My interview with John Neumeier is in tomorrow’s Chronicle:
“The biggest mystery of San Francisco Ballet’s 2010 season is this week’s U.S. premiere of John Neumeier’s “The Little Mermaid.” Neumeier, for 37 years the director of Germany’s Hamburg Ballet, hasn’t taken any cues from Disney: His ballet makes writer Hans Christian Andersen a character in the story, and he presents the mermaid as a tragic creature whose exquisitely flexible movement is inspired by Balinese dance styles.
Neumeier’s place in the ballet world is as singular as his interpretation of the tale. Born in Milwaukee, he started dancing late and studied at Britain’s Royal Ballet School before beginning his performing and choreography careers at the Stuttgart Ballet. While many American choreographers followed George Balanchine’s influence and created pure movement ballets, Neumeier pursued large-scale story productions, from an idiosyncratic revision of “Swan Lake” to dance versions of dramas like “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Neumeier, who also designed the costumes (check out Tamara Straus’ Arts and Ends column today for more on that), says he is having his “American year,” with American Ballet Theatre performing his “Lady of the Camellias” in May. He spoke from Germany.
Q: We should quickly dispel any idea that your “Little Mermaid” is a kid production.
A: Yes, for one thing, the violence in the story is quite strong. The mermaid allows herself to be literally torn apart to get to her goal. And she meets an ambiguous ending – it certainly isn’t happy. She refuses to kill the prince, and attempts suicide instead. But she’s rewarded by becoming a daughter of the air. She continues her search in another realm.
Q: Unlike 19th century story ballets, in your work the story comes across entirely without pantomime.
A: The viewer can read the story purely through the physicality. There’s an important contrast between the underwater characters and those on earth. When the mermaid comes to earth, the people look extremely weird to her. And when she must conform to the human world, we see an ungainliness in her.
Q: It strikes me that, far more than most choreographers I speak with, you always return to talking about the story.
A: I believe dance is about the human being, not the human body. How interesting can physicality be when it has another dimension? Story and movement – the two things together for me have a power that’s incredible.
But emotional response is where story starts. I don’t think story is about facts and information, like in the newspaper. The stories we can tell in dance are emotional responses in human relationships. Yet the great tendency now in contemporary ballet is that it is only about the movement.”
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