The Hamburg Ballet : All the fun of the flair

The Hamburg Ballet has superb dancers, a distinctive repertoire and an ambitious director. So why, asks John Percival, isn't it better known here?
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The Independent Culture

The most tremendous performance I have seen in a theatre for a year or more came from none of the companies you would expect – not the Kirov Ballet nor the Bolshoi, not New York City Ballet or the Paris Opera – but from a Czech dancer working at the Hamburg Staatsoper. His name is Jiri Bubenicek and he was taking the title role in Nijinsky, a vastly ambitious creation by the Hamburg Ballet's director John Neumeier, given as part of the company's annual end-of-season festival.

Imagine trying to imitate one of the greatest dancers and most famous stars who ever lived. You can't do it, of course, and nobody knows that better than Neumeier, who claims the historical Nijinsky as his lifelong inspiration and study. What he has done is to evoke incidents, roles, influences and people in Nijinsky's dazzling but short career as star of the Russian Ballet and his sad further life after descending into madness.

The ballet's starting point is the last time its subject danced publicly, before an invited audience in a Swiss hotel in 1919. Almost at once the choreography shows his already crazed mind and his remembered grace. There are glimpses of an uncanny virtuosity, a powerful expressiveness, anger, love, pride and fear. From this follow two long acts of phantasmagoria suggesting not only the great man's roles (several other dancers embody the best of them, and the choreography implies but does not directly copy the originals), but also his family, his relationship with Sergei Diaghilev as director, mentor and lover, the effect of the Great War, and much more besides.

Although immensely complex (you would need several viewings to take in every detail), the work is gripping at first sight, and reveals the quality of a company whose every member shares in the overwhelming total effect. Music by Chopin and Schumann, Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich, powers the work on its way. Neumeier's own designs echo the great period of Benois and Bakst. This is very much an ensemble piece, but Jiri Bubenicek's command of the central role – he is on stage almost throughout – provides a solid focus. He is impressive equally for technique, style and drama and an amazing presence.

During his 28 years as Hamburg's director, Neumeier has built a company of supreme cohesiveness and furnished them with a distinctive repertoire. He has great flair for reworking the classics (his latest Giselle reconciles traditional choreography, superbly danced, with a convincing new dramatic treatment) and for creating big theatrical pieces of real originality. Nijinsky is only one example, and his highly personal interpretation of A Midsummer Night's Dream is another. The latter, a big hit when the Paris Ballet brought it to London on their last visit, has just been revived by them at the Opéra Garnier, where its mixture of musical and dance styles (Mendelssohn for the lovers, Ligeti for the icy fairies, and a barrel-organ for the amateur dramatics) proved again both funny and touching.

But Neumeier is skilled also at smaller things. My three nights in Hamburg included (among other ballets) his short, attractive pure dance work Getting Closer, for 12 dancers, catching all the liveliness and sentiment of Ned Rorem's String Symphony, and featuring one of the company's gifted young male dancers, Alexandre Riabko.

Seven other men and one woman provide the cast of Neumeier's last creation, Voice of the Night, given on a three-part bill he calls The Britten Evening. For his own contribution he has taken the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. Lloyd Riggins plays the lead, responding to the six disparate songs in varied ways, surrounded by six enigmatic chaps wearing only white underpants (dream figures, maybe) and visited by Joelle Boulogne in two guises drawn from the poems, as Blake's sick rose and Ben Jonson's "Queen and huntress, chaste and fair".

Doubtless one could read allusions to Britten himself in all this, but that's not a path to follow here. The action has its own fluency despite having as its most memorable aspects moments of rest, unexpected lifts and various involved linkings, as well as Boulogne's mysterious exit, apparently flying out through a window. These are night thoughts that might come to one unable to sleep.

Jiri Kylian's Forgotten Land was created in 1981 to Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem. Thoughts of the composer's sinking East Anglian coastline, and of Munch's paintings of women on a beach, inspired the choreographer to a sequence mostly of duets in varied, often violent moods against a background of waves. It is one of his finest and most beautiful ballets, and I thought the Hamburg cast danced it even better than Kylian's own Netherlands Dance Theatre: such exactness of technique, such expressive style and musicianship.

The third work of this Britten evening is by Christopher Wheeldon, created for Hamburg to the Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge. It's odd: this music is ideal for dancing, and every one of the half-dozen or more ballets I have seen to it finds a drama implicit in the score, yet they are all entirely different. Wheeldon takes Henry VIII as his central figure (he calls the ballet VIII), which allows both the dances and Jean-Marc Puissant's designs to suggest a time, a place and a mood without needing to be too specific.

You could watch it simply as virtuoso dancing, and I must confess that one quartet (very brilliant, also rather amusing) leaves me completely at a loss as to its significance, if any. Yet the solemnity of the court is sufficiently indicated, and there is a sadness in the duets for Carsten Jung as the king with Heather Jurgensen and Silvia Azzoni as Katharine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, who suffered for failing to provide the desired heir. A most accomplished and unusual piece.

Just one thing puzzles me about the Hamburg Ballet. It tours with success all over the world. The dancers are terrific. Wheeldon declared that he had never before worked with so stimulating and creative a company. The repertoire is distinctive and varied. Neumeier's choreography is in wide demand, not only with his own company but for other troupes too. With the Kirov Ballet, for instance, he has just become the first foreign choreographer since Petipa, more than a century earlier, to create a ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre. Sounds of Empty Pages, a kind of requiem for its composer Schnittke, was very enthusiastically received. So why is it that no impresario has thought of bringing the Hamburg Ballet to London? Very strange.

John Neumeier is profiled on the 'South Bank Show' on Sunday, ITV, 12.50am