The US choreographer has been Hamburg Ballet's director since 1973. DW had a chat with John Neumeier, who turns 80, about his most iconic pieces, Hamburg's rain, fitness tips, astrology and his hopes for Russia.
At 10 p.m., the dress rehearsal for Orpheus and Eurydice, the Hamburg Ballett John Neumeier's most recent production, is over. A choreographed opera is new territory even for this versed choreographer: It's not musical theater with dance acts, nor ballet that features singing, but a production where singers participate in the choreographies.
Ever the perfectionist, Neumeier has a quick word with his dancers and singers, and then makes time for an interview with DW.
DW: The Orpheus myth is a kind of leitmotif in your artistic biography. You have been returning to this prototype of an artist for the past 40 years. What is it that keeps you coming back to the Orpheus character?
John Neumeier: I think it is because it is a very touching combination of a mythological structure and human failure. Like fairy tales, myths teach us lessons.
In this case, Orpheus is a choreographer. Do you see yourself reflected?
There is a bit of me in every ballet and every production. I can't create a ballet about something that is not me. Somehow, I must find that part of me in the production to give it a reality of its own.
What do you wish for on your 80th birthday?
Being creative is a gift. But it's hard work, too. I notice every little mistake in a production. I try to find a way to make things even clearer, and to do better justice to my sense of truth and honesty.
You have created 160 ballets. Which would you consider to be milestones?
There are in fact several milestones. Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler was a milestone — no one had ever choreographed an entire Mahler symphony. Bach's St Mathew Passion was a milestone; Camille was a major, important dramatic ballet. And for me personally, of course, the ballet I choreographed last year, Anna Karenina. You tend to get attached to the more recent things you've done.
You have headed the Hamburg Ballett for an incredible 47 years. Does the "Neumeier phenomenon" depend on the characteristics of this northern German city?
No, I don't think so. I stayed here because this is where my work and the conditions for my work continued to develop. New dancers, the school, the Federal Youth Ballet — that is why I am here. I don't really need all that rain to work!
Your contract in Hamburg ends in 2023. On the occasion of your birthday, people are speculating on whether and when you plan to end your career — does that bother you? Is that typically German?
(laughs) I don't want to get in trouble, but I do think that is a German phenomenon.
You work all over the world, including Russia and of course your native US. Given the Trumps and Putins of this world, culture in general and dance in particular appears to be one of the remaining links joining these countries and societies. Can the arts change the world?
I hope so, and I believe they can. Culture in Russia moves me — on the occasion of our last guest performance there in January 2016, I wanted to see an Alexander Serov exhibition because the portrait painter also painted dancers of the "Ballets Russes" ballet company. There was a long line in front of the museum, people at the end of the line ended up waiting four hours to get in, and that in temperatures of minus 20 degrees. The memory moves me. I totally support a country that feels art is so important.
You mean the country can't be completely off course politically, either?
Let's hope so.
Your work obviously energizes you. What else has kept you so fit?
I drink a lot of tea, and I work out on a cross trainer at least three times a week.
Your birthday is on Sunday, February 24, that makes Pisces your astrological sign. Does that play a role?
Yes it does, it's great because the great Vaslav Nijinsky was Pisces, too! [Eds.: The 20th century Polish-Russian dancer and choreographer was a star in the "Ballets Russes" dance company, and an influential figure for Neumeier.]