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Jack Anderson

''Body, Mind, and Mann''


Hamburg Ballet
Brooklyn Academy of Music, 30 Lafayette Ave., Fort Greene, Brooklyn
Closed Feb. 10, 2007
Information: (718) 636-4129
Reviewed by Jack Anderson Feb. 12, 2007

Photo by Stephanie Berger

John Neumeier is an erudite choreographer who often crams ballets with literary and historical allusions. Yet he can also give the impression that he is still a young man plunging headlong into new artistic and emotional worlds for the first time. His works abound with contrasts between youthful excitement and mature sophistication. Such juxtapositions are certainly present in his "Death in Venice."

Neumeier's sense of culture is one reason why European audiences admire him. American audiences, however, find that his cultural references can become stifling. Neumeier may also have a European sense of theatrical time. European ballet companies are frequently attached to opera houses. So European opera lovers who also love ballet are used to productions that go on and on. In America, where the two arts tend to be separate, some of Neumeier's ballets seem over-extended. I have liked many in the past, while finding others ponderous. Yet I wish he had subjected even some of the ones I've liked best to cutting.

Judicious editing might have strengthened his often powerful "Death in Venice," adapted from Thomas Mann's celebrated novella. Whereas Mann's work is unquestionably a novella, Neumeier gives us a two-and-a-half hour choreographic novel. Both book and ballet concern the repressed Aschenbach who, on a holiday in Venice, is fatally smitten with Tadzio, a beautiful adolescent (Mann makes him 14), during a time of plague.

Photo by Stephanie Berger

Both Mann and Benjamin Britten in his opera based on the story make Aschenbach a writer. In Luchino Visconti's movie version, he's a composer. Neumeier's Aschenbach is a prominent choreographer experiencing creative burnout. It's easy to understand the reason for this change. Whereas in a ballet a moody writer or composer might be confined to doing little more than staring morosely at sheets of paper, Aschenbach, as a choreographer, can move and make other people move. Yet Neumeier's change of story and character weakens one of Mann's thematic points.

Mann's Aschenbach writes novels and non-fiction prose with highly moralistic content. (Contrary to press releases for this production, he is not a poet, and to point this out is not to be pedantic, but to observe that poetry might be much too sensual a literary form for such an austere man.) A widower, Mann's Aschenbach is also a solitary. So it is not hard to imagine him suddenly smitten by bodily beauty at a resort. On the other hand, choreographers, however sexually active or celibate, are used to being near attractive dancers, male and female, gay and straight. Therefore the way semi-clothed young people on a beach flabbergast Neumeier's Aschenbach seems only barely credible.

Yet the overall action does grow believable, thanks to Neumeier's choreography to a score that juxtaposes recorded bits of Bach's "Musical Offering" with rhapsodic music by Wagner played on the piano by Elizabeth Cooper. Peter Schmidt's settings are simple, yet evocative: thus a few wavy lines on hanging scrolls suggest water at a beach.

Photo by Stephanie Berger

Choreographically, Neumeier's group scenes tended to be diffuse; careful editing would have strengthened their impact. Nevertheless, his depictions of ballet rehearsals conveyed a real sense of pressure and exhaustion, and his Venetian hotel was simultaneously fashionable and ominous.

The strength of the ballet resided in the choreography for the two principal characters. Lloyd Riggins was impressive as the overworked Aschenbach, looking pale, tight, and desperate in the studio, but gradually loosening and then coming undone in Venice. Although Edvin Revazov's Tadzio appeared older than 14, his easygoing leaping, his delight in the senses, seemed genuine.

The most consistently effective scenes were those on the beach, with gamelike gambols for Tadzio and his friends that led to duets for Aschenbach and Tadzio alone together. At first, Aschenbach touched Tadzio and appeared to choreograph him, guiding his body into shape after shape until Tadzio's friends returned. When they departed again, Tadzio now seemed to guide Aschenbach in a pas de deux, while a ball tossed on-and-off-stage served as a reminder that these men were expressing strong feelings in circumstances that could easily have exposed them to curious and censorious onlookers.

Riggins and Revazov danced together in a quietly mounting erotic delirium that reached its peak at the end of the ballet when, after plague had struck, Tadzio pulled Aschenbach across the stage and they embraced to Wagner's "Liebestod." Here, Neumeier the cultural savant, eloquently merged with Neumeier the impetuous and passionate choreographer.

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