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What does John Neumeier have against music?


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Recently there have been several ballets by John Neumeier on Sky Arts and what I find striking about them is that they all seem to start in silence.  The most recent was La Dame aux Camelias but I remember his version of Swan Lake a little why ago and there have been others whose titles I can't remember at the moment.

 

In most/many of them the silence continues for quite a while into the action which I find very odd indeed.  I'm a simple soul at heart and always thought that classical ballet required music for the dancers to interpret.  Take away the music and you're left with little more than mime (or pantomime)  IMHO.

 

So can anyone explain this to me?  Why the silent beginnings?  Is there some specific reason for this that I am too unfamilar with Neumeier's work to understand?  I'm sure there must be some knowledgeable person in this forum who knows all about this so I would be most grateful if he/she could enlighten me.

 

Linda

 

Afterthought:  La Dame etc. is credited as being based on the book by Dumas so what are characters from Prevost's Manon doing in it?

Edited by loveclassics
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I can answer the last bit: in La Dame aux Camelias there is a copy of Manon Lescaut (or l'Histoire de whatever it was) which Armand gives Marguerite (and sorry, I'm pretty certain they're not called that in the novel, but I can't remember their names :) )

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I love Neumeier's Camellias and have never been bothered by the silent opening. Maybe the absence of music symbolizes the absence of Marguerite, since she's just died. The lack of music contributes to the sense of emptiness that is portrayed by all her possessions being divvied up and carted off.

Neumeier is a creative artist. Creative artists can do whatever they like to express their vision. They aren't required to follow convention if they don't want to. Doing something different than usual makes us think, as it did you: WHY did he do that?

Neumeier's Seagull starts with the curtain up and the lead character making an origami seagull while the audience is still coming into the theatre and taking their seats. I've always interpreted that as representing the artist who works away at his creation while no one is paying attention and then, lo and behold, we have an artistic creation (when the house lights go down and the music starts). But someone else could have a different interpretation. Whatever it is, the unusual beginning made us engage more in the ballet.

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I find the absence of music ( I was going to say silence but that is not quite correct) at the beginning of his Swan Lake extremely powerful and it sets up the story extremely well.  When the music starts with the entry of the solo oboe, that for me at least, is a very poignant moment

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Neumeier's Lady of the Camellias starts in silence when Marguerite's belongings are auctioned off after her death. The first music you hear is a customer trying out the piano, and he starts to play Marguerite's theme, the Largo from the sonata in b minor, just a few bars. Armand arrives, and seeing all the things that once belonged to her, mainly her portrait, he starts to remember - that's when the music really starts, Chopin's Piano Concerto No.2 in f minor. The set changes and we see the theatre, where he met Marguerite for the first time, a very powerful moment. I think it's the most perfect dramaturgic use of music, something you often find with Neumeier. Some of his full-length ballets start with the end, coming full circle - Nijinsky, A Streetcar Named Desire.

 

Manon and des Grieux are in the ballet because Marguerite reads Prévost's novel, it is mentioned repeatedly in Dumas' book. Marguerite sees herself mirrored in Manon, Armand finds himself reflected in des Grieux, the whole ballet through until the last scenes. Speaking about dramaturgy and telling a story in dance, I think Lady of the Camellias is one of the most perfect ballets I can think of. Neumeier may not be the best choreographer working with steps, but he is the best story-teller in ballet today. Not Ratmansky, who is certainly better with steps. 

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...the most perfect dramaturgic use of music, something you often find with Neumeier.

 Some of his full-length ballets start with the end, coming full circle - Nijinsky, A Streetcar Named Desire.

 

Well put Angela!

 

That also applies to his Swan Lake.

Edited by stucha
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Good to see this topic, a DVD has just been released of his Swan Lake and I wondered whether to buy it, I generally find a little Neuemier goes a long way, is the Prince meant to be King Ludwig of Bavaria and does it follow his story ending with him dead in the lake, or maybe that's the start?

 

Lady of the Camellias is one of those ballets I would like to see on stage, the pas de deux are wonderful but I easily get bored with other parts especially the silent beginning, and I find the Chopin music excerpts too similar for a full length ballet, I imagine it needs strong performances to work.

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I imagine it needs strong performances to work.

 

Yes of course, but if you have strong performers, it is really working its magic... I remember my first Lady of the Camellias, somewhere back in the 80s, when I was a teenager - I cried so hard that I did not want to see it again... B)

 

The king in Neumeier's Swan Lake doesn't drown in the lake, but in a huge blue baldachin, according to a famous German sentence about Ludwig of Bavaria: "He was a king and he died from it" ("Er war ein König und er starb daran") - great scene, also thanks to the genius of designer Jürgen Rose.

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I haven't seen much of Neumeier's work, I'm afraid and I am sorry because I have loved the few extracts I have seen .  There was a Eurovision Young Dancers Ballet Competition some years ago (don't think it survived - unlike the song competition which refuses to lay down and die) with an absolutely beautiful variation that he choreographed. I have it on video somewhere - must try and find it and transfer it to DVD.

Edited by Dance*is*life
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Yes of course, but if you have strong performers, it is really working its magic... I remember my first Lady of the Camellias, somewhere back in the 80s, when I was a teenager - I cried so hard that I did not want to see it again... B)

 

 

 

I also wept buckets the first time I saw it. I was so drained I could barely say, let alone shout, "Bravo!" at the end. But I wanted to see it again immediately! I think his use of Chopin's music (AND his use of "no music")  is AMAZING. Definitely not too much in one evening. Now whenever I hear the music for the black pas de deux I start to choke up.

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Two of my friends saw Hamburg Ballet performing Lady of the Cammelias in Copenhagen as part of a ballet festival in (I think) 1987.  They never stopped talking about it.

 

When I realised POB were performing the ballet in 2006, I mentioned it and one of those friends and I booked for two performances.  I quite enjoyed the first performance but couldn't really understand what all the fuss was about.  The leads for the second performance were Agnes Letestu and Jiri Bubenicek (whom I think was a fairly late addition to the cast, he was not even listed in the programme as a guest).  What a difference a cast can make.  I don't think I can ever remember sobbing so much at a performance!  My friend and most of the people around us sounded as though they were in the same state!  At the end this remarkable performance was accorded a standing ovation that lasted so long the technical crew seemed to give up - they turned the house lights up and left the audience to it!  My friend and I sobbed all the way back to the hotel and were completely beyond the power of speech for at least an hour.  To this day I do not know why I was so affected by one performance and not the other.

 

I saw his R&J in Copenhagen a couple of years ago and loathed it.  I didn't think he could tell the tale at all.

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Oh dear, I didn't want to start the tears flowing!  Thanks to everyone for their interesting contributions - I will give La Dame another chance and see if I can see what everyone else plainly does.  Incidentally, I saw Neumeier's Romeo & Juliet in Copenhagen back in the 70s and it left a lasting impression on me.  I'm not sure if I really enjoyed it but I have never forgotten it which is remarkable considering the number of performances which have left no trace on my memory.  

 

Linda 

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Well, the only time I've seen Lady of the Camelias (is the title really in English?) was a few years back for the POB cinema relay (recorded). I found it rather indigestible, but suspect that was down to all 3 acts being run together, which I don't think helped its structure.

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All three acts without intermission?? Help. Normally there are two intermissions.

 

The original title at Stuttgart 1978 was "Kameliendame", now it is "Die Kameliendame" at Stuttgart and at Hamburg. No idea when it took on the article.

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I just saw my first Neumeier ballet with a performance of Nijiinsky at NBOC.  The curtain stayed open, revealing the set, as audience members took their seats.  As the performance began, silence remained as dancers entered the stage and this silence continued until they started conversing with a pianist who is part of the cast.  In the entire packed theatre, you could have heard a pin drop.  It was very effective and set the tone for us to expect something very different.  It was a fantastic contrast to Shostakovich's powerful thundering music to come later.  Loved the use of silence here!

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I just saw my first Neumeier ballet with a performance of Nijiinsky at NBOC.  The curtain stayed open, revealing the set, as audience members took their seats.  As the performance began, silence remained as dancers entered the stage and this silence continued until they started conversing with a pianist who is part of the cast.  In the entire packed theatre, you could have heard a pin drop.  It was very effective and set the tone for us to expect something very different.  It was a fantastic contrast to Shostakovich's powerful thundering music to come later.  Loved the use of silence here!

 

Hi Sugarwaltz, welcome to the forum. You and I should meet up at an NBOC performance sometime!

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I'd love to see Nijinsky. Unfortunately, visiting companies to the UK tend to bring conservative repertoire with them, particularly if they are coming to The Coliseum. It's understandable but I frequently read about interesting programmes performed abroad and wish that we could see them here.

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I'd love to see Nijinsky. Unfortunately, visiting companies to the UK tend to bring conservative repertoire with them, particularly if they are coming to The Coliseum. It's understandable but I frequently read about interesting programmes performed abroad and wish that we could see them here.

 

That, Aileen, is why God invented aeroplanes... :)

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