This season the Hamburg Ballet is celebrating its fortieth year, all under the direction of choreographer John Neumeier. To commemorate this, the company is putting on a record-breaking Ballet Days, three weeks during which a different ballet is performed almost every night. I have been lucky enough to be a part of the Ballet Days, onstage and off.
The celebration began with the opening night of Shakespeare Dances, a mixed bill of excerpts from Themen aus Mozart: Wie es Euch gefällt (As You Like It), Hamlet, and Vivaldi, Oder was Ihr wollt (Twelfth Night). Before the public premier, there was a performance to which all former dancers of the Hamburg Ballet were invited. The audience was full of Mr Neumeier’s dancers, and I doubt any audience could understand and appreciate his work as well as they did. The ballet was delightful. As You Like It was a hilarious romp through the forest, Hamlet just as moody and dark as one expects, and Twelfth Night a sweet touching tale, ending in a joyous finale that brought the whole ensemble on stage in top hats and clown noses.
This was followed by a guest company, the Bayerisches Staatsballett. They danced two pieces, Jerome Robbins’ Goldberg Variations and Jiri Kylian’s Gods and Dogs. Goldberg Variations was a pretty piece, but dragged on for an hour and a half without ever reaching any sort of climax. Gods and Dogs was one of the most spectacular twenty minutes I’ve seen on stage.
On Thursday Hamburg Ballet danced John Neumeier’s Kameliendame (La Dame aux Camelias) after Dumas’ novel. The show is always a crowd pleaser, and is one of Mr Neumeier’s most famous pieces.
Friday brought Romeo and Juliet, which I unfortunately did not see. I saw it earlier in the year, and really enjoyed it. It was an interpretation of the story that felt more full of real feeling than other ballet versions I’ve seen, and even more dramatic power than any theatre production I’ve seen of it.
Saturday was the Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler (pictured above), in my opinion one of the best ballets ever created. Mr Neumeier has choreographed ballets to eight of Mahler’s ten symphonies, as well as songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn and Rückert-Lieder. I did not see it performed that evening.
Sunday was Nijinsky Day. In the afternoon they danced the two act ballet Nijinsky, one of the most powerful story ballets in existence. Again, I could not get tickets to the ballet that particular afternoon, but saw it two other times earlier in the year. The first act is a beautiful look at Nijinsky’s work and life, the second act a more abstract and disturbing look into his madness. The sets and costumes are gorgeous, and Alexandre Riabko’s interpretation of the great dancer is unmatched. In the evening the company danced Nijinsky Epilogue, two short ballets. This I was lucky enough to see that day. The first ballet is Le Pavillon d’Armide, where Mr Neumeier mixes classical repertoire danced by Nijinsky, Pavlova and Karsavina, mixed seamlessly with his own steps, and recreations of other Nijinsky dances. There is a lot there for audiences to enjoy, especially the wonderful danse siamoise, but a real ballet nerd (or those of us who just spent weeks studying for a dance history final) can see so many clever layers and side-stories. The second half of the evening was Le Sacre, to Stravinsky’s famously scandalous music. Very modern compared to much of Neumeier’s other work. The nearly naked dancers turned the human body into something animal and frightening, and the ending solo is one of the most exhausting women’s solos I have ever seen.
That was only the first of three busy weeks, during which the Hamburg Ballet had already worked harder than most dancers ever have to in such a short time.