Articles from Ballet2000

John Neumeier and the great composers

Choreographer John Neumeier is one of today’s greatest living dance  artists. In the fateful year 2020, he was, with his Hamburg Ballet, also one of the most active, not creating but also keeping his 60 dancers (and himself) productive and in high spirits. After lengthy and complex rehearsals he presented his creation to music by Schubert, thereby continuing to concentrate on the rapport between choreography and the great composers

by Roger Salas

(photo: The hamburg Ballet in “Beethoven Project II”)

In spite of multiple difficulties, and in keeping with his aesthetics, inventiveness and tastes, 81-year-old John Neumeier recently built two powerful and alluring shows on his ideal choreographic ground, i.e. the music of the great composers – be it symphonic, vocal, chamber or piano. Mahler and Beethoven, and today Schubert, are, unfailingly, the shining polestars that guide him musically and poetically. And even if only for a curtailed number of spectators in theatres, or on video, the choreographer continues to propose ballet that goes beyond being mere entertainment and is viewed, rather, as spiritual balm and salvation.

In 1987, when Neumeier solemnly premiered his choreography to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Magnificat in the Court of Honour of the Popes’ Palace at the Avignon Festival (with the Paris Opéra Ballet and its principal dancers Sylvie Guillem, Elisabeth Platel, Marie-Claude Pietragalla, Elisabeth Maurin, Kader Belarbi, Charles Jude, Manuel Legris), the work was already a well-manifesto of his future approach towards the highest musical art. An approach that was to exert widespread influence while being, at the same time, the crystallisation of Neumeier’s own choreographic style, one in which the power of the music itself marks the “grandiose” and formal aesthetic dimension of his productions.

There was no story in his Magnificat, but a spiritually-elevated ambience, surprising in its rituality, which constituted a kind of modern mysticism. The performers had been given very subtle indications by Neumeier as to their ‘characters’; everything was still intact two years later when the work was revived by the Hamburg Ballet in a vibrant and unforgettable performance in Hamburg’s St. Michael Cathedral.

More than thirty years have passed, but something remains recognisable, vis-à-vis inspiration and scale, in John Neumeier’s two latest creations: Beethoven Project II (already available on DVD and Blu-Ray) and Ghost Light (premiered last October – see review in this issue – then broadcast worldwide in live streaming and still visible for free on the Hamburg Ballet platform).

The title comes from an American theatre tradition and consists in placing a single-lit lamp-bulb atop a metal pole at the end of a rehearsal or performance; the dim light signals that no one can stay onstage or is allowed to cross it; the lamp stays on all night until the stage comes to life the following morning. It’s a rite that has a safety function, but it’s also a well-respected symbol in American and a good many European theatres too.

In his Ghost Light, Neumeier deploys and drives, with symbolism and gusto, the 60 dancers of his Hamburg company using only piano pieces by Franz Schubert; these are performed by David Fray on a piano placed at the side of the stage. In order to respect the imposed distancing, the choreographer created self-contained and separate sections (for small groups of two to eight dancers) as components to be amalgamated in the final product. The music is the continuous link that connects the different sequences; there are no intervals.

According to Neumeier himself: “Ghost Light is an ensemble work that I am developing in fragments. It is like the separate instrumental lines of a symphony or a traditional Japanese meal: a sequence of carefully arranged, hopefully ‘delicious’ miniatures. How the separate parts will unite to create a complete work will depend on the moment we are allowed to come near and touch each other again.”

To get back to history, Magnificat mentioned above was Neumeier’s third work enter the Paris Opéra’s repertoire, after Vaslav (1980 and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1982). After this came The Nutcracker (1993) and the creation of Sylvia (1997); later came two monumental ballets that are, in way, along the lines of his previous Bach work: Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler (2009) e Song of the Earth (2015, also by Mahler).

With his works taken into the Paris Opéra, the American choreographer rose to a unique position of influence in a wider European context, well beyond the profile he was already enjoying in Germany.

I have already observed on previous occasions that Neumeier’s humanistic roots and clear spirituality (not in a strictly religious form but, rather, in a modern, secular one), stand out strongly in the – so to speak – philosophical content of his work. These are able to touch the sensibility of spectators who have extremely different ideas and worldviews. After all, Neumeier is an artist who looks at universal man and, albeit in amazement, participates in the complex reality of today.

His are not simple solos, pas de deux/trois or group dances, but attempts to awaken consciences through the plasticity of a clear idiom full of expressive lyricism. The basic “canon” remains classical dance, but it constantly opens up to contemporary modes, without any screeching or improvisation; this is also evident in the costumes and sets, often conceived and designed by the choreographer himself.

John Neumeier remains very American in his origins and character, but nevertheless also very European now that he is a mature artist who has taken root, naturally and with conviction, in the musical and choreographic culture of the Old Continent. It’s no coincidence that he has become a passionate collector of documents and ballet heritage objets d’art, focusing on the figure of Nijinsky and Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.


From Milwaukee to Hamburg

John Neumeier was born in Milwaukee (Wisconsin, USA) in 1939. He studied ballet in his home-city, initially with Sheila Reilly (who imparted to him a love for correct execution). From there he moved to Chicago where he discovered a modern style in the schools of Bentley Stone and Walter Camryn; during this stage his work with Sybil Shearer was very important in forming his intellectual open-mindedness. Afterwards, he studied with the great teacher Vera Volkova in Copenhagen and, later on, at The Royal Ballet School in London.

In 1963 John Cranko took him on with the Stuttgart Ballet where he created his early choreographies.

When he was 30 years old Neumeier was appointed director of the Frankfurt Ballet where he staged his versions of the classics, such as Giselle and Swan Lake, in an innovative and introspective key,  also tackling dramatic classics of literature such as The Lady of the Camellias (1978, presently in the repertoires of the Paris Opéra and La Scala, Milan) or Death in Venice based on the short story by Thomas Mann.

The dominance of music has always been evident, and increasingly so,  from Bach to Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Mahler – all the way to the major contemporary composers.

This is the “equation” on which the style and theatrical geometry of John Neumeier’s choreography leans. When he took the reins of the Hamburg Ballet in 1973, the opportunities and material means for further developing his challenging musical interests increased. Mahler was virtually straight away given almost hierarchical priority, with a huge project on which the choreographer is still working to this day.

It’s worth noting that Neumeier pays tribute to the music he uses to the point of respecting the actual title of the work which, often, becomes the very title of the ballet itself – differently from what Léonide Massine, the pioneer of the “symphonic ballet”, used to do. But we live in different times and Neumeier’s choreographic symphonies are light-years away from those of his predecessor.

Neumeier’s other musical project, Beethoven, is more topical. The most recent ‘leg’ of which, Beethoven Project II, wasn’t the expected ‘leg’ after the success of the first Project in 2018. Indeed, the ambitious idea had been to keep going with a Beethoven 9; however, the outbreak of the pandemic and the ensuing regulations made this impossible, also considering that the Ninth Symphony requires an orchestra plus choir and solo singers, all of whom would have had to be present onstage with the dancers.

Beethoven Project II is set to a musical selection of piano and chamber pieces suggested by the eponymous composer from Bonn in his enigmatic “Heiligenstadt Testament”, together with an excerpt from the Christ on the Mount of Olives oratorio and the entire Seventh Symphony.

Here Neumeier has concentrated on the choreography and commissioned sets from Heinrich Tröger and costumes from Albert Kriemler for a two-act ballet (with one interval), the structure of which nevertheless preserves a “symphonic” character. Such a character allows the dancing to have a more developed and wider span, freed from the weight of story-telling or an overly precise style. 

We’d like to go back in history and call to mind French choreographer André Jean-Jacques Deshayes (1777-1846) who was well-known in his day and in 1829 (at the King’s Theatre, London) created a ballet to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. This was possibly the first ever symphonic ballet choreography, pre-dating by a century attempts by Alexander Gorsky in Moscow (a symphony by Glazunov), by Mikhail Fokine in Petrograd (a score by Anton Arensky), all the way to Léonide Massine, who choreographed a number of entire symphonies.

John Neumeier is certainly the noblest contemporary continuation of that very special and self-directed historical line.

Let us end by quoting George Balanchine of whom Neumeier undoubtedly approves: “The music is always first. I cannot move, I can’t even want to move, unless I hear the music first. I couldn’t move without a reason, and the reason is music.”



The film version of John Neumeier’s ballet Ghost Light will be released internationally. The Artistic Director of the Hamburg Ballet presents the first full-length ensemble ballet of the pandemic era. For this recording, the solo piano music is performed by the star pianist David Fray. The coproduction of the Hamburg Ballet with SWR, EuroArts and Arte was recorded at the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden in October 2020. It is available from the Hamburg Ballet’s online shop.