Alina Cojocaru as Solveig and Carsten Jung as Peer Gynt Photo Holger Badekow

Alina Cojocaru as Solveig and Carsten Jung as Peer Gynt
Photo Holger Badekow

Hamburg Ballet, Opera House, Hamburg
June 28, 2015

Maggie Foyer

Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt is one of the most complex characters in literature. The play has fascinated many theatre directors and is a fitting subject for the dramatic talents of John Neumeier. For the 2015 Hamburg Dance Days he has reworked his ballet first premiered in 1989 and to add lustre, the original Solveig and Peer, Gigi Hyatt, now director of the Hamburg Ballet School, and Ivan Liška, Director of Bavarian State Ballet, were in the audience. I last saw the ballet ten years ago and certainly missed most of Neumeier’s minor revisions. Probably the most obvious change is the paring down of the previous seven aspects of Peer’s character to four: strong male roles that represent innocence, vision, aggression and doubt.

Peer Gynt is a rich and rewarding role as his excesses and wild imagination take him take him on an epic journey both physically and mentally. It is played with absolute conviction by Carsten Jung, a dancer who skilfully worked his way under the skin of this multifaceted character. Most impressive was the shift in register to his final redemption realised with deep sincerity. Alina Cojocaru as the faithful Solveig is the lodestar in Peer’s dissolute life. With wraithlike body and eyes that draw you into her soul, she combines aching tenderness with emotional steel and through her he finds his salvation. She is the constant presence; patiently waiting and quietly stitching her peasant frock.

Alina Cojocaru and Carsten Jung in Peer Gynt Photo Holger Badekow

Alina Cojocaru and Carsten Jung in Peer Gynt
Photo Holger Badekow

There is little in Edward Grieg’s lightweight incidental music to the play to engage a serious choreographer but John Neumeier found an imminently suitable collaborator in Albert Schnittke whom he commissioned to write the music. His score, more accessible than much of his music, portrays the elusive character of the hero. The harsh, disjointed notes interspersed with irony and occasional bucolic folk tunes correspond to Peer’s elusive character while the epilogue reaches spiritual heights.

Jürgen Rose’s landscapes, reminiscent of Edvard Munch, create sombre mountains and the lonely hilltop house, his little red cart is both toy and hearse and his design talents extend even to the tawdry sequined glamour of the music hall and opulence of filmic glamour.

The ballet finds its strength in the duets. Peer and his mother, a youthful and feisty Anna Laudere, in flowing dress and loose hair soon finds she is no match for Peer’s wayward charm. The birthing scene, which opens the ballet in silence, portrays a womb in turmoil that disgorges her son and his four alter egos.

In the lively village dance Peer is full of fun with affections that change with the wind. His meeting with Solveig brings him to his senses but not for long. Between his other romantic dalliances, their relationship is built through simple, beautifully choreographed duets.

Neumeier translates Peer’s geographical wanderings into a fantasy on stage and screen as he conquers the celluloid world before descending into madness. At the audition he is selected by acerbic choreographer, Lloyd Riggins and infatuated producer, Ivan Urban. Peer’s ego grows in tandem with the size of his name in the credits. Here his aggressive aspect, Karen Azatyan, comes to the fore as he literally whips up a storm. The artificiality of the Hollywood set, peopled by shallow stereotypes, is choreographed with wit and virtuosic flair as Peer and Anitra, a vivacious Caroline Agüero, reign supreme. Despite the flurry of fouettes and tours this act is, of necessity, shallow but fortunately short.

Hamburg Ballet in John Neumeier's Peer Gynt Photo Holger Badekow

Hamburg Ballet in John Neumeier’s Peer Gynt
Photo Holger Badekow

It is only in the third act that Peer’s manic energy is finally focused. He rows home and returns to a sombre village for Ingrid’s funeral, more subdued, but still in conflict with his four aspects. His meeting with the faithful and now blind Solveig contrasts sorrow and joy as she falls into his arms before breaking into a joyous dance. But Peer is still not able to respond to her love.

#The choreographic structure building to the climax is masterful. A cohort of grey-suited men flood the stage with dynamic movement, the energy dissolves as they slow to a walking pace crossing the stage in continual pattens that foreground Peer and Solveig who have finally come to mutual recognition. Solveig lovingly undresses Peer and lays their clothes out in symbolic order before a last, gloriously tender, duet. The background is now filled with couples, bathed in a luminous light in sustained adagio; a transcendental scene that lingers long in the memory.