The Royal Danish Ballet breaks with choreographer John Neumeier – culture

The Royal Danish Ballet breaks with choreographer John Neumeier – culture
The Royal Danish Ballet breaks with choreographer John Neumeier – culture

Controversy over John Neumeier’s “Othello” – and not just since the Royal Danish Ballet, which wanted to take over the 1985 production, pilloried the choreographer and artistic director of the Hamburg Ballet. Officially due to “different ideas about the collaboration”, but in fact there is something else behind it: It’s about the freedom of art and the question of what an artist is allowed to take from this point of view.

Neumeier is used to relevant debates. Since its premiere, his “Othello” has repeatedly been criticized for patriarchal images of people – weak women, strong men. The choreographer even argued about this decades ago with his own ballet mistress: she saw a scene in which Desdemona touches the general’s bare feet as an act of female submission, he as an expression of male vulnerability. In the theatre, too, almost everything is a question of perception.

Months ago in Copenhagen, Neumeier’s adaptation of Shakespeare got caught up in the maelstrom of the Wokeness debate and was finally called off. A lot of things got mixed up: suspicion of racism, gaps in explanation, communication disaster. Only the result is clear: on the initiative of ballet director Nikolaj Hübbe, who (currently still) acts with the backing of opera director Kaspar Holten, the decades-long working relationship with Neumeier was put on hold. However, given the current state of affairs, it does not seem impossible that Hübbe will ultimately lose his job. He doesn’t cut a good figure in the affair. And that for the repeated time.

It is about the impossibility of undermining socio-cultural imprints

It all started a year and a half ago with an inquiry from Copenhagen: whether Neumeier could feed his “Othello” into the royal repertoire? In conversation with the SZ the choreographer describes what happened then: he accepted, months later he received a message from the north – a rejection. Apparently, the opera had moved away from its own purchase idea after dancers had expressed concerns and wanted to see certain passages of the choreography eliminated. Mainly it was about the figure of the “wild warrior”: not a real figure but a mirage that haunts Desdemona’s head and finds its correspondence in a Botticelli Madonna that haunts Othello’s dreams. The two projections reflect socially anchored and psychologically internalized clichés. Because Neumeier is at the heart of the play about the impossibility of undermining socio-cultural imprints and really recognizing another person.

In the feedback from Copenhagen and later media reports, however, attributions emerged that have nothing to do with the choreography: “There was talk of monkey noises, of drumming against the head – that doesn’t exist,” says Neumeier. He offered to change the costume, including doing without the black body paint of the “wild warrior”. He ruled out touching the choreography in advance: “The step material stands for Desdemona’s dream fantasy. My choreography is not sacred. Changing it theoretically is out of the question. What emerges in the rehearsal in dialogue with an individual dancer is something totally different.” Due to the differences, it was apparently agreed without conflict to give up the “Othello” transfer and to rehearse Neumeier’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” instead. The public hardly took notice of the events.

That only changed at the beginning of November, after John Neumeier used the last “Midsummer Night’s Dream” correction rehearsal in Copenhagen to explain his “Othello” interpretation to the ensemble: “It was the first opportunity since the cancellation and it was important to me that the dancers understand my concept, my intention.” This “Othello” digression on the home straight to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was certainly not a good idea because the dancers were mentally busy with completely different things. Towards the end, ballet director Nikolaj Hübbe also joined and explained that he alone was responsible for the cancellation. However, Neumeier encouraged the dancers to ask questions. Whereupon someone wanted to know whether he would have created the “wild warrior” in the same way if he himself was dark-skinned. Answer: “Yes, because it’s about the intention, about what I wanted to show.”

The supervisory board of the Copenhagen house blames the severing of relations

The rehearsal, says Neumeier, then continued normally. It was only after the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” premiere that there was a scandal: the guest performance of the Royal Danish Ballet in Hamburg, which was planned for 2023, was cancelled, the newspaper said politics reported. The spokesman for the opera house was quoted as saying: “Nikolaj Hübbe has decided to suspend the collaboration for the next few years.” There have been cooperation problems, violations of “our values ​​and our focus on the well-being of employees”.

Meanwhile Hübbe is silent, his boss Kaspar Holten is silent, the whole house is silent. Whoever asks for information and comments in Copenhagen is succinctly referred to the reports in the Danish media. After all, the company’s supervisory board spoke up and expressed its displeasure. The severing of relations is reprimanded, dialogue is demanded. After all, Neumeier is a crowd puller and his works are bestsellers. It may also play a role that the opera made negative headlines in 2021 with cloudy announcements about the misconduct of another choreographer. At that time it affected Liam Scarlett, whose “Frankenstein” production flew out of the program. The artist, who left the Royal Ballet London because of sexual assault, committed suicide immediately after receiving the news from Copenhagen. The fact that Nikolaj Hübbe shot at his respectable colleague John Neumeier a year later and accused him of racism, citing his duty of care, does not reflect well on the management and corporate culture of the entire company.

The case has sparked horror in the ballet world. Anyone who speaks to dancers who were themselves cast in “Othello” roles will be met with incredulous amazement. Ralf Dörnen, the first actor in the “Wild Warrior” and current director of the Theater Vorpommern, explains: “John Neumeier is a humanist through and through. It is absurd to accuse him of racist motives.” Others see it the same way, remember Neumeier’s detailed rehearsals, clear specifications and plausible dramaturgical structures. Hardly anyone will be surprised that the eighty-three-year-old American is reportedly having trouble responding appropriately to criticism from young dancers. After almost five decades at the helm of the Hamburg Ballet, he is, so to speak, the uncrowned sovereign of the global dance community.

The quarrel with Copenhagen is undoubtedly one of the most traumatic experiences of his career. “I’m just plain shocked,” says Neumeier, adding that the Danish capital was his first port of call in Europe sixty years ago. Whether the fracture will ever heal again cannot be said. scars will remain. On the image of the Royal Danish Ballet as on the soul of the choreographer.

The article is in German

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