On Stage: The Neumeier Story

“Ste-e-ella!”

That primal outcry is an indelible part of the American theatrical fabric, something many of us know as Stanley’s verbal signature in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Although it won’t be a part of John Neumeier’s balletic version, set to have its North American premiere this weekend with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, there are other reasons that Tennessee William’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play has been so enduring.

The ballet itself is a brilliantly constructed contrast between the ways of the old South and the emergence of industrial America, but Streetcar’s real attraction has always been character-driven, not only the afore-mentioned Stanley, but the fragile Southern belle of the play, Blanche DuBois. While no one has achieved the notoriety of Marlon Brando (Alec Baldwin came closest in his Tony Award-winning performance in 1992), the role of Blanche has attracted numerous actresses, including Vivien Leigh, Rosemary Harris, Blythe Danner and more recently, Cate Blanchett. And the various productions through the years emphasized one or the other as the dominant character.

Mr. Neumeier was a relatively young choreographer at Stuttgart Ballet when someone suggested that he create this full-length ballet for internationally-acclaimed dramatic ballerina  Marcia Haydee, a suitable encore for his Lady of the Camellias (1978).

“There was no sense of looking in a mirror,” he says of his ballerina. “She had the feeling of plunging into being another character. Instead of feet and legs she would use the emotional experience.”

That resonated with the young American choreographer, who was still in his twenties at the time. He would go on to create over 140 ballets, most with an epic vision including Shakespearean themes (Othello, Hamlet), Mahler symphonies, even Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid.  Whether it was a story ballet or symphonic, he would say that “all dance is an emotional reaction.”

For Streetcar, he focused on the story of Blanche and rearranged the timeline to begin at the end, where she is sitting in the asylum. Probing through the memories of her home, Belle Reve, the flashback starts with her marriage to Alan, the couple’s subsequent break-up over his homosexuality and his suicide.

The ballet traces not only Blanche’s deterioration, but the world around her, one of “gentleness and finesse.” So when she arrives at her sister Stella’s apartment in New Orleans, the audience knows her backstory. And Stella’s husband, Stanley, comes to represent the ultimate contrast, the “degradation of society.” So her fragile response to the people around her and Stanley’s rape becomes more compelling.

Mr. Neumeier’s understanding of the art form goes back a long way. Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he studied ballet seriously, but took time to get a degree from Marquette University in English literature and theater studies.

 

He followed that by attending the Royal Ballet School in London, where the same Marcia Haydee spotted him, a fortuitous move that led to an invitation from Stuttgart Ballet’s John Cranko.

His destiny was sealed.

He had started choreographing while in college and continued to explore that option while a dancer with the Stuttgart. The results were impressive, resulting in an appointment to director of ballet at age 27. At 31, he was offered the position to head Hamburg Ballet, where he has since remained.

Photo: Rich Sofranko

The son of a ship’s captain, he calls Hamburg “the secret of the European continent” and loves it because it borders the sea, a “combination of London and Scandinavia.”

An avid historian with an enviable collection on the great dancer, Nijinsky, Mr. Neumeier decided that this would be the perfect place to develop his work, although he periodically returned to the United States to stage works for American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet.

But in the last 20 years, he has a “stronger attraction” to America and often spends his summer vacation here. And when here for work, he finds the dancers “hungry for the emotional background” in his ballets.

Now 70, the Hamburg Ballet’s general director shows no signs of stopping, gaining critical acclaim for no less than three ballets about Nijinsky, the latest in 2009. He also recently premiered Liliom, which provided the basis of the musical, Carousel, with Royal Ballet principal Alina Cojocaru as guest artist. And in June he will oversee another premiere, Renku, which will transfer Japanese poetry into movement.

The “desire to create” is the one thing that is his motivating force. “It is the center of my arc,” he says.

And the poetry of his soul.

 

 

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One Response to On Stage: The Neumeier Story

  1. [...] On Stage: The Neumeier Story « CrossCurrents [...]

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