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Student of the dance of life

Working with Hamburg Ballet, John Neumeier strives ceaselessly for character authenticity.

February 13, 2007|David Ng | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — During a recent rehearsal, choreographer John Neumeier was whispering last-minute changes to his assistants. "This part should be snappier," he said, demonstrating the tempo with his hand. Leaning over to a sound engineer, he murmured, "A little earlier on that cue." A press aide approached with a question, but Neumeier instantly dismissed him with a wave of the hand. The rebuffed aide walked briskly away.

Interrupting Neumeier at work is a definite no-no.

The American-born director of the Hamburg Ballet exudes an air of intense concentration wherever he goes.

"I'm what you would call in the U.S. a workaholic," explained the expatriate director after the rehearsal at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. "I go for the work and keep everything away that would distract me."

The intrusion of messy life into the world of dance lies at the heart of Neumeier's "Death in Venice," his overtly homoerotic adaptation of the Thomas Mann novella that the Hamburg Ballet will present this weekend at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. (The work had its U.S. debut at BAM last week.) Tonight through Thursday, the company performs Neumeier's "The Lady of the Camellias," adapted from the Alexandre Dumas Jr. play.

The Orange County engagement marks the company's first trip to Southern California since its West Coast premiere there in 2004 with "Nijinsky," a ballet based on the life of the great Russian dancer.

A giant of the European dance scene, Neumeier, 64, has headed the Hamburg Ballet since 1973. He has won numerous honors throughout his career, including the 2006 Nijinsky Award for Lifetime Achievement. German critic Horst Koegler wrote in 1993 that the Hamburg Ballet's success shows "to what degree Hamburg has become a ballet city and how highly its citizens regard Neumeier."

In his home country, however, Neumeier remains a specialty item. His dense, narrative ballets mix modern and classical elements in ways that U.S. audiences aren't accustomed to seeing.

"Sometimes you feel like you need a PhD in dance to fully understand his work," said Janice Ross, an associate professor of drama at Stanford University, who has written about Neumeier's career. "I don't think dance is always the best medium for him. He's really a dance scholar."

American critics have tended to label Neumeier's work as cerebral and self-indulgent. Their disapproval has prevented him from achieving the same level of popularity here as fellow expat choreographer William Forsythe, to whom Neumeier is frequently compared.

If Neumeier harbors any resentment toward the American critical establishment, he doesn't show it.

"I find I enjoy coming back to the U.S.," he said matter-of-factly. "I feel equally American and European." Neumeier was born in Milwaukee and grew up admiring the movie musicals of Gene Kelly and dragging his parents to the occasional ballet company passing through town. At Marquette University, he majored in English and theater, two disciplines that have had a tremendous influence on his ballet.

"There was a lot of work at that time with the Stanislavsky system," he said, referring to the Russian theater director Constantin Stanislavsky and his interrogatory approach. "I believe you can apply it to ballet. I'm always telling my dancers, 'I don't believe you.' Or, 'What are you doing? You look like you've gone out of your mind.' I think that's very important."

Neumeier's approach has rubbed off on his company.

"I feel like a dancer-actor," said Lloyd Riggins, 37, who performs the role of Mann's protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach. "We're always told to ask why in everything we do. It's like being in a theatrical troupe."

When Neumeier staged "Romeo and Juliet" more than 20 years ago, he had his dancers hold real fine china during the ball scene to create an authentic acting environment, said Cyrus Parker-Jeannette, chair of the dance department at Cal State Long Beach.

"It's not fashionable these days to touch the emotional interior of a dancer," said Neumeier. "But the emotional memory of each dancer is what makes their portrayal special."

Practicing what he preaches, Neumeier applies the same level of introspection to himself: "Even with works that are old, I say to myself, 'Why did I do that?' I think the company likes that, and they know that when I'm in Hamburg, I'm at every performance. And the next day, I'll say, 'Let's try to do this or that, or jump from there to there.'

"People who come to the ballet aren't interested in seeing a museum. They're interested in seeing 'now.' I think that's the point of choreography. It's a living art."


Hamburg Ballet

Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

What: "The Lady of the Camellias," 7:30 tonight, Wednesday and Thursday; "Death in Venice," 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $25 to $85

AlsoWhat: "A Conversation With John Neumeier"

Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, Samueli Theater

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Tickets: $9

Contact: (714) 556-2787,

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