Director's Notes: He Came, He Saw, He Created

At Hamburg Ballet, John Neumeier built not only a world-class troupe, but a whole new generation of ballet lovers.
Published in the December 2012/January 2013 issue.

John Neumeier rehearses Carsten Jung in "Liliom." Photo by Holger Badekow.

John Neumeier personifies ballet in Hamburg. Before he arrived 39 years ago, the German city-state had little in the way of a ballet tradition. Today, the local audience’s affection for the choreographer—and the world-renowned ensemble he built at Hamburg Ballet—is palpable at every performance.

Born in Milwaukee, Neumeier moved to Europe after college to train in London and Copenhagen. In 1963, John Cranko invited him to join Germany’s Stuttgart Ballet, where Neumeier started choreographing on the side. Success came fast, but Neumeier was keen to be his own master. “The idea at the time was that every choreographer had his own company: there was John Cranko, Maurice Béjart,” he explains. In 1969, the opportunity came to head Frankfurt Ballet, and at barely 27, the young choreographer took the plunge.

Hamburg came calling just four years later. The local ballet company’s reputation had eroded following director Peter van Dyk’s departure in 1970, but Neumeier was attracted by the prospect of trading his 32-strong ensemble for Hamburg’s 58 dancers.

“When I arrived, the company was basically a small part of the opera,” he remembers. “I had one room, an office which was also my dressing room, together with my ballet master. It was a humble beginning.” Long considered subordinate to opera, German ballet was then in the early stages of a renaissance following Cranko’s success in Stuttgart. Neumeier lost no time reorganizing the Hamburg ensemble, bringing in dancers he had worked with in Frankfurt, Stuttgart and elsewhere, and fine-tuning the company to become an “instrument for creation.”

Fast-forward to the present: The Hamburg Ballet has become one of the city’s leading cultural institutions, with attendance at 97 percent last season. The company and school now have their own building, the Hamburg Ballettzentrum, and Neumeier’s extensive repertoire currently includes over 100 ballets. His large-scale theatrical stagings of literary works, from Lady of the Camellias to The Seagull and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, have gained international recognition. In Hamburg, they share the stage with his minimalist full-length experiments, such as Third Symphony by Gustav Mahler and Saint Matthew Passion. His work probes ballet’s serious, modern side, with sleek elegance and psychological subtext.

“I want to produce not evenings of entertainment, but thought-provoking art through movement,” says Neumeier. His passion for ballet history, and Nijinsky in particular (Neumeier’s private collection of artwork and memorabilia related to the Russian legend is the largest in the world), are clear inspirations. For him, directing a company is inextricably linked to his artistic stance. “I wouldn’t ever be a ballet director if I weren’t a choreographer,” he says. “There is nothing more bonding than choreographing on your own company. You are really naked when you start a work, and they know it, they sense your vulnerability.”

Dancers clearly relish the chance to perform Neumeier’s ballets, and his 60-strong international ensemble is devoted to his repertoire. The hierarchy is simple by European standards, with only three ranks, and most principals have risen through them. “I believe in a company of individuals, of thinking artists,” Neumeier explains. “I try to look every day at the company as if I’ve never seen it before, to notice who draws the eye.”

Neumeier’s works form the bulk of every season, yet he has also introduced a range of classics to acquaint local audiences with ballet history, from Makarova’s La Bayadère to Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée, as well as works by Balanchine, Robbins and Mats Ek, who created his Sleeping Beauty on Hamburg Ballet. The organization has also started nurturing young choreographers. The Hamburg Ballet School now includes a mandatory composition exam as part of its curriculum, and Neumeier allowed two dancers to create a full-length work, Renku, for the company’s weeks-long Ballet Days Festival last summer.

Creativity is also the motto of the youth company Neumeier founded in 2011 with federal funding, the Bundesjugendballett. “I wanted to establish a kind of ballet paradise for eight young dancers between the ages of 19 and 23,” he explains. As part of its federal mandate, the company tours retirement homes, schools and prisons with classical ballets as well as small-scale creations by budding young dancemakers. While there is no guarantee of a contract with the main company afterwards, it is already attracting top talent: 2012 Prix de Lausanne winner Madoka Sugai chose the ensemble over apprenticeship offers from larger companies. 

Stepping out of Neumeier’s artistic shadow is no small task in Hamburg, however. The choreographer, now 70, is revered throughout the city, where no one seems to be able to imagine Hamburg Ballet without him. The sensitive issue of his eventual succession isn’t openly discussed, and no plan is in place at present.

Neumeier has forged ahead regardless, scheduling prestigious Russian and U.S. tours (including stops in Chicago, Costa Mesa and San Francisco in February), as well as collaborations with Alina Cojocaru, Diana Vishneva and several international companies. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of his directorship, the Ballet Days Festival next June will be a Neumeier retrospective, with no less than 17 programs over three weeks, and the choreographer also has new creations in mind. For Hamburg, a future beyond Neumeier might just have to wait a little longer.