Boston Ballet in John Neumeier's Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler Photo Rosalie O'Connor

Boston Ballet in John Neumeier’s
Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler
Photo Rosalie O’Connor

Opera House, Boston, MA
October 22, 2015

Carla DeFord

Many classical ballets, such as Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, focus on a spiritual journey taken by a woman, but in most of them one gets the feeling that the hero and heroine both attain some sort of redemption or renewal through their relationship. Even such contemporary story ballets as Romeo and Juliet or Cinderella explore, to some extent, the consciousness of the hero as well as the heroine. By having only male dancers onstage for the first half hour of Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler, choreographer John Neumeier inverts this paradigm.

Not only is the opening movement an entirely male enterprise, it’s unrelentingly militaristic, filled with repeated arm swinging, chest thumping, thigh slapping, and a variety of tortured poses. A non-stop testosterone orgy, it eventually becomes almost as difficult to watch as it is to dance. The message comes through loud and clear: men are the focus of Neumeier’s interest. The ballet traces the spiritual journey described in Mahler’s symphony, but only the male central character takes it. Females are seen as either decorative or redemptive. It’s their job to be attractive and to facilitate the enlightenment of the male.

In a publicity video disseminated by Boston Ballet featuring an interview with Neumeier, he states that in this work the dancers play themselves and have no roles to “hide behind.” The problem with Third Symphony, however, is not that there are no roles, but that the roles Neumeier created, at least for the women, are more rigid and one-dimensional than most.

Rather than recognizing any aggression or angst in the female, she is conceived of as, in the Victorian phrase, the angel in the house. In fact, she literally becomes an angel in the last movement. The women in this ballet are too busy being instruments of male salvation to have any spiritual crises of their own. They are not afforded (in terms the critic Carolyn Heilbrun once used) “the dignity of a whole body and a whole mind.”

I believe this runs counter to Mahler’s intentions. He titled the first movement of this symphony “Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In,” and there are plenty of military allusions in the music, but there’s also some lightheartedness, which the choreographer utterly banishes. Mahler gave a title to each of the six movements of the symphony, most of which Neumeier changes, and while it’s true that the composer himself eventually abandoned his titles, they are still revealing. The first movement of the ballet is called “Yesterday,” and it seems to be a commentary on World War I and II even though the music was written in 1895. It’s not the anachronism that’s worrisome; it’s Neumeier’s exclusionary concentration on men.

Some highlights of this movement included two instances of human pyramid building as well as the hyper-masculine solos of Paulo Arrais and newcomer Federico Fresi, which can only be described as showstoppers. Fresi is very small, but he’s a stupendous athlete. His jumps recall those of such world-renowned stars as Ivan Vasiliev, and one looks forward to seeing how he will put his astonishing physical gifts to use in the princely roles he’s sure to undertake in the future.

Erica Cornejo and Lasha hozashvili in Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler Photo Rosalie O'Connor

Erica Cornejo and Lasha Khozashvili in Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler
Photo Rosalie O’Connor

The most substantial roles for women included the leads in the second movement, which Mahler entitled “What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me” and Neumeier changed to “Summer.” Lia Cirio and especially Dusty Button did well with these roles, but they were essentially decorative characters and did not appear to have much of an interior life.

“What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me,” is Mahler’s title for the third movement, which Neumeier calls “Autumn.” This was a playful interlude, and Sabi Varga, in one of the lead couples, once again showed his star quality. The way he consistently connects technique and emotional content is an absolute gift to the audience. One can look at him and see not only what a movement is but what it means. The man could give courses in charisma.

Anaïs Chalendard brought her usual intensity to the pas de trois of the fourth movement, entitled “What Man Tells Me,” changed by Neumeier to “Night.” This movement, which Neumeier dedicated to the memory of John Cranko and his company, includes the song “O Mensch,” expressively sung by alto soloist Sarah Pelletier. Although it’s clearly a comment on the spiritual condition of humanity, because of Neumeier’s thematic structure, one wondered whether the song referred to Menschen only.

The fifth movement ends with a tableau of women with arms and legs outstretched, balanced on the neck and shoulders of men. It was certainly effective although the women, who looked like angels flying to heaven, seemed to be imagined as otherworldly figures rather than as human beings struggling with their limitations. Mahler called this movement “What the Angels Tell Me”; in the ballet, its title is “Angel.” In it, Erica Cornejo makes her first appearance as the spirit who guides the main character, played by Lasha Khozashvili, to some kind of insight.

Mahler’s title for the sixth movement, “What Love Tells Me,” is the only one Neumeier retains. Cornejo did a beautiful job with Khozashvili in an extremely demanding pas de deux full of difficult lifts. The angel begins that sequence by touching the hand of the main character, who is lying on the stage, using the same gesture with which God created Adam in Michelangelo’s Sistine frescoes. After bringing him to life, she engages him in a rhapsodic pas de deux, which is certainly Neumeier’s finest moment.

During an orchestra rehearsal earlier in the week, I had been brought to tears by the sound of the tympani in the finale of this movement, which seemed to proclaim God’s heavenly dominion and usher us into the eternity (“Ewigkeit”) Mahler longed for in “O Mensch.” At the end of the ballet, Cornejo slowly walked across the front of the stage, and Khozashvili, who was upstage, turned to look at her while striking a pose previously seen in the militaristic context of the first movement. These gestures somehow attenuated rather than enhanced the statement in the tympani. Redemption appeared to be available to the main character, but not the ecstatic transfiguration embodied in the music.

The performance of the Boston Ballet Orchestra was heroic throughout, and I was particularly moved by the solos of principal horn player, Robert Marlatt – every note he plays has such intensity and focus. Kudos also to the New World Chorale, which performed the childlike song, “Es sungen drei Engel einen süßen Gesang,” in the fifth movement. The question that stays with me is – did the ballet do justice to the music?

Boston Ballet music director Jonathan McPhee has said that when he was first approached with the idea of doing this ballet, his feeling was that the music didn’t need choreography. He has changed his mind since then, but one wonders whether he didn’t have a point. By focusing so intently on men, by considering women solely as saviors or adjuncts, and by muting the epiphany in the finale, Neumeier seems to have diverged significantly from Mahler. For this audience member, there’s a certain disconnect between Neumeier’s vision and what the music tells me.