John Neumeier | Interview

The Hamburg Ballet's John Neumeier.

The Hamburg Ballet's John Neumeier. Photograph: Holder Badekow


John Neumeier speaks in soft tones, any hint of a Midwestern accent all but gone. The Milwaukee-born choreographer never thought he’d end up in Europe for so long. He studied in London, danced with the Stuttgart Ballet, and since becoming the Hamburg Ballet artistic director and chief choreographer in 1973, has built a reputation as one of Europe’s most in-demand artists. The Marquette University grad, who brings his much-acclaimed Nijinsky to the Harris Theater Friday 1 and Saturday 2, talks about his fascination with the late visionary and what he might say if Nijinsky were alive today.

You have Midwestern roots. What’s a particularly fond memory you have growing up in Milwaukee?
Well, my father was a ship captain on the Great Lakes. I was always going with him on the ship. I think that’s also why I like Hamburg because it’s near the water. There’s a feeling of being near the water, it’s that which I like about Milwaukee. The other thing is that my mother’s family was Polish. There’s a very big Polish church in Milwaukee. One has a fond memory of the [Christmas] midnight mass there. 

As an American who’s lived a good portion of his life in Europe, what are some observations you’ve made about the two places?
Oh, my goodness. That would take a whole night and you’d have to write a book. It’s like if a seed grows in one climate, it’s different than if it grows in another. In the beginning I was completely fascinated learning: learning language, learning culture. The last 10, 15 years, I’ve felt more…not exactly homesick, but a desire to come back to America to communicate in my own language. It was last summer that I went back to Milwaukee and just walked around the streets to try to remember and understand where exactly I did come from. 

Did anything jump out?
No. [Laughs] Everything’s changed. 

You’ve talked about Anatole Bourman’s book The Tragedy of Nijinsky: You stumbled upon the book when you were 11, and a teacher spotted you at recess and said you shouldn’t be reading it. Why do you think he said that?
I’ve never understood that. It just made me more fascinated by it. I had this big pink book from the library. I was so proud that I was reading this big book. He looked and he said, “What are you reading? You shouldn’t be reading this.” I was too shy to say why. It’s sort of haunted me all my life. 

It seems strange that an educator would say that.
Maybe it was the fact that it was called The Tragedy of Nijinsky. Maybe I was a melancholy type and he probably thought that I was getting to be too romantic in my nostalgia. I really don’t know. 

You’ve said, in reference to Nijinsky, “It began with a fascination, with a person and a research through my entire life, which has never disappointed me, a puzzle which has still not been solved for me.” Have you solved anything new since you started?
The newest thing that’s happened within the last five or six years: the dimension of Nijinsky as a painter. In his last years he did a large series of drawings, which are curious. At this very moment there is a huge exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York called “Inventing Abstraction.” There are five drawings that belong to my foundation on loan there, which I’m extremely happy about. I wanted the world to see what he was as a painter. There’s a fantastic catalog that we did where you can see almost all these drawings. It’s quite extraordinary, particularly in relation to the abstract movement at the beginning of the last century.

In terms of your ballet, you've said that you wanted to make a present-tense Nijinsky. What did you mean by present tense?
Ballet is always in the present tense. There’s no step that can say, “Well, this was yesterday or this is what I’m going to do tomorrow.” The misunderstanding might be that the ballet Nijinsky is a kind of documentary. What I meant by present tense is to use a technique which is fragmentary, juxtaposing different moments in time, juxtaposing the relationship of the people in his life, sometimes reversing their identity. For example, there is a scene on the ship when he meets Romola, his wife, and she sees him, but at the same time she sees the Fawn. In other words, her fascination with him is really a sensual attraction to a very sensual man, which he depicted in the form of the Fawn. It’s part of the technique of the ballet that these things are shown simultaneously. 

There’s this inherent drama in the fact that Nijinsky went mad at such an early age, coupled with the fact that he’s considered one of the great visionaries in ballet history. Do you think a little crazy is necessary for some genius?
Probably. In his case it was a question of the genes. I think he did have the potential of mental illness all his life. Perhaps there was a moment when this made a certain consequence to the work that he did. When we read descriptions of how he demanded the dancers work as he created The Rite of Spring, there is a positive kind of madness. Certain things did trigger a real fall into madness: his reaction to the First World War, the fact that he couldn’t dance during that time because of the break with Diaghilev, that his wife insisted on being in a neutral country. There was no possibility to exercise his way of expression. And then, most probably, that his wife wasn’t faithful to him. These things were the triggering experiences that really let him fall into madness.

How much research would you say you’ve done to this point?
I couldn’t really say. I think if you were to visit Hamburg and you could visit me in my home, you would see that there is this…it’s the largest collection of Nijinsky paintings, drawings, memorabilia, statues, letters from his life, and all the books that were ever published about him in any language. I’m not purely a scholar; I’m a mover, I’m a worker. When I relax, I am fascinated with this person because I think he’s so important for the development of art and the message of humanity in the 20th century.  

You wrote a guest piece for Dance Magazine about Truman Finney, who originated several roles in your ballets. In the article, you mention being in Chicago this past summer and walking by your old studio on Madison Street. What sorts of memories came back to you?
Well, first, the two men of Stone-Camryn [School of Ballet], who were very good teachers. They were so different, but very dedicated to the art. I used to commute from Milwaukee to Chicago. Three days a week I commuted, and two days a week a teacher from their school would commute to Milwaukee. I had class every day, more or less, in their style. In order to get this scholarship I had to wash the floors every Thursday night before I got back on the train. I was not really good at floor washing, but it was a good lesson because it made me understand that I really had to say, “Yes, I want to do this." I always will remember that and I’ll always be very thankful for that. 

You’ve said in describing the essence of dramatic ballet, “There’s no point in a story that is told artfully but that doesn’t reach the heart.” As a choreographer how do you reach the heart?
First of all, no story you tell in a ballet is the story. If I am doing a play by Shakespeare, if I’m doing Othello, the ballet that I do is not Othello. It cannot be because those are words. That is great literature. You have to feel what touches you. I could never try to do characters that I read about, or had the book next to me like a recipe book and say, “Okay, now he does this or he does that.” And then reacting, letting myself become moved by what I was doing, checking it intellectually to say, “Is that good, or is that just me feeling sorry for myself?” I think those different stages are important to have. That’s why none of the works are really finished until I die. I watch every performance I can to criticize myself, to imagine other ways of doing it, to change small things, sometimes bigger things. In order for a ballet to touch the heart, it has to be alive. If it’s somebody doing something, and they’re really good because they have high legs and they can turn, you will be astounded, just as you are when you watch the Olympics. But I don’t think that that’s going to touch your heart, unless that person opens themselves in a certain way.

It’s funny you say you’re not a dance scholar. Janet Ross, a Stanford professor, said of you, “I don’t think dance is always the best medium for him. He’s really a dance scholar.” As a dance scholar, if Nijinsky were alive today, what would you say to him?

I don’t know. I’d have to sit down with him and just speak about the weather or something. I wouldn’t want to attack him with any question. I would rather feel his presence and then I think that would tell me what to ask or say. 

The Hamburg Ballet performs Nijinsky Friday 1 and Saturday 2 at the Harris Theater


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