Hamburg Ballet's John Neumeier Talks Shakespeare, Love, and Beer

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Photo of John Neumeier by Steven Haberland

American-born John Neumeier has been transforming the story ballet since he was appointed chief choreographer of the Hamburg Ballet more than 40 years ago, at the tender age of 31.

San Francisco audiences went wild for his weird and wonderful The Little Mermaid, which exposed the dark psychology of jealousy, revenge, and tragedy in Hans Christian Andersen's tale. Hamburg Ballet's most recent appearance in the Bay Area was only a year ago with Neumeier's Nijinsky, about the tempestuous life of the legendary dancer whose jumps were said to defy gravity, whose ballets were so scandalous that audiences rioted at the premiere of his Rite of Spring, and who died in an asylum, tormented by visions and voices.

This week, the Hamburg Ballet returns to San Francisco with lighter fare and a sweeter look on love with its very limited engagement of Neumeier's 1977 A Midsummer Night's Dream, based on the play by William Shakespeare. As a story that contains love juice, the transformation of men into asses, mistaken identities, love triangles, arranged marriage, elopement, and more, to the music of Felix Mendelssohn, György Ligeti, and traditional barrel organ, Midsummer is a ballet for lovers and dreamers of every ilk.

Neumeier granted SF Weekly an exclusive interview on February 9.

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Photo of Neumeier's Midsummer Night's Dream by Holger Badekow

So much of Midsummer seems to be about perception -- its reality and its errors -- from Hermia's lament, "I would my father looked but with my eyes," to Titania's comic affair with Bottom the Ass. How do you approach movement when so much of the text has become embedded in our understanding of the story -- how does one portray a line like Helena's, "Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind" -- or distinguish between what is really happening and what is merely happening in the minds of the characters, when dance is all about action?

When you decide to use a text as your inspiration, it means that you have a particular point of view about it, and what you're choreographing is not the text of Shakespeare, but your reaction to this text. For me, Shakespeare's Midsummer is a play about the variations on love, and sometimes absurd variations on love, so I've divided the ballet into three levels of perception: the aristocrats, the fairies, and the mechanicals -- the working people -- and each of them has their own music. For example, the aristocrats dance to Mendelssohn's music, which determines a style of movement. I think that's the more important thing than concentrating on if one word can be translated into movement, and, as you said at the beginning, the most important thing is the action -- the most important thing is what we see.

Could you speak a bit more about the musical choices that you've made--you've deliberately chosen to keep the worlds of fairy and man (and mechanical) separate in your production, when in the story, it appears that they all collide in the space of the woods.

I think that is where Shakespeare creates humor, when worlds collide and when, for example, Titania and Bottom have this erotic affair, it is a real meeting of worlds. For me, the most important inspiration for movement, for any emotional situation, is the music, and of course I can't really describe that -- you have to see it. If I could describe it, I would be an author.


Yet you do seem to work with text frequently, or at least with story
(Neumeier's oeuvre includes ballets based on the Odyssey, Hamlet, Othello, Alexandre Dumas's Lady of the Camellias, Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, and Ferenc Molnar's Liliom).

I refer to text in the sense that I do not say this is Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream -- I say that this is after a play by Shakespeare, which means I have read this play, it has moved me, and it's moved me to move dancers, whom I hope will move an audience.


The ballet is now 37 years old -- has it evolved much since its premiere?

It seems like yesterday when I created it. It has grown with me. I try to see the performances as much as I can, and I'm very critical of what I see. All of my works are living works -- they're always changing--they're changing with each performance, and if I see something I don't like, I will change it. So the Midsummer Night's Dream that we will be showing in San Francisco is absolutely not the Midsummer Night's Dream that was created in 1977. It has grown, it has changed -- actually with each cast that has danced it.

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Photo by Holger Badekow

This ballet and this play seems to end on a note of marriage, monogamy, and heteronormativity, but it offers along the way the possibility of a lot of alternative relationships -- the possible threesome of Demetrius, Lysander, and Hermia, Bottom and Titania, Oberon and the changeling boy (if you really want to push it), Hermia and Helena as doubles and rivals--how do you think this will read in the capital city of alternative relationships so near Valentine's Day?

That's a question you have to answer, and the audience who sees it. I think that Shakespeare had such an incredible intuition about human relationships, sexuality, the endless possibilities of love, whatever that meant -- of sensuality, sexuality, and I think they're very much in this piece. I think that every generation, every person who sees it will react differently to it.


Can you talk about Hamburg Ballet's relationship to San Francisco Ballet?

Well, I've known the director of the San Francisco Ballet, Helgi Tomasson, for many years. In one of the very first creations I did when I was a very young choreographer for the Harkness Ballet, Stages and Reflections, I created a role for Helgi. And then he went on with his great career as a dancer, and then became director, and I became director at Hamburg, and at a certain point we met again. I did a work for the San Francisco Ballet School, Yondering, and then I did The Little Mermaid for the San Francisco Ballet. We were invited to be a guest company, I invited his company to Hamburg, we have been invited again, and the San Francisco Ballet has been invited back to Hamburg in two years. We've also shared dancers -- some of the San Francisco Ballet dancers have danced with us, and I think it's been a very interesting exchange.

As an expatriate who has now spent most of your life in Germany, how do you feel coming to America?

Well, first I don't feel like an expatriate, because I never planned to stay outside the United States of America -- it just happened -- and I've always felt that I was American, and I always feel wonderful when I come back. I particularly like San Francisco, I must say.

Do you find American beer intolerably bad?

American what?

Beer.

Well, you know, I was born in Milwaukee, so I oughtta know, as they say. But I don't drink beer. I never drink beer.


What are you, fairy, mortal, or mechanical?


I'm a combination of all of them, actually, at different times of the day and night.

San Francisco Ballet presents Hamburg Ballet in A Midsummer Night's Dream at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 12-13 at the War Memorial Opera House(301 Van Ness). Tickets are $36-$327; sfballet.org

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