Hamburg Ballet Celebrates John Neumeier

June 23, 2013

One of the most beloved ballet choreographers in the world, John Neumeier, is in the midst of celebrating his 40th year at the helm of Hamburg Ballet. For this occasion, the company’s annual “Ballet Days” series has expanded to an unprecedented blowout of 23 ballets in 19 performances over three weeks. Known in the States for lavish, full-evening works like Lady of the Camellias (American Ballet Theatre) and The Little Mermaid (San Francisco Ballet), he has choreographed more than 100 ballets, some of them quite simple and unadorned, yet exquisite in their craft.

Neumeier is not an edgy rule-breaker like Forsythe, or a master at combining ballet and modern like Kylián or Mats Ek. But he’s created a body of work in Europe that’s full of imaginative storytelling and elegant ballet lines. And he puts his faith in the individual dancers’ vibrancy to make each work breathe anew.

I attended a modest program of four one-act ballets with live music onstage—three from the 1970s plus a new work to Mahler. All of them were notable for the time and patience that prevailed. Nothing was hurried, and there was a fullness, a spiritual uplift in both the music (Schumann, Bach, Stravinsky, Mahler) and the dancing.


Alexandre Riabko in Neumeier’s
Vaslav. Photo by Martin Brand, Courtesy HB.


On the lavish side, I saw his Midsummer Night’s Dream (1977), which mixes the Mendelssohn music with bits by György Ligeti for the weirdness-of-dream sequences. With the magnificent Hélène Bouchet in the lead, this full-evening work garnered sustained rhythmic applause at the end. Throughout the festival, there’s been a festive atmosphere among both the audience, and—from what I’ve been hearing—the dancers.

Although he’s American, we don’t hear as much about Neumeier in the States as they do in Europe. But after several of his productions came to ballet companies in the U.S. in 2010, I wrote this news story about him. Dancers the world over find he helps them deepen their artistry—including guest artists like Alina Cojocaru and Diana Vishneva. In a handsome book marking the occasion, glowing tributes to him as a visionary artist came from Kevin McKenzie at ABT, Helgi Tomasson at SFB, Ashley Wheater at the Joffrey, Sergei Filin at the Bolshoi, Nikolaj Hübbe from the Royal Danish Ballet, Feng Ying from National Ballet of China, and many more.

Another mark of recognition is that the official name of the company is now Hamburg Ballett John Neumeier.


Neumeier quoted on the wall of the Hamburg airport, alongside other celebrities like John Lennon and Karl Lagerfeld.