John Neumeier’s moment of truth
One of the world’s ballet masters was discovered at Teatro Maria.
By Joni Moths Mueller
“Who are you? You’re a dancer.”
Six words from Rev. John Walsh, S.J., director of Marquette’s then-renowned Teatro Maria theatre program, removed doubt for John Neumeier.
Neumeier, Arts ’61, took off, and, in time, became the essence of his dreams as a principal dancer in the Stuttgart Ballet and then dancer, choreographer and director of the Frankfurt Ballet.
Since 1973 he has been creative director and lead choreographer of the Hamburg Ballet, a company of 60 dancers, and he founded the National Youth Ballet and Hamburg School of Ballet.
He has choreographed more than 150 ballets and travels the world as a guest choreographer for the premier ballet companies. He was in Chicago in October to choreograph the Joffrey Ballet staging of Sylvia, a ballet created in 1878 for the Paris Opera and recreated by Neumeier in 1993. Also in October Neumeier was choreographing the Boston Ballet’s performance of the Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler: A Ballet by John Neumeier. It is a signature work of the Hamburg Ballet that had never been performed by an American company. The Boston Globe described the effort as “a monumental undertaking” and the result “a landmark performance.”
So, yes, Father Walsh’s first impression of the freshman from Bay View High School was prescient. “It was a moment in my life when I wasn’t quite sure what I should do,” Neumeier recalls. “I had studied painting and drawing and dance, and I wasn’t sure where my destiny should be.”
Though he was an English major, the stage and theatre department became his central focus. It was at Teatro Maria that Neumeier choreographed his first ballet, The Hound of Heaven, based on the poem by Francis Thompson. That first effort was revelatory. “The creative side of it was almost immediately as important to me,” he says, “as performing roles like Peter Pan or whatever. I sensed pretty early that my real role would be as choreographer.”
Father Walsh reached out to Sybil Shearer, a legendary modern dance creator leading a small dance company in Northbrook, Ill., and asked her to work with a “talented Marquette student.” In the article “John Neumeier in Amerika,” Shearer wrote about receiving that call and then seeing Neumeier dance: “ … I saw a talented, sensitive young man. His body was unusually limber, and as I look back this flexibility was the harbinger of what was inside him, his wide-ranging thinking and imagination, and a quite selfless giving of himself to dance.”
The first important review Neumeier received came while dancing for Shearer. Chicago Tribune critic Claudia Cassidy’s review of the show Fables & Proverbs closed with this note: “Amongst the dancers there was a tall dark boy named John Neumeier who made you watch him without trying. I am very much afraid he’s a dancer.”
After he graduated in 1961, Neumeier went to London to study classical ballet at the Royal Ballet School. He intended to return to America — and was accepted to study with George Balanchine, then artistic director of the New York City Ballet. But he had already signed a contract to join the Stuttgart Ballet.
In 1963 he was asked to be the director of the Frankfurt Ballet. It was in that role that Neumeier’s reputation for reinterpreting ballets began to grow. “It was a shock,” he admits. “I was quite young to be a director. I had a smaller company — 28 dancers — and from there I sort of established a new style of performing classical ballet, which means I tried to give even the classical works a believable dramaturgical context, and this became very popular in new workings of ballets like Romeo and Juliet and The Nutcracker.”
When choreographing Neumeier looks for something believable in his characters. “I try to make sense out of the narratives that I work with,” he explains. His special talent, critics say, lies in interpreting and choreographing ballets to connect on an emotional level with modern audiences.
Ballet is an intuitive not rational art, Neumeier says, that communicates feelings, not necessarily information. “Whether ballet is narrative or telling a story or about a particular subject, that ballet is always a vessel projecting true emotion for me. For me it’s always finding the reality — if it’s a man or woman — that I can say, yes, I believe there could be a person like that and I believe their relationship could work out like that. Dance always has a human being as its subject but also as its instrument. We speak through our own instrument to other instruments — the audience.”
The 2015 Kyoto Prize
John Neumeier won the 2015 Kyoto Prize, an international award that recognizes people who make significant contributions “to scientific, cultural and spiritual betterment of mankind.” In establishing this award, Kazuo Inamori, founder of Kyocera Corp., wrote that those worthy of this prize will be “people who have sincerely aspired through the fruits of their labors to bring true happiness to humanity.” The Kyoto Prize is awarded in three categories: advanced technology, basic sciences, and arts and philosophy.