Unlike many famous European dance companies, Germany's Hamburg Ballet is a youngster – it was founded in 1973 – and it has been associated since its inception with one man: John Neumeier.
Neumeier's long tenure in Hamburg has allowed the Milwaukee-born choreographer and former dancer to build an unusually large and unified body of work on an ensemble he has been able to shape from scratch (Neumeier also founded the Hamburg Ballet School in 1978, which provides his company with most of its dancers).
Orange County audiences will get to see one of Neumeier's most successful recent efforts when the Hamburg Ballet performs "The Little Mermaid" this weekend at Segerstrom Hall in its West Coast debut. "Mermaid" is one of almost 150 works the prolific choreographer has created over the last four decades.
Neumeier, a master storyteller whose dances are often based on classical literature, read the original 1837 version of the tale by Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen for inspiration.
"It has been a story that has haunted me for a long, long time," Neumeier said about the tragic account of a mermaid's doomed desire for a young prince. "Mainly because it's a particular lesson about love, unrequited love, and secondly (because) it's about the aspiration of the mermaid – the adventurous feeling of risking everything for someone that you love."
The work, which was commissioned in 2005 by the Royal Danish Ballet to honor the 200th anniversary of Andersen's birth, was revised by Neumeier in 2007 for his own company and has been popular ever since, though it bears no resemblance to the sunny 1989 animated film.
The mermaid, after deciding it's worth losing her tail for her prince, gets her fishy appendage violently torn off by a Sea Witch and is confined for a time to a wheelchair. It's a long way from either Disney or Petipas. And there's no happy ending.
"One of the things that is so compelling to me about John's work is that he really does dance storytelling – not necessarily the story as you might think it would go, but his version," said Judy Morr, the Segerstrom Center's executive vice president who oversees its dance programming. "He expands the story and takes it in new directions with his incredible ability to translate it into something deeper. There aren't a lot of choreographers who are doing that today."
Neumeier sees glimmers of Andersen's own sad love life in "The Little Mermaid."
"At the end of the story she has to work for her salvation, just as he did. Andersen did not have the fulfillment of a romantic relationship during his lifetime. He had only his work, and in his work he has gained his eternity. The mermaid is part of his eternity. It's a story which has been passed on and which we all love."
DANCE, ACTING AREN'T SEPARATE SKILLS
Neumeier, 70, studied literature and theater before training as a dancer in Copenhagen and at the Royal Ballet School in London. He progressed to solo dancer at the Stuttgart Ballet, then made his mark as a leader and choreographer during a short stint as ballet director of the Frankfurt opera house.
Neumeier's work is the antithesis of the cool, abstract style practiced by Balanchine and many other American-based ballet choreographers. His pieces are always psychologically intense dance dramas – a predominantly European approach exemplified by choreographers as diverse as Sir Kenneth MacMillan, John Cranko, Pina Bausch, Maurice Béjart and Antony Tudor.
Neumeier's ballets, including "Nijinsky" (2000), "Death in Venice" (2003) and his masterpiece, "The Lady of the Camelias" (1978), are all distinguished by lead roles that demand persuasive acting as well as virtuosic dancing.
Neumeier doesn't distinguish between the two skill sets.
"Acting and dancing are not divisible for me. Dance is an action in the Aristotelian sense. I don't believe in imposing acting (on the dance) as we would put frosting on a cake. I believe that they both come from the same emotional source. The way I lift my leg or move my arm on stage has to do with my emotional motivation.
"I would never tell my dancers to make any kind of expression with their face if it were not true, what they were feeling and believing at that moment."
A high degree of synergy is important to Neumeier. That's why he often oversees most elements of his ballets, including set and costume design.
"He is involved in every aspect of his creation," Morr said. "That's what separates him from most other choreographers. They have to share their vision. He controls every detail."
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