Hamburg Ballet
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

March 21, 2017
Old Friends

Jerry Hochman

This is one of those reviews that I’ve written and rewritten many times before coming to a landing. It requires a bit of a backstory.

It’s been a long, long time, and my memory is a little (ok, a lot) hazy, but I remember watching a revival showing of Alain Resnais’s L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad) at the old Thalia on the Upper West Side. The film was in French (with English subtitles), and I recall an overall enigmatic, stylistic sense that was mesmerizing. But mostly I vividly remember sitting there as the film was about to end, completely engrossed, and, literally, quietly mouthing in French (I have a passing knowledge) the film’s final words uttered by Delphine Seyrig – before she said them. Somehow I sensed that that was what would be said next. I didn’t think about it; the words were a natural extension of the sequences and emotions that preceded it. I recall being extraordinarily self-satisfied that I’d anticipated the final words of the screenplay so accurately – and in French, no less.

What does Last Year at Marienbad, and my prescience at the time, have to do with Tuesday night’s program by the Hamburg Ballet, its debut performance at the Joyce Theater? With anticipating how that piece would end – and then, unlike what happened as I watched the film, seeing it end far differently than I’d anticipated. The ballet’s ending was a let-down, and as good as the final dance and images were, it didn’t work to me.

But the more I thought about it, the more I recognized that what I saw as a disappointment was based on the baggage I brought, and that the baggage that Artistic Director and Choreographer John Neumeier brought – what he was saying and how he was saying it – was just as valid. Should have been easy: critics, and audiences, make that logical leap all the time. But you mess with Simon and Garfunkel, and particularly with Bridge Over Troubled Water, you mess with my head and heart. Critics have hearts, right?

Be that as it may, I’ve reconciled to myself that Neumeier didn’t betray the song; he enhanced it. His way.

If I haven’t thoroughly confused (or bored) anyone reading this already, let me clarify.

Hamburg Ballet dancers in "Dangling Conversations" from John Neumeier's "Old Friends" Photo by Holger Badekow

Hamburg Ballet dancers
in “Dangling Conversations”
from John Neumeier’s “Old Friends”
Photo by Holger Badekow

The suite of dances that Neumeier and his company brought to the Joyce, titled Old Friends, is a superb piece of work overall, but its structure raises questions that Neumeier could have avoided had he wanted to, and only exacerbates the apparent (to me) inconsistency of the component dances. It would have been a more successful piece had it been structured differently. But that would be a little like complaining that Tchaikovsky (and, derivatively Balanchine) could have handled his Orchestral Suite No. 3 differently – the only difference between the Tchaikovsky suite and the Neumeier suite (besides content, obviously) being that Suite No. 3’s title is generic, and the title Old Friends carries a significant meaning. Does it matter? Yes…and no.

Take three. I’ll get to the review part of this eventually.

Old Friends is the collective title of a series of dances, each of which has its own individual title (think Balanchine’s Jewels): Ouverture, Old Friends I, Dangling Conversations, and Old Friends II. The program very clearly indicates, as a subtitle, that Old Friends is “An Evening of Ballets by John Neumeier.” The title implies a relationship among the dances that relate to the subject “old friends” (as the individual titles of the Jewels dances relate to the overall title), but the subtitle seems to allow more varied structure and subject matter. It could be a “suite” of unconnected dances, as Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3 seems a suite of unconnected musical compositions, sections of which could be separated out and thoroughly appreciated on their own (as, of course, has Balanchine’s Theme and Variations).

But by titling the piece Old Friends, one expects a unity. Based on the opening dance, there isn’t any. Excluding that, there is. But then, even the presumed unity carefully wrought thereafter is compromised by the final dance, which, although sensationally crafted and danced, seems to send a message contrary to the segments that preceded it, and it pulled the emotional rug out from under me. But in the end, it doesn’t matter.

Closer.

Hamburg Ballet dancers in "Old Friends II," from John Neumeier's "Old Friends" Photo by Kiran West

Hamburg Ballet dancers
in “Old Friends II,”
from John Neumeier’s “Old Friends”
Photo by Kiran West

Neumeier’s Old Friends comes so close to being a dance art masterpiece that its internal structural contradictions and conflicts become anger-provoking, even though, after considerable thought, they shouldn’t be. But for most of its duration it’s both unique and magnificent, and emotionally riveting.

There you go. You may applaud now.

The opening dance, Ouverture, is…an overture. But it’s not an overture in the usual sense: thematically and choreographically, it has nothing to do with the program’s overall title, or with any of the separately-titled dances in the balance of the program.

Ouverture itself is divided into subtitled segments of individual dances – Ouverture (Ouverture, the dance’s title, has its own overture), Air, Gavotte I, Gavotte II, Bourree, and Gigue. Soon after it began, I began to squirm in my seat. The movement looked strained and slow and uninteresting, and as it proceeded to the second segment, plagued by imperfect partnering (which I’ll chalk up to understandable opening night nerves). Air, the dance’s central pas de deux, was beautifully danced by Xue Lin, who presents relatively tall and feather light, and moves with crystalline purity, but neither she nor her partner Alexandr Trusch displayed any emotion: whatever intensity the segment has is communicated through the choreography alone.

Ouverture improved after the second segment, as the accompanying music (J.S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major) and the choreography grew significantly more complex. The choreography is awkward-looking at times, particularly with hand gestures that seemed to make no sense, but it was never less than challenging for both the dancers and the viewers, and was rarely executed with less than contagious exuberance. I particularly enjoyed the two same-sex four-dancer Gavottes. Aside from the initial uneven partnering, the cast of eleven performed admirably.

This set of dances within a suite of dances dominates the first half of the program. But it has no purpose being in a program/overall dance titled Old Friends other than for Neumeier to introduce his dancers and display his inventive, and impressive, choreography. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and there’s nothing wrong with Ouverture as a standalone dance comprised of semi-independent movements: a suite of dances to Bach’s suite of music. Confusion arises because – somewhat like the opening paragraphs of this review– as good as it may be, it appears disconnected from the dances that follow, each of which, to one extent or another, share a thematic connection. This clearly was Neumeier’s intent: at the conclusion of Ouverture, the dancers take curtain calls; this happens with none of the other separately titled dances on the program. It would have made more sense had Ouverture been clearly separated from the balance of the program, with its own independent title.

The program really begins, as does this review (there’s a method to my madness) when Neumeier addresses the supposed subject of these dances, jettisons the baroque, and goes for the jugular with an anchor of Simon and Garfunkel songs (Bookends, Dangling Conversation, Old Friends, in addition to Bridge Over Troubled Water) expanded with music by, or derivative of, Chopin (masterfully played live by pianist Michal Bialk) that enhances the mood without altering it.

In Old Friends I, Anna Laudere and Karen Azatyan, both company principals, portray a couple out and in and in and out of a deeply loving but impossible to sustain relationship, and the dance is a dagger to the heart. It begins with Azatyan alone, but not alone in his thoughts. A shawl is draped over the back of one of two empty chairs behind him as he stares into the distance. Bare-chested and brooding, he’s tortured by what, and who, is no longer there. To excerpts from S&G’s Bookends, supplemented by excerpts from Federico Mompou’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Laudere enters the stage, and they proceed to live, or relive in Azatyan’s mind, their relationship. Utilizing the chairs both to bring the two together and to separate them (surrogates for the park bench on which S&G’s old friends sit, perhaps?), Neumeier’s images are deeply moving, as the couple can’t quite disconnect – although they’ve already disconnected. The spartan but emotionally draining atmosphere is almost too much to bear, and the closing image of the couple seated separately but next to each other, his arm suddenly reaching out toward her (without changing his front-focus), and she allowing – or being compelled to – rest (and move) her head along his arm, is shattering. Old lovers; old friends; forever connected; forever separate: Bookends.

Hamburg Ballet dancers in "Dangling Conversations" from John Neumeier's "Old Friends" Photo by Holger Badekow

Hamburg Ballet dancers
in “Dangling Conversations”
from John Neumeier’s “Old Friends”
Photo by Holger Badekow

After intermission, and introduced by S&G’s The Dangling Conversation, the “old friends”/old relationships theme continues, with Laudere and Azatyan in their pre-intermission final pose, but this time they’re one couple among many, each of whom subsequently traverse relationships that work and then don’t, that materialize then disappear; that move in syncopated time within a frozen structure that forms the borders of their lives. What proceeds is the most remarkable and effective choreographed and visualized confluence of a great song’s poetry and imagery that I can ever recall seeing. Except where the S&G old friend had a photograph, Neumeier has an album of them.

The setting is either a large gathering room or simply an artificially-created room of photograph memories, a still-life watercolor that episodically moves, and Neumeier has staged it with most of the couples seated or moving independently, nursing coffee from white cups and saucers (…And we sit and drink our coffee…) that dot the stage landscape, and the characters costumed as if landed gentry (all the costumes, as well as the lighting, were designed by Neumeier), creating an appearance of tidiness. It’s a little Ashton-ish, but there’s considerable passion on display, couched in [our]indifference, despite the stylistic sense of muted, unfeeling resignation. The connections missed, tried, succeeded, and then failed, are collectively as shattering as the individual failed relationship of Old Friends I.

Once passed the S&G song, this dance presents nine Chopin Nocturnes that, as with the Chopin Variations in the preceding dance, expand the mood. Each Nocturne forms the musical background for its own dance; each, viewed as a photographed memory, a dangling conversation, a superficial sigh.

The dances are quite extraordinary, and quite different. For example, there’s the deliciously delirious young love of Emilie Mazon and Trusch, and the mature (perhaps “second chance”) love of Laudere and Ivan Urban, and the passionate desperation of Silvia Azzoni and Alexandre Riabko. And Azzoni’s solo to Chopin’s posthumous Nocturne in C sharp minor was excruciatingly and brilliantly executed; a choreographed muted scream. The remainder of the solidly sensational cast included Leslie Heylmann, Marc Jubete, Christopher Evans, and Lin.

Hamburg Ballet dancers in "Old Friends II," from John Neumeier's "Old Friends" Photo by Kiran West

Hamburg Ballet dancers
in “Old Friends II,”
from John Neumeier’s “Old Friends”
Photo by Kiran West

As Dangling Conversations ends, the stage darkens, the set gradually disappears and the dancers exit the stage, all fading into the memory: shadows that can be kissed, but hands that can’t be felt – except for two dancers who remain, clad in black caped robes, sitting upstage center on two chairs (remember those chairs in Old Friends I?), with their backs to the audience. The muted ocean roar that emotionally dominates Dangling Conversations ends, and through the speakers the orchestral strains of Bridge Over Troubled Water began. And I lost it. Because I knew where Neumeier was going.

And then the seated figures rose, turned to the audience, removed their black shroud capes, and were revealed as Riabko and Urban.

Wait….what? Two men? Where the rest of Old Friends (after Ouverture) was predominantly heterosexual pairings, albeit troubled, failed ones? What’s Neumeier saying here?

That the ensuing dance perfectly captures S&G’s song for what it is – the triumph of friendship that remains when all else has failed – and that it’s one of the most explosively joyful, spiritual and human choreography I’ve seen anywhere, superbly executed to match, didn’t matter. This was supposed to be the same “old friends,” all of them, ultimately persevering and preserving on some interpersonal level: not male bonding; not a buddy dance.

But after awhile, I got over it. And if I’d noticed the subtitle to Old Friends II, I might have understood. The unexpected and somewhat startling suggestion that the friendship of a pair of men (whatever the nature of that friendship is) might be – and must be – more enduring than failed relationships, doesn’t much matter when pain is all around. The dance, like the song, is shining recognition and celebration, and a promise. Like the one made in Last Year at Marienbad: “seule avec moi.”