Hamburg Nijinsky Gala XLI, Opera House, Hamburg
July 12, 2015

Svetlana Zakharova and Edvin Revazov in Die Kameliendame Photo Holger Badekow

Svetlana Zakharova and Edvin Revazov in Die Kameliendame
Photo Holger Badekow

Maggie Foyer

For his forty-first gala John Neumeier chose the spirit of romanticism as his theme. He broadened the remit from the Romantic period in ballet to include modern ballets set to music from great Romantic composers, Frédéric Chopin and Franz Schubert, then even wider to works where the premise is romance. It was a long evening (five and a half hours!) but with a symmetry that helped it flow effortlessly.

Französische Chansons set the tone for an evening shared between the arts with musicians and chanteuse (Estelle Béréau) performing on stage with the young dancers of the Bundesjugendballett (National Youth Ballet), the new youth dance company. It was the young generation’s take on romance; love sick lads and flirty girls showed love in a contemporary setting but still as potent as ever. Clever costuming – nude-look tops covered with tattoos – authenticated Maša Kolar’s freewheeling choreography that allowed the eight dancers to express both their passion and the crazy humour that is a by-product of puppy love.

Also on the guest list was Houston Ballet making their first appearance in Hamburg. From Texas we expect tough men riding bucking broncos, but we got more: tough men executing fine developpés and expressing deep emotion through neo-classical technique – not forgetting the beautiful women. Both choreographies were by director, Stanton Welch. Clear to Bach’s elegant measured phrases opened with an adagio section from Aaron Robison and Chun Wai Chan joined by an equally elegant Jessica Collado. Their second work, Sons de l’âme to Chopin’s piano music, sensitively interpreted by Michal Bialk, was full-blooded romantic and opened on a burst of passion from Karina Gonzalez and Connor Walsh. They were joined by Ian Casady who commandeers Gonzalez before switching his affections to Collado for the final duet. Welsh’s choreography uses the classical vocabulary with great skill to interpret emotions in a fluid and sensual manner. The quality of the company was a revelation to many and they received a particularly warm reception.

Neumeier with his deep historical knowledge introduced several period pieces to the bill. La Cachucha, which most would only know from the famous lithograph of Fanny Elssler was given a spirited interpretation by Yaiza Coll, with accomplished castanet accompaniment,. Evoking a bygone age she openly flirted with her audience, the footwork was subtle and detailed while her shoulders and arms were oh, so inviting.

Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg in La Sylphide Photo Holger Badekow

Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg in La Sylphide
Photo Holger Badekow

La Vivandière first performed in 1844 and reconstructed by Pierre Lacotte was given a fine performance, even more exceptional as the company, already presenting a different ballet every night, had only two weeks to learn the work. Alexandr Trusch gave a brilliant display in the fiendish male role executing tours with entrechat successively right and left and closing on a series of tours à la seconde travelling forward on the diagonal. Obviously the nineteenth-century had their virtuosi too.

Qiu Yunting and Wu Sicong, two of the brightest young ballet stars of the National Ballet of China, chose contemporary duets by Zhang Disha, one of the rising female choreographers. They showed the phenomenal facility that we have come to expect from Chinese dancers as well as impressive contemporary dance movement. Both pieces feature sharp design – although stronger lighting would be welcome – and interesting themes. How Beautiful is Heaven, an intense work where stillness was as potent as movement, was particularly poignant as a terminally ill woman and her devoted lover work through the pain and anguish of her last moments.

The central theme of love and death found expression in Neumeier’s Die Kameliendame to Chopin’s piano music. The extract from the third act opened as Marguerite and Armand, Svetlana Zakharova and Edvin Revazov, meet on the Champs-Élysées. Flirty Olympia, Carolina Agüero entices Armand away while Marguerite sits frozen, giving no hint of her inner despair. The final duet was one of raw passion and shredded emotion. Revazov, with a new short haircut, looked pitifully young and vulnerable while pain seemed to rack Zakharov’s entire body.

La Sylphide takes love and death to the fairy world and was marked by a rare performance of Alina Cojocaru dancing with Johan Kobborg. Kobborg, now director of the Romanian National Ballet showed he hasn’t lost his buoyancy and fine feet while Cojocaru, who always performs at the top of her register in Hamburg, gave another of her heart-warming performances. Her Sylph is a wayward fairy but her charm left Kobborg totally smitten.

Otto Bubeniček's final curtain call Photo Holger Badekow

Otto Bubeniček’s final curtain call
Photo Holger Badekow

Cojocaru also danced the duet from Act One of Peer Gynt, which Neumeier revisited this season. As Solveig, in simple white frock and a headscarf, she represents all that is good, searching out the better part of the still restless and immature Peer, a profound performance of this complicated character from Carsten Jung.

Hamburg Ballet showed the quality of their dancers and of Neumeier’s choreography in two uber Romantic works. The three excerpts from the latter part of Verklungene Feste/Joseph’s Legende wrung out depth of expression in economical, well defined performances from four of the company’s best: Anna Laudere, Radezov, Alexandre Riabko and Sylvia Azzoni. Winterreise to Hans Zender’s interpretation of Schubert’s famous song cycle opened with Der Lindenbaum as Aleix Martinez tumbling like a young puppy, while Hayley Page, her dance more contained but with the same youthful intensity, matches his passion. Martinez matures through the duet with Lloyd Riggens as the older man presenting a sad, lovely and very human character.

Act Two comprised extracts from Le Pavillon d’Armide to celebrate Otto Bubeniček’s career with Hamburg Ballet and mark his final performance. He plays the older Nijinsky in the sanatorium in Switzerland slowly losing his reason. In lucid moments he remembers his former roles and eyes ablaze, he leaps up to join in the dance before retreating as inner demons overwhelm. This complex dramatic writing, melding the present and past, is one of Neumeier’s great strengths and enhanced by his intimate knowledge of the life of Nijinsky.

Riabko who gave an evocative impression of Nijinsky in features and dress, danced magnificently (as he did throughout the evening). Hélène Bouchet, elegant and gracious, played Armide with Agüero and Leslie Heylmann dancing the other ballerina variation with exquisite detail to period style.

This was a fitting vehicle for Bubeniček’s talents: he danced this last performance with the strength of a man in his prime and his interpretation of the descent into madness was chilling. He has an enormous fan base in Hamburg who showed their appreciation in a prolonged standing ovation while a stream of fellow dancers, partners and twin brother, Jiří, presented flowers.

Hamburg Nijinsky Gala LIX Photo Holger Badekow

Hamburg Nijinsky Gala LIX
Photo Holger Badekow

The evening closed with Bournonville’s Napoli in Lloyd Riggin’s production from earlier in the season. It is generally a good finale piece but the stripped down setting and unadorned, though brightly coloured, costumes looked too minimal and seemed to sap the energy. It took Christopher Evan’s vibrant solo to get the excitement started, then the Tarantella led by Yuka Oishi and Thomas Stuhrmann lit the touchpaper and it was fireworks all the way. Evans has just been promoted to soloist and it is easy to see why.

Another long Gala but I wouldn’t have omitted even one item, and early the next morning this superhuman company left for Italy to perform at the Venice Biennale.