy performers in a chic nightclub revue. It all adds up to a superb demonstration of ballet culture Neumeier has built during his three-decade tenure at the Hamburg Ballet. It was certainly the ballet event of Germany’s 2001?02 season.